BitDepth 567 - March 13

Photo managers can be had for free, but sometimes you get exactly what you pay for...
Photo managers for free, yes, free

Corel's new Snapfire product offers image handling for beginning photographers for free, but there's always a hidden cost.

Whenever I get going in this space on the subject of digital photography, I'm mindful of the long road that led me to this point, one pockmarked with many hours of puzzling through comprehensive but complicated software and far too many images lost to failed media, steep learning curves and the cussedness of bits on a disk.
Digital photographers who are just starting will face the same problems, but it's now possible to find affordable software that makes managing image files easier for the average user.

Nothing's more affordable than free and the gold standards of the form are iPhoto, a Mac only product that Apple's customers get on every new computer and Google's Picasa, a PC only download from Google's "Google Pack" website.
Windows Vista adds some new capabilities for handling photos with a new photo manager that ships with the new OS. Microsoft has been showing more interest in adding useful photo management capabilities to the core system, posting Microsoft Photo Info, a new metadata management update in recent months.
More adventurous users with more time than cash to spare on digital imaging might want to explore GIMP, an open source Photoshop alternative.

Introducing Snapfire
For folks who already have a PC and aren't ready for the Vista upgrade, the choice comes down to Picasa and everything else, a field recently swelled by one notable contender, Corel's Snapfire.
Snapfire is the result of Corel's acquisition of Jasc Paintshop Pro, a well-regarded PC only alternative to Adobe's Photoshop. Snapfire shows none of Paintshop's interface sophistication, offering a simplified, almost goofy interface riddled with buttons and panels designed to lure the unwary into considering a paid upgrade to Snapfire Pro (US$39) or better yet, the professional goodness of Paintshop.

Picasa and Snapfire have two things in common, they can import most common digital camera formats (Snapfire doesn't do camera RAW files) and they can run efficient, screen-filling slide shows of those images.
Beyond that, the two are miles apart. For various reasons, I'd been running a recently installed copy of Windows 2000 sans updates. Picasa installed on the virtual machine with no problems. Snapfire wanted updates almost immediately before its installer would even run.
First, Win2000 had to be upgraded to Service Pack 4. Done.
Then it was unhappy about the version of Direct X. Updated.
Now it wants Explorer upgraded to version six. What? What has a web browser got to do with looking at photos?

Picasa and Snapfire compared
I met every one of Snapfire's whiny demands only to find a product that has only the most basic of utility, an interface that's profoundly irritating if you're older than six and a toolset that's quirky at best.
The zoom function is annoyingly aggressive. Make the slightest slip when you're moving an all too sensitive slider and you'll find yourself looking at pixels, not detail.
Even basic tools, like contrast and colour controls are apparently hamstrung by Corel's desire to push upgrades to the paid version of Snapfire or better yet, Paintshop.
At the bottom of a too short list of image controls is a button that invites you to edit in Paintshop that translates into "we're done here, pay money if you want more."

Picasa is a more mature product, with more features than most beginning pixel snappers will be able to use. You can publish images to Blogger or to an FTP site of your choosing, add images to a screensaver and the image editing tools in the Google product are the best I've ever seen at this price point.
There's only one area in which Snapfire demonstrates any superiority at all and that's in preparing pages with more than one image on them. Picasa offers an attractive snapshot album style page called a collage, but Snapfire's collection of page layouts offers more utility.

At the price, you might want to keep both products around and use them according to their strengths, but if you want to invest time in getting to know one image management product well, Picasa remains the go-to product in the wafer-thin product category of free PC picture wranglers.

Google's Picasa
Corel's Snapfire
Apple's iPhoto
Microsoft Photo Info
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