May 18, 2005

First look: F-Spot

Author: Andy Channelle

Ever since development of PixiePlus stalled, the average Linux user has been left short of a decent image management application. KimDaBa showed some early promise, but it needs some work on its often confusing interface to compete with iPhoto and Picasa, where ease of use is king. Hoping to fill the space is F-Spot, a new photo manager created by Larry Ewing, the man best known for having created the ubiquitous Linux mascot Tux.

F-Spot is built on Mono and, as such, is being pioneered by Novell, home of many former Ximian/Mono developers. The version of F-Spot that ships with SUSE Professional 9.3 is 0.0.12; it seemed to appear in SUSE's release candidate even before it hit the F-Stop Web site.

The release number suggest that this is an app at the very earliest stages of life, so a comparison with mature software such as Apple's iPhoto and Google's Picasa might seem a little sadistic. And yet stacked up against those giants, it doesn't fare too badly. As a the result of just over a year's work with a small team, it's remarkable.

F-Spot is stable and swift when working its way through a few thousand images, but it lacks some commercially orientated features. For example, there's no option for sending images directly to online printing services. Those tools in iPhoto and Picasa rely on cross-marketing deals with commercial outfits, so it's difficult to see how F-Spot might compete in this area, but if its developers found a way, the referral fees could prove a lucrative source of revenue.

While professional prints are a pain, F-Stop does have some sharing capacity -- and you won't need a costly .mac account to output images directly to the Web. With a free Flickr account, for example, you can post images directly from the application to your space. There are options for stripping out metadata, resizing images to reduce the load on your account, and also reusing predefined categories as Flickr tags. For those without a Flickr account, F-Stop will also export images to an HTML gallery on your personal site, or, alternatively, can write anything from a single image to the entire collection to CD without going outside the application.


F-Spot's rendering speed is acceptable but not exceptional; the only time the application's thumbnail display fell behind on my Athlon 2500+ with 256MB RAM was when making giant leaps through the collection from, for example, January 2002 to April 2004, using the scroll bars. Using the date range options or the Timeline (of which more below) does not have the same problem though. Picasa and iPhoto suffer from the same problem.

Photo management applications tend to reward the well-organized, which is nice if you're starting from scratch with no images. However, those with an extensive collection of snaps should prepare for a marathon of tagging their shots. In this area F-Stop is no worse or better than the others. It helps that adding new categories and subcategories to the hierarchy is easy, and adding tags to photos is equally simple. You can tag multiple selections at one time, and associate pictures with more than one tag. Each newly created category uses the first thumbnail tagged with it as an icon.

In the place of iPhoto's elegant Calendar feature is a Timeline that lies across the top of the workspace and offers easy access to all the photos from a particular month. The whole thing works as a sort of bar graph highlighting which months have been most productive. Dragging the Loupe widget onto a particular bar shows the shots taken in that month in the main window. This feature, though usable, could be a little more consistent in its positioning at the start of the month. It would be more intuitive for the first image of that month to be in the top left corner of the screen, or at least the top line. In mitigation, it does briefly zoom the first image of the month as a visual cue. The Timeline spans the entire image collection, so as time passes, I can see a need for allowing scroll bars somewhere on this widget.

I like the Timeline, but its not as "zoomable" as iPhoto's Calendar and, crucially, doesn't remove images outside of the month criteria specified. This would be a useful option that would be especially effective in tandem with the tags feature, allowing, for example, the isolation of every image of "Tom" taken in July 2004. There are handles on each edge of the Timeline which you can drag to isolate periods -- and this can also be done in the Find > Date Range dialog box -- but this seems unnecessarily long-winded when a right-click "Show Only This Month" option would be more effective.

The application's image adjustment and red-eye tools are a little blunt at present for really comfortable use on my family images, and the lack of a global undo facility needs to be addressed. The red-eye removal in particular needs a lot of refinement and, crucially, a better preview option so you can work with it before committing to an unrecoverable change. There is an option, once an image is modified, to revert to the original, but this is an all-or-nothing proposition, and it's hidden on the left pane of the user interface just above the image size and exposure information.


F-Spot is a surprisingly useful image management application. It has some good navigation tools and excellent integration with Flickr. But is it worth the trouble of installing, especially when the installation may prove troublesome for those without a fully working Mono system already? That depends on what you're already running. With an older distribution, the possibility of getting lost amid the dependencies is great. For those lucky enough to be running SUSE 9.3 or Ubuntu, where installation is easier, it's a no-brainer in the absence of iPhoto or Picasa.

F-Spot shows a great deal of promise, and integration with other new applications such as Beagle and Tomboy for search and note-taking respectively will make this one to watch, but the potential for a descent into dependency hell would rule it out for casual users.

F-Spot holds up well in comparison to the leading image management applications on Windows and Mac OS X, but of course these are not an option for the average Linux user. F-Spot's real competitor is KimDaBa, and F-Spot has already surpassed that in terms of its user-friendliness.

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