February 25, 2004

A first look at the new GIMP 2.0

Author: Brice Burgess

The GNU Image Manipulation Program, a.k.a. the GIMP, is a freely available and versatile graphic editor comparable to Adobe Photoshop and Jasc Paintshop Pro. This powerful program can refine photographs, generate animated images, and create graphics suitable for the Web and print. The highly anticipated version 2.0 of the GIMP, due out next month, will run under Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, and preview versions are now available for all three platforms. In this article we'll examine some of the key differences between the stable GIMP 1.2 and the upcoming version 2.0 of the software.I have been using the GIMP on and off since 1997 to create graphics for the Web sites I work on, touch up Christmas cards for the family, and superimpose friends' images in inadvisable proximity to grizzly bears.
I am not a professional graphic artist, and neither, probably, are you, but with the GIMP, you don't have to be to make good use of the program.

New look

Interfaces: 2.0 vs. 1.2 -- click to enlarge

When you launch version 2.0 you'll see a new look that's a huge improvement over the previous version's mundane and purely functional interface. The new design not only provides a polished and comfortable feel, it is also far more intuitive and friendly than its predecessor. The colorful icons and superior aesthetics of GTK2 (GIMP Toolkit) is the first difference you notice. The professionalism they convey is invaluable to the user's experience.

The second thing you notice about the new version is the GIMP's "dockability." All dialogs (Brushes, Layers, Tool Options, etc.) can now be detached from the main window and shown in a separate window, added to an existing dialog window, or hidden from view. The software saves all changes you make to your view preferences, so that when you next go to work, your tools remain laid out as they were during your last session. This not only allows you to create a custom environment that suits your needs, but also helps reduce screen clutter.

Improved text tool and CMYK color

Multiple dialogs grouped together -- click to enlarge

A monumental change in GIMP 2.0 is a much-improved text tool. The new tool boasts enhanced font selection and allows for multi-line entries. All changes are immediately reflected on the canvas, making it much easier for designers to preview their text within the image context. Further, you can export text as a path in order to tweak its shape, fill style, or scale.

Overall I liked the new features, but I uncovered some quirks and was left wanting more. For starters the right->left, left->right function didn't appear to work. I was only allowed left->right orientation. And if right->left is allowed, why not top->bottom and vice versa? Secondly, the text sometimes disappeared from the canvas and would only re-appear if I made a change in the text editor. Among the features I still wish for is the ability to change specific attributes within the editor; for example, to have the first letter of a word be bold, red, and 18 pixels, and all others be crimson and 16 pixels. You can do this by using two different text areas, but that can be incredibly tedious. Also, it would be nice to have a simple means of transforming the text via included templates -- that is, "round" text to fit an ellipse, make a 3D outline of text using a drop shadow, slant text, or "mirror" text by inverting it. Lastly, an auto-kerning feature similar to the one in Macromedia Fireworks would be nice to have.

Another important addition to version 2.0 is the ability to pick a color based on its CMYK (a color model used by printers) value via the colors dialog. Having once run 200 off-colored business cards, I know firsthand the value of CMYK use. Admittedly, the current rendition of CMYK in the GIMP is far behind that of commercial offerings, but the mere existence of CMYK in the latest version means we can look forward to improved profile selection in future versions.

I ran across several pleasant surprises while previewing the software. The rewritten path tool is more intuitive and functional than before. You can export paths to scalable vector graphic (SVG) format, allowing you to import them into vector-based programs such as Adobe Illustrator. The Undo tool has become a favorite of mine. With it, you're now given an overview of the steps (such as selections, fills, and moves) that make up the image, along with the state and a preview of the image as a consequence of a particular step. You can navigate the steps forward and backward in order to return to any point in the editing process. This is an absolute essential for a positive imaging session. Additionally, the "Fill with FG/BG color" choice in the edit menu has a preview of the currently loaded foreground and background colors, so you don't have to look to remember what colors you're working with. Surprisingly, this helpful function is missing from the New Image dialog.

Room for improvement

Of course there is always room for improvement. I'd like to see a built-in "save for Web" function with which you can preview an image next to the original under different GIF, PNG, and JPEG settings. Such a feature makes it easier to determine the best trade-off between visible quality and file size, especially under two-up and four-up layouts. Since the GIMP is an essential tool for Web developers, this feature would be well-received. I also noticed that if you have an active selection, you cannot start a selection tool from within the selection. Being able to do so would be useful when, for example, you want to "subtract" a small circle from within a larger one to form a donut-shaped selection.

The 2.0 release will not be based on the Generic Graphic Library (GEGL) as was originally intended by those who attended the 2000 GIMP Developers Conference. While end users would probably never notice this change, GEGL's introduction would aid developers by providing a simple, powerful way to add features. The idea has not been abandoned; we can look forward to future versions of the GIMP being based on GEGL and loaded with even more goodies.

Final remarks

Overall I was very impressed with the new GIMP. Because I am a fan of free software, I prefer the use of the GIMP over commercially available alternatives. The current onslaught of enhancements makes it much easier to adopt the GIMP as my default image editor and do away with the others.

The new GIMP will more than satisfy the needs of most graphic artists. Even if you gave up on earlier versions, you won't be disappointed with 2.0. And if you've never used the software before, you'll be impressed!

Further Resources

  • IRC -- #gimp on irc.gimp.org
  • Usenet -- comp.graphics.apps.gimp
  • Gimp User Group -- gug.sunsite.dk
  • Developer site -- developer.gimp.org
  • More GIMP Screenshots -- here
  • Grokking the GIMP (Excellent Tutorial) - here
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