Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 22 / AUGUST 1988 / PAGE 96


Spectrum 512

Spectrum 512
by Trio Engineering
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Reviewed by Andy Eddy

Everyone has a little artiste in them. For that reason, paint programs have been heavily in demand—perhaps the most popular category of software of ST users—since their introduction. First into users' disk drives was the NeoChrome program provided by Atari to the first ST buyers; that was followed by NVision/Paintworks, Tom Hudson's DEGAS and DEGAS Elite. Those programs have satisfactorily carried ST users—until now.

An engineering company from Massachusetts called Trio Engineering—made up primarily of three Russian emigrants—has taken the ST to limits of color display never attained before. To reach this programming pinnacle, they first sought to determine the limits of the ST's internals, through the use of various test gear. The resulting program, marketed under the moniker Spectrum 512, brings all 512 colors to your screen simultaneously, giving you the ability to make any picture you paint that much more detailed in shading, and, in turn, more realistic. In fact, you can place more colors on a scan line—48 of them—than was supposedly possible for the entire screen.

But to limit the description of the program to just the additional colors it gives you would be unfair. They have, by virtue of that engineering, expanded the abilities of a paint program to include smoothing of lines and curves—long acknowledged as a major limitation of computer graphics—through the use of a process called "anti-aliasing." Anti-aliasing takes what would normally be a jagged line and shades it with darker pixels of the same color to give it the appearance of being smoother. Circles look like circles; angular rays take on less of a staircased form.

Another effect of the expanded palette allows Spectrum to shrink down blocks of a graphic with very little change in resolution through what is called "pixel averaging." This lets you take a full-sized picture and scale it down without losing much of the original's quality. The process lets you work with larger shapes at first, then size them down to fit into a picture, or to place text or fill patterns around it. You can also change the original's shape (not unlike DEGAS' stretch command), which makes a change of perspective simple.

To top it off, with so many colors to play with, Trio's work has provided another powerful feature: the Gradient Fill. You pick a starting and finishing color, and Spectrum will fill (in a variety of forms) the chosen area with all shades between those two colors. This makes it easier to build a scene with gradual color alterations, such as you'd find in a sunset panorama.

The last few functions I mentioned just touch on the more innovative and diverse abilities that reside in Spectrum; it still offers the primary graphic processes: fills, magnification areas of the screen for touch-up, simple shape creation (line, polygon, circle and ellipse), and block copies and moves. With the oodles and oodles of features that Spectrum provides, the most difficult part is in learning how to get to each nook and cranny, some located in the depths of the program.

For example, a simple command like loading a picture actually has two options:

Trio Engineering has taken the ST to limits of color display never attained before.

If you click on the LOAD selection from the main menu with the left button of the mouse, the program will bring up a file selector to choose which file to display; clicking on LOAD with the right button brings up a dialog box prior to the file selector, prompting you for the type of file to load, as Spectrum can import DEGAS and Neo screens, as well as .IFF and HAM (Hold And Modify) formats from the Amiga. With the 4,096 colors available on that computer, Spectrum uses a dithering algorithm that tries to retain the original picture's quality. They claim it simulates 3,000 colors on the ST.

Another basic example of the intense user interface is in the primary use of the right button from the workscreen. If you hit the right button in the upper half of the screen, you bring up the main menu; hitting the right button on the lower half gives you access to the color matrix, which contains all 512 colors; and using the right button within ten pixels of either side of the screen (when a palette is present) changes the active color to the one next to the pointer. Starting to see what you're up against? It's certainly not the fault of the programmers—they had to do a lot to give the user the access to all of these wonderful features—but shows how much more you have to work to get the most out of this product.

The manual doesn't help much. I feel confident that the tutorial section (which runs you through the features by instructing you, step-by-step) will assist those who are just starting out with Spectrum; and experienced users will be able to go to the area in question by using the Table of Contents and the Reference Section (a run-through of the various commands, in order of how they are placed on the main menu, in addition to their many submenus). There are even two additional appendices to aid you: a discussion of the Gradient Fill technique by Boris Tsikanovsky, Spectrum's programmer; and a short tutorial by Darrel Anderson, Antic's favorite artist who created most of the first Spectrum art pieces that were seen by ST users before Spectrum's release. All that is well and good.

The problem is that the manual is too "chatty," a situation that too often had me hoping they would just get to the point. Also, there is a propensity for cutesy banter that I find too distracting. I suppose some folks would find this approach more friendly and comforting, but it only serves to lengthen an already involved learning process.

Finally, you'll find an inordinate amount of redundancy. Granted, many users need a bit of a push with a program of this caliber to absorb all of what is offered; yet, driving a point home repeatedly gets to be annoying, even insulting. Being told over and over that the undo key will cancel the effects of the last operation sinks in after just one or two tries, especially when running through the tutorial. My advice—and this goes for many software releases, not just this one—would be to include a reference card that could rest atop the computer. No one wants to have to dig up their binder every time they need to find the use of a command, particularly in the heated passion of artistic creation.

On the whole, Spectrum shines through these minuscule misgivings, as the program proves itself as a tight piece of code. Once you master the user interface, you can form masterpiece after masterpiece, as the programming offers so much to assist the user, such as having intermediate shades automatically appear on some palettes. You often lose the feeling of working on a computer.

What is most exciting in the making of Spectrum is that its programming breakthroughs can easily be used to enhance other graphic-based programs for the ST. There is talk of improving animation quality and design/engineering programs (such as CAD 3-D). So what started in the programmer's view as a "static display program" will likely have a far-reaching effect on the future of ST programming.

An example of how this has already happened is Trio's Digispec accessory ($34.95 from Trio Engineering, P.O. Box 332, Swampscott, MA, 01907; (617) 964-1673). It runs under the ComputerEyes system software and expands that digitizer's quality by a quantum leap.

There are very few products that I can consider a must-buy for the ST. I can safely say that if you have any intention of letting your artistic stylings run free on the phosphors of a monitor, Spectrum is the medium where your fingers should do that running.