Often criticized for the sheer number of digital imaging products that it offers, Microsoft has faced a bit of resistance to its Digital Image Suite product line, which offers consumer-oriented digital photo editing, management, and sharing functionality across three applications. That's a shame, because the last few versions of this application suite have been fantastic, and I've been moving away from Adobe's PhotoShop products as I've come to be more familiar with the Microsoft offerings, which are often superior as well as less expensive. In this review, I'd like to examine the latest version, Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006, see how it compares to Adobe's consumer-oriented photo editing solution, PhotoShop Elements 3.0, and take a look at all its new features.

What I do

Like most people who manipulate digital images, my workflow habits are pretty much set in stone. I use a wide range of products for a variety of needs, and have yet to find a single product that consistently beats all others for the tasks I need to accomplish. Digital image mavens will be shocked to discover that my most basic digital image editor is Microsoft Paint, the bare bones bitmap editor that Microsoft ships free with Windows. However, I routinely use Adobe PhotoShop Elements 3.0 for various tasks, especially batch and manual image conversion, image resizing, and text work. And I'd been using Microsoft's Digital Image Suite (DIS) 10 for its unparalleled cropping and automatic image adjustment features.

The digital imaging tasks I perform can be divided into two groups, one of which will be familiar to most digital camera users, and one that will not. First, I take a lot of digital photos and like to edit them in small ways (red eye reduction, automatic color/contrast correction, and so on) before they're moved permanently into my photo library and then propagated to other places, such as a Media Center PC and an iPod photo.

Second, I create a lot of graphics for this and other Web sites. These graphics start life as a static bitmap in a certain size--say, 195 x 165 for the "promo" graphics I create for this site's home page--and are then filled with other imagery and text, and then output in a Web-friendly format.

Because I perform both of these tasks regularly, MS Paint, PhotoShop Elements, and DIS get a pretty good workout. And I've come to understand how PhotoShop Elements and DIS compare. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.

I'm not sure why I never reviewed DIS 10, which is an excellent and capable product. But when Microsoft recently contacted me about its successor, Digital Image Suite 2006, I figured it was time to atone for this oversight. And sure enough, DIS 2006 is an excellent update to an already well-conceived product, blending the successful task-based user interface of its predecessor with a wide range of new functionality. And unlike the latest PhotoShop Elements release, DIS hasn't changed so much that it requires a steep learning curve (yet again). That's appreciated.

Digital Image Suite 2006: A quick overview

"We've been developing Digital Image Suite since 1996," AnnMarie Thomas, the marketing manager for consumer software titles at Microsoft recently told me. "We built it for the everyday consumer, and everything we do has that user in mind. All the tools that are in there are powerful, but they're easy enough for my mother to use. The biggest challenge we have with the product right now is awareness. Often people don't explore the software enough to realize how powerful it is."

At its heart, Digital Image Suite is a set of applications that let you manage and edit digital photos, respectively. The photo management application is called Digital Image Library (Figure). The big deal here is sorting: Photos can be organized by folders, as they are in the Windows shell, or they can be organized by date. But Digital Image Library also supports a Labels view that lets you organize photos using label meta data that you specify.

I have to be honest here. I'm not a huge user of photo library applications such as Picasa or Adobe Photo Album, though I recognize that the basic editing features these applications offer are generally all that most users need. For users with more complicated needs, a dedicated editor is called for. For this purpose, Adobe offers PhotoShop Elements to consumers, a stripped down version of its expensive (and pro-oriented) PhotoShop CS product.

The DIS editor is called Digital Image Editor, naturally (Figure). It provides a task-based user interface that is clearly modeled on the Windows XP Explorer shell, and I find this interface to be particularly useful. The last two versions of Digital Image Suite have also included the latest version of Microsoft Photo Story, the software giant's incredible application for creating photo slideshow movies. DIS 2006 includes Photo Story 3.1 which, at this time, is unavailable elsewhere (Figure).

Two things set DIS apart from other similar solutions. First, DIS is much simpler to use than most digital image suites, with a pretty obvious user interface that helps even inexperienced users get up to speed quickly. But DIS is also more full-featured and powerful than the competition. For example, I find the automatic touchup and auto-fix tools in DIS 2006 to be superior to similar tools in Adobe PhotoShop Elements 3.0.

Let's take a look at a classic example. You've got an old photo you've scanned in and it has all the common problems associated with these kinds of pictures: Folds and creases, scratches, and other unwanted elements that need to be exorcised from the image. And of course, because it's a scanned image, it will need to be straightened and cropped.

In PhotoShop Elements 3.0, you're provided with a number of high-end tools to fix these issues, including the Spot Healing Brush tool, the Clone Stamp tool, and the various Quick Fix enhancements. And while Adobe's cropping tools are excellent, the Elements 3.0 interface is confusing because you have to switch out of Quick Fix and Standard Edit mode repeatedly, and each environment offers different tools.

In DIS 2006 Editor, these issues are more simply fixed. First, the Straighten Picture formatting tool can automatically straighten and crop an image in a single step. If you choose to use the Crop tool explicitly, it will automatically suggest a crop area (a new feature in DIS 2006, see below), which can be handy. And the Crop tool's proportion feature can automatically suggest cropping areas for common photo sizes such as 8 x 10 and 5 x 7, which is excellent.

DIS 2006 Editor uses the Smart Erase and Blending Brush provide the same basic functionality as PhotoShop's Spot Healing Brush and Clone Stamp, but with a much shorter learning curve. And the task-based approach used by DIS 2006 means it's always obvious how to undo a previous action if things don't turn out the way you like.

If you're familiar with PhotoShop, then PhotoShop Elements 3.0 is a fine product that works well. But if PhotoShop's steep learning curve has always turned you off, DIS is the superior product. It's just much easier to learn and use, especially for the 99 percent of the population that's never going to be a professional photographer anyway.

What's new in Digital Image Suite 2006?

I was a bit surprised when I booted up DIS 2006 Editor for the first time and it so closely resembled the previous version of the product. This is a new version, right? Well, it turns out quite a bit has changed, actually. Microsoft has just chosen to leave the existing user interface largely intact, which is probably a good idea anyway, as DIS has a proven and successful interface.

Here are some of the important new and improved features in DIS 2006.

Stacked labels and keywords

DIS has always supported a variety of ways in which you can edit the underlying metadata for images in order to group them in ways that make sense to normal human beings. For example, when you take vacation photos, you may logically arrange them by date and event in Explorer, but in the context of a photo management application such as DIS Library, it might make sense to group them using ratings (1 to 5 stars), labels (like "Family" or "Vacations") or keywords (like "Sunsets" or "Flowers").

In the previous version, DIS Library supported ratings and user-definable keywords. Now, DIS 2006 Library adds support for hierarchical labels and keywords. So, for example, DIS 2006 provides a new Label Editor that provides you with access to the new, hierarchical, Labels functionality (Figure). There are top-level labels, such as Keywords, People, Places, Events, and Flags (the latter of which is not what it sounds like: Flags include such things as Needs Touchup, To Print, and For Review). Under each, there are sub-labels (like Family and Friends under People, and Kids and Parents under Family). And, as with the previous version, you can make your own Labels, at any point in the hierarchy aside from the top level. So you might create a hierarchy under Events - Vacations that includes names for each trip. Or, you could create a hierarchy under Places that includes the names of the actual places you visited. The truly detail-oriented could do both.

For the curious, it's worth noting that all of the label, keyword, flag, and rating information you create is written to the individual files as metadata information. That means that the information will persist if you copy the files to other PCs or choose to later move to a different image editing and organizing package. That, I believe, is important: You don't want to spend time managing photos and then have to re-do any of that work later on.

Hover thumbnails

Though DIS Library offers a nice thumbnail view of photos (which can be enlarged or shrunk on the fly with a slide control), and a preview pane at the bottom of the window, sometimes you need a slightly better view of individual photos. Previously, you'd have to double-click on an image, which would launch a Viewer window (Figure). In DIS 2006 Library, the thumbnails now support a mouse-over hover view (Figure) which lets you easily preview individual photos--and get information such as resolution, date, and associated labels--without having to open a separate window. It's one of those well-executed features you didn't really know you wanted until you see it.

Basic video support

In addition to the expected photo support, DIS 2006 Library also lets you manage your videos, a nod toward the Longhorn shell, which will also combine photos and videos into a single aggregate smart folder (in contrast to today's separate My Photos and My Videos folders). DIS 2006 doesn't let you edit videos. But you can organize them in DIS 2006 Library, add labels, keywords, and ratings to them, and mark them with flags. When you double click on a video in DIS 2006 Library, it opens in Windows Media Player.

As with the meta data features DIS exposes for pictures, the labels, keywords, ratings, and flags you apply to video are stored as metadata along with the actual videos, so that information won't be lost if you ever choose to stop using DIS.

Sharing Disc

DIS Library has always provided a way to archive photos (and, with DIS 2006, videos) to CD or DVD discs for backup purposes. But sometimes--oftentimes, really--you want to create a CD/DVD of photos to share with others. For this reason, DIS 2006 Library now includes a new Sharing Disc feature that lets you create a photo slideshow disc.

When you select Share and then Burn a Sharing Disc from the DIS 2006 Library menu, the new Burn Pictures and Videos Wizard appears. This wizard walks you through the steps needed to create your sharing disc and doesn't offer much in the way of options. It will either burn all of the photos and videos in your library to disc or just the ones that are currently selected. Then, you choose a recordable CD/DVD drive to record to, provide a label, and you're off to the races. As with most other Microsoft products, the actual disc burning technology is provided by Sonic Solutions, makers of MyDVD.

The big question, of course, is what kind of disc does this wizard make? It's not actually a VCD or DVD movie, but is instead a simple data disc. So when you insert the disc into a Windows PC, you get the standard Auto Run dialog through which you can trigger a slideshow or copy the images to the PC.

Device sync support

In conjunction with the mobile device support Microsoft added to Windows Media Player 10 (see my review), DIS 2006 Library lets you flag images that you'd like to download to your mobile device (typically a Pocket PC, Smartphone, or Portable Media Center). Flagged images will automatically be downloaded the next time you sync the device with WMP 10.

To make this work, you need to first enable device synchronization through the Tools menu. There are two ways in which photos can be automatically synchronized: You can sync your highest-rated pictures, or just the most recent pictures.

Black and White Effects tool

DIS has supported a handy Black and White effect for some time, but DIS 2006 adds a new Black and White Effects effect that lets you fine-tune a black and white image (or a color image you've converted to black and white) using pre-made filters, channel mixing sliders, contrast, and toning sliders (Figure). Admittedly, many of these features are for more experienced users, but some interesting if unobvious possibilities arise. For example, you could use the DIS 2006 Editor's Edge Finder tool to select just a portion of the black and white image and then adjust the color tone of that part of the image using the Black and White Effects tool (Figure). OK, it's not pretty, but you get the idea.

"I feel like this is one of the best new features," Thomas told me. "What I love about this is that you can add tone, and it adds a different feeling to the picture. This is kind of kitschy, but it allows you to explore the many shades that black and white can be. It's hard to work with black and white images digitally and get good effects. Or at least it used to be."

Intuitive cropping

I've always loved the DIS Editor's cropping feature, but in DIS 2006, it's been updated to automatically suggest a cropping rectangle. Here's how it works: You open an image in DIS 2006 Editor and then select the Crop Canvas formatting tool. When Crop appears, the application will automatically display a suggested cropping rectangle (Figure). You can then use this cropping rectangle, edit it, or simply ignore it and use the Crop Canvas tool like you always have.

The only real problem with this feature is that it won't make intelligent cropping suggestions based on the photo size you want. Let's say you choose 8 x 10 from the proportion drop down: Instead of intelligently choosing a cropping area, it simply selects the middle of the image. The intuitive cropping only applies to custom proportions, which his fine for electronic images, but not so great if you intend to create a print.

Better panoramic stitching

One feature that's always frustrated me in Adobe PhotoShop Elements is the Photomerge Panorama, which combines multiple images into a single panoramic image. The problems are legion. First, PhotoShop tends to work much better with horizontal panoramas and doesn't always seem to understand how to work with vertical images. Second, since most people are creating panoramas with a digital camera set in automatic mode, each picture that makes up the resulting panorama will often use a different shutter speed, leading to color differences that are most easily seen in panoramas with lots of blue sky (Figure). Such images need to be heavily edited later to look seamless.

Microsoft's Panoramic Stitching feature has always worked better for me than Adobe's, though you still need to watch out for the shutter speed issues that cause the problem noted above (Solution: Put the camera in manual mode before shooting the panoramic shoot or, if possible, use the camera's built-in Panorama Shot feature if it has one). In DIS 2006, Panoramic Stitching has been upgraded somewhat, allowing you to limit the size of the resulting panorama before you start. That way, you won't find yourself working with an enormous image (Figure). "It does both vertical and horizontal stitching as well, which you can't find anywhere else," Thomas noted.

Raw image support

In keeping with Microsoft's new strategy to support Raw image files (see my technology showcase), DIS 2006 supports various Raw image file types in both its Editor and Library applications. In Library, Raw image files appear just like other image file types. In Editor, you can perform whatever editing functions you do with other image types. But when you go to save the image, it defaults to JPEG, and not the original Raw image file type. Because Raw image files are considered "digital negatives," you're not provided with a way to overwrite the originals.

Photo Story 3.1

In addition to the Editor and Library, DIS 2006 includes Photo Story 3.1, the very latest version of Microsoft's excellent photo slideshow tool (see my review of Photo Story 3 for more information about Photo Story). Photo Story 3.1 has only been slightly modified from the previous version, but that slight change is quite welcome: Microsoft has added many new photo transitions. Specifically, Photo Story 3.1 supports over 50 transition types, and you can preview each transition in place in order to determine which is best for any given picture (Figure). This is an awesome utility and a must have for any digital photo fan.

"The in-place editing tools are nice," Thomas said. "You might want to make a photo black and white for a slideshow, but not actually change the underlying photo. With the editing tools in Photo Story 3.1, that kind of thing is easy."

Availability and cost

Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 will be available in retail stores starting July 5, 2005. Though the estimated retail price is $99.95, you will often be able to find it for quite a bit less, and Microsoft is offering significant rebates to help lower the cost further. For example, all US consumers are eligible for a $30 mail-in rebate, and those who purchase any digital camera within 30 days of their DIS 2006 purchase are eligible for a further $10 off. At those prices, DIS 2006 is a bargain.

Conclusions

Microsoft's Digital Image Suite doesn't get a lot of attention for some reason, but I'd like to see that change. Though I spend a lot of time using PhotoShop, I've come to appreciate the simpler, task-based approach used by Digital Image Editor, and some of its tools are clearly superior to those offered by the more expensive Adobe product. Digital Image Library is a very capable image management solution, especially for those that wish to tag images with meaningful labels, keywords, and ratings. And what can I say about Photo Story 3.1? It's an application without peer, and one of the few times when I can honestly say that Microsoft continues to out-do the best Apple has to offer. Taken together, the applications that comprise Digital Image Suite 2006 combine to make a fantastic solution for editing, managing, and sharing digital photos. Given the price, it'd be a mistake to ignore this elegant, well-designed product.