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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Graphics Toolbox


Did you notice my new blog header and background? I’d been thinking about giving myself a new look for awhile, and I had a bunch of digi-scrap elements I liked, but, I’ll be frank, I’m definitely not a graphic artist. That’s where Graphics Toolbox comes in.

As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received 1 free license to Graphics Toolbox from Great Software Tools. I also attended 3 online training sessions. I received no compensation. This review reflects my own honest opinion based on my personal experience using the product.

After puttering around in the graphics programs I already had, I put my blog graphics on the back-burner. I just couldn’t get the elements to mesh together the way I wanted them to, and trying to change the colors of those flowers to work with the papers…forget it. So, I was excited to try out this professional-grade program and see what it can do. Graphics Toolbox (GT) is designed with the average person in mind. The interface is icon-based (no pull-down tabs like you’ll see in most windows programs), so it’s easy to pick the thing you want without having to remember a fancy name for it or what menu it’s under. But while the interface may look like child’s play, it’s really a very powerful tool that can give you professional results.

I could easily write a book on GT and still not cover all the different features, so I’m going to concentrate on a few of the key features that really distinguish this program from others I’ve used (and that helped me make my awesome new header and background).

When you open up GT, instead of finding a piece of paper to fill, you’ll find a workspace that represents more of a desktop. When you load a picture file, you’ll be able to place it exactly where you want on your desktop and you’ll have plenty of blank space around it to load other elements or create some new ones. When you save, you’ll have the option of saving the entire workspace, or you can “frame” and save any portion of it you choose. This was a fabulous way for me to work on my blog header and background on the same page at the same time. Rather than juggling a couple of windows to compare them and see how they worked together, I was able to open them up in my workspace at the same time, and yet save them as individual files.

gt workspace

The zoom and pan functions are awesome and nearly seamless. Ever get frustrated because you were trying to select a section that is larger than will fit on the screen at one time and you couldn’t get it to scroll? Not a problem at all with GT. A right click with your mouse on the workspace edge pans your view in that direction. Use your scroll on your mouse to zoom in or out. Prefer keyboard shortcuts? They’re here, too, or click a particular zoom level in your on-screen controls.

The irregular cropping tool works great with the zoom and pan. Check out the before and after:

1maryapronsfront 1maryapronsfront crop

You can select an irregular shape in other programs as well, the difference here is the zoom and pan functions are so easy to use you can move it around as much as you want to get the exact outline. Make a mistake? Just back up a few steps and try again. Select “transparent” for the background and pop your subject into another background.

Brilliant color! Most graphics programs have eye-dropper tools for selecting colors, a color spectrum and options for choosing particular RGB or CMYK values. You’ll find those here, but GT also has a massive color library to choose from. Looking for a color a few shades darker than your selected color? Use the “color finder” to locate your color in the library and find other shades that will work well with it. Create a color card for each project with “chips” of all the colors you’re using. You’ll be able to use it to color coordinate future projects.

gt color finder

And GT solved my problem with the flowers not matching my chosen color scheme. You see that little dark blue flower? It used to be bright pink:

gt pink flower

GT’s “tonal color change” allowed me to tweak the colors until everything meshed together. This was fun:



I love the precision it gives me. I can pair the zoom with the crosshairs mode and get exact placement for my elements. The zoom is also great for making little “fixes” like removing facial blemishes. I can even zoom in close enough to change single pixels and erase things like crow’s feet.

I could go on…I haven’t even scratched the surface…but I think you get the idea. This is an extremely versatile program. Go to the Great Software Tools website for a complete list of features. And while you’re there, check out the featured projects.

There are a few things to be aware of.

The learning curve for using GT is pretty steep, and even after using the program for several weeks, I’m still learning about everything it can do. The interface is very different from other windows-based programs and not what I would describe as intuitive. The manual (a pdf accessible directly from the program) provides an excellent tutorial of the basics. You’ll also find a number of tutorials available for free on Great Software Tools’ website. TOS Homeschool Crew members were able to take part in on-line training sessions that I found to be very beneficial (some of these training sessions are now available on the website). Individual training is available at the rate of $65/hour. Expect to spend a good bit of time learning the program.

GT is not a vector program that works with layers, but a pixel painting program. Think of it this way: instead of having elements that you can click on and move around freely as you would in most digital scrapbooking programs, once you put an element down, it’s a little like gluing it to a piece of paper. If you cut it out, you’ll be left with white background where it was. Lynda Holler at Great Software Tools says that layer programs tend to be harder to use because it’s too easy to lose track of what is on what layer. Transparent layers can be hard to click on. While I agree that this can be the case with some programs, I’ve also used programs that give me an index or picture list of my layers. You just click on the object you want in the list, and it is selected for you. Then you can move it around, rotate it, and place it. Change your mind? Select it again and move it. Or even delete it. You cannot do this easily in GT. Frequent saves are your friend here, as you can go back to a previous version if you decide you don’t like a change you made. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, depending on your application.

GT is not a word processor. While you can add text to your graphics, you cannot go back and change it if you make a typo. If you are using a lot of text, it would probably make more sense to create the graphic part of your project in GT, then paste it into a word processing program and add your text. Again, this is because your text is not a separate layer, but actually “painted” on the graphic.

I tried out my graphics tablet with GT, but found that free drawing with it was very jerky, not smooth at all. To be fair, this may be in part due to our graphics card. Our super fast graphics card fried a while back and we haven’t replaced it, so we are relying on the onboard graphics card. However, I’ve been able to get smooth rendering while using the graphics tablet in other programs.

GT is very memory intensive, I would avoid trying to use it while using another program at the same time, especially if you are at the minimum RAM requirements. Loading times for large graphics seem a bit long.

Much as I’d like to say that Graphics Toolbox will fill all your graphics software needs, it probably won’t. It’s a fantastic tool that will give you professional results, but I think you’ll find it is best used in conjunction with other tools, depending upon your application. To find out if Graphics Toolbox is the right tool for you, download the free 30-day trial and try out some of the tutorials.

System requirements for Graphics Toolbox:

Windows NT, 2000, XP or Vista 32-bit (will not run on Vista 64-bit). Minimum memory requirement: 512 MB RAM; 80 MB hard-disk space

I’m running it on an XP machine with 1.47 Gigs of RAM.

Graphics Toolbox is available for $149 for a single, one computer license.

Find out what other homeschoolers thought of this product:



  1. Wow, Susan ~ you did great with GT. I've been admiring your new blog template with matching topper for several weeks. I'm impressed.

  2. Thank you, I like it a lot. Lynda asked if they could use it as a "featured project" on their website. (blush)


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