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Image Viewers and Databases

Image viewers which store their thumbnail galleries in databases can be disk hogs - so if your hard disk space is at a premium, this is an issue you should pay close attention to with this class of software.

ThumbsPlus is an example of the database-driven class of image viewing software (ie it stores its thumbnail galleries in a database).

The big advantage of this approach is that these galleries persist from one session to the next (ie once you've built your thumbnail galleries you don't have to burn any time recreating them the next time you use it).

This can be a big time-saver if you use an image viewer multiple times a day (as we do).

IrfanView, by contrast, is an example of the opposing school of thought. It creates its thumbnail galleries on the fly.

This means that you do burn a little time recreating thumbnails every time you use it. But the trade-off is that you don't have to give over any hard disk space to a big thumbnail database (our own ThumbsPlus database runs to around 200Mb).

All image viewers use one approach or the other, and what's right for you depends very much on how much disk space you have; how many images you have; and how often you think you're likely to use an image viewer to locate particular files.

We know several people who use "on the fly" image viewers without difficulty because they store their images in an ordered way.

But we know others who don't, and they find "on the fly" viewers a nuisance to use because they can't quickly step through pre-existing thumbnail galleries to locate an image of interest.

This means choosing the right image viewer really comes down to knowing yourself and your work habits as much as it does to software features.

Other Image Viewer Resources

Image Viewers
Background: An image viewer (sometimes also called an image browser, thumbnailer or cataloger) is a program that allows you to view and manipulate images stored on your hard drive.

Many graphics programs have image viewers built into them (for example, PhotoShop or PaintShop Pro). And Windows users also have several default image viewers that come bundled with the operating system (eg: Windows Explorer's file manager and Windows Picture Viewer).

But the reason most people use dedicated image viewers is that they provide far more facilities for sorting and manipulating images on the fly than bolt-in programs do.

Typically, a good image viewer will allow you to:
  • View images in thumbnail galleries, with the ability to select any image to view it at full size
  • Sort images based on criteria you select (eg: size, type, weight, colour)
  • Convert images between different file formats (eg: .BMP to .JPG)
  • Perform basic graphic manipulations on images (eg: crop, enlarge, reduce, rotate)
  • Perform basic graphic touch-ups (eg: brighten, darken, invert)
  • Apply special effects (eg: blurring, sharpening)
  • Create contact sheets
  • Create HTML picture or thumbnail galleries
  • Perform batch operations (eg: convert all BMPs in a directory to JPGs in a single pass)

Because of the quick-and-easy access that image viewers provide, people who work with images on a daily basis (eg: webmasters, graphic designers etc) have generally regarded a good image viewer as an essential tool for more than a decade.

But the rise of digital photography in recent years has extended the need for good image viewers out into the general population too.

So if you don't have a good image viewer yet - or if you're unhappy with the one you currently have - here are six truly excellent (and completely free) image viewers that can revolutionise the way you handle images on your hard drive:


Popular Image Viewers
Cerious Software's ThumbsPlus is a simple to use but extremely powerful image viewer that we've used on a daily basis for more than a decade. This marvellous software will catalogue every image on your hard drive (including fonts) and put them all into thumbnail galleries. You can then click on any image to view it at full size and - from there - crop it, resize it, rotate it, apply effects to it, convert it to any of a dozen common image file formats, carry out batch operations, reduce the image's weight (eg: for web graphics), create a web page gallery or do just about anything else you can imagine. ThumbsPlus lets you set the amount of detailed information you'd like displayed in your thumbnail gallery (eg: image weight, type, pixel dimensions - you can change this at any time) and it has a number of extremely useful graphics "touch-up" functions built in too (eg: adjustments for brightness, contrast, hue, saturation etc). These can make it very easy to improve the quality of your images "on the fly" without needing to boot up your graphics editing software. And since you can preview the effect of each adjustment before you commit to it, these functions are simple enough for anyone to use whether they've had any graphics training or not. ThumbsPlus was originally a shareware product but from Version 4 onwards it became fully commercial software, and it usually retails for US$50 to US$90 (depending on whether you buy the Standard or Pro version). And if you use Windows (98 to XP/2003) you can get a free, fully-functional 30 day trial of the latest versions of either of these from Cerious' site. However, Cerious still have unlimited use shareware versions of ThumbsPlus 3.3 available, and this also runs on any version of Windows from Win95 to XP. So if you want a completely free copy, this is the one to get (though if you like it and use it as often as we do, we encourage you to buy a copy and/or pay the shareware fee). What we particularly like about ThumbsPlus - apart from its ease of use - is that it's extremely well programmed. We haven't had a single bug or problem in over a decade of use, and it's a tool we use every single day. Get ThumbsPlus


Another image viewer that's won as many fans as ThumbsPlus over the years is IrfanView, a freeware/shareware image viewer that was created by Irfan Skiljan of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. Unlike ThumbsPlus, IrfanView creates thumbnail galleries "on the fly" so it doesn't build a big database like ThumbsPlus does. This certainly helps conserve disk space (and the entire program is only a few megabytes). But against this, IrfanView omits - of necessity! - some of the database-driven functionality that ThumbsPlus provides (eg: you'll need to regenerate your thumbnail galleries from one session to the next). Even so, IrfanView is another simple to use but extremely powerful image viewer and its capabilities include most of the things ThumbsPlus can do plus the ability to view SWF and FLV files; the ability to run many common video and audio file formats (eg: MPG, WMV, AVI, MP3 etc); the ability to create Windows icon files (ie .ICO); the ability to create slideshows that can be saved in EXE or SCR format; the ability to be used in conjunction with a TWAIN scanner and/or digital camera; and support for Adobe filters and a wide range of plug-ins that have been developed for it. IrfanView also has it own image editing functions, but if you find these insufficient one particularly nice feature of the program is the ability to set your favourite graphics program as the default editor instead. IrfanView runs on all versions of Windows from Win95 to 2003/Vista and it's freeware for private, non-commercial use and for charities, schools and other not-for-profit groups. If you're using it commercially, it's shareware and you're asked to pay a modest US$12 licensing fee. The latest IrfanView version 4.2 was released in July 2008 and it's available in English and 20 other language versions. Get IrfanView


Pierre-Emmanuel Gougelet's XNView is a third image viewer that's been drawing a growing (and very large) fan base, though it's slightly younger than either of its predecessors. XNView is a combination of the best features of both ThumbsPlus and IrfanView (see above) and it offers nearly all the facilities that both of these programs provide plus several more besides. For example, XNView can read more than 400 different image, audio and video file formats - including some very obscure and little-used ones - and can also write to 50 different file formats, which makes it the graphic file format converter of choice for some people. It also comes in 43 language versions (for Windows users, at least). Other nice features include HTML page generation; contact sheet creation; TWAIN support for scanners and digital cameras; batch conversion and image processing; full screen slide shows; image manipulation with a wide range of in-built effects; lossless JPG manipulation; EXIF metadata and auto rotation support; drag and drop support (in Windows); side-by-size image comparison; and screen capture (amongst many, may others). XNView is also very fast and the software is frequently updated to incorporate new features suggested by users. XNView is freeware for private non-commercial, educational and non-profit organizational use and versions are available for Windows (from Win 3.1 to Vista); Linux and other popular flavours of Unix; and Mac OS X. We were very pleased with XNView and we think you might be as well. Get XNView


FastStone Image Viewer
The FastStone Image Viewer is similar to ThumbsPlus (above) - that is, it includes a fully integrated thumbnail file manager and a database, so it can also be used as an image organizer as well as an image viewer. But it's also a surprisingly powerful program and while its menus contain hundreds of options, it's very easy to learn and you can be productive with it very quickly (particularly if you've ever used a similar type of image viewer before). It allows you to view, convert and edit images with features that include resizing, renaming, cropping, color adjustment, watermarks, and a broad array of other image management features. FastStone also provides quick access to EXIF information and its thumbnail browser emerges from a hidden toolbar when you touch the edge of your screen with the mouse (very handy if you do a lot of image manipulation work). FastStone also offers a batch image converter and resizer, a magnifier, and a built-in slide show capability with more than 60 transitional effects. It will also do lossless JPG transitions, add drop-shadow effects and image frames, and it has scanner and digital camera support and a histogram function. FastStone supports all major graphics file formats (ie BMP, JPG, JPG 2000, GIF, PNG, PCX, TIFF, WMF, ICO, and TGA) along with Adobe's PSD format, and will play video files (ie AVI, WMV and MPG) in slideshows. FastStone runs on Windows (Win98 to XP/2003/Vista) and it's freeware for home and personal use (for commercial use it's shareware and you'll need to pay a US$35 registration fee). We were impressed with FastStone's design and programming - in fact, we think it's a robust, fully-featured package easily the equal of any commercial image viewer you could buy. But go see for yourself. Get FastStone Image Viewer


If you're looking for a quick, lightweight but powerful image viewer another product well worth considering is Stratopoint Software's 11View. Stratopoint have discontinued the development of this freeware program - the last update was the Version 3.0 release - but that's only because they need to concentrate on their commercial products: 11View itself has won many awards and loyal users rave about it. Like other image viewers reviewed on this page, 11View allows you to view, print and convert your images to different file formats, and to do so with the highest possible quality. But 11View's special features include numerous viewing options; loading-time interpolation; color management options; gamma correction and am extended batch converter. 11View also offers the usual file management tools, a high-quality print function, an acquire function, and even a Send by E-mail function (which we thought was quite nice). 11View isn't a large program in comparison to some of the others reviewed here - the download is less than 1Mb - but if you don't have highly demanding image management tasks and/or you're looking for a powerful editor that's easy to port across different machines (eg: your desktop and laptop PCs) we can certainly recommend this dynamic little powerhouse. 11View runs on all versions of Windows (from Win95 to XP/2003). Get 11View


Finally, if the main reason you're looking for an image viewer is to manage your digital photo collection, then it may be well worth your while to take a look at Mooie Software's Photoscape. Photoscape occupies a unique spot in the landscape that straddles pure image viewers and photo editing software packages and successfully combines the best features of both. As with all the other software we've reviewed above, Photoscape lets you view your images and carry out basic editing on them (eg: resizing, brightness and color adjustment, white balance, backlight correction, frames, balloons, mosaic mode, adding text, drawing pictures, cropping, filters, red eye removal, blooming etc). But then it goes beyond this by adding in additional functions that allow you to make supersize photos by tiling extra pictures vertically or horizontally (see examples on Mooie's site); to split up photos into multiple parts; and to create photo animations (as animated GIFs) from multiple photos. In addition to its normal print operations, Photoscape's print function also allows you to print portrait shots, carte de visite and passport photos; and it has a screen capture function built in as well. Photoscape allows you to carry out batch processing on your images, and it also has an in-built RAW converter as well (RAW to JPG). Photoscape has been around for several years (Mooie were founded in South Korea in 2001) and has won numerous gongs. We think they're well-deserved. The software runs on all versions of Windows (from Win98 to Vista) and it's freeware.
Get Photoscape


This page last updated: 18-Sep-2008


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