onOne Genuine Fractals 5
by Thomas Theuerkorn, ©April 2007
Resolution is often misunderstood and marketing lingo doesn't make it much easier to sort out fact from fiction. To make things worse, hopes are sometimes based on science fiction (a la CSI) rather than fact. Low resolution video footage is miraculously enhanced to excellent detail in the movies, and reading a newspaper article from a few pixels on the screen looks almost believable -- if you were never faced with the problem. While that's certainly still outside the roam of possibilities, it's also not what this software is all about. Complex math (a.k.a. fractals) is deployed to combat shortcomings of traditional upscaling where the available picture doesn't provide enough resolution for the desired presentation. While it cannot restore information that isn't there, features like edges that degrade with the traditional bicubic method can be improved by treating it as just that (a sharp edge) and trying to preserve it.
Genuine Fractals had great promise and justification over the last few years. However, disk storage and native camera resolution are nowadays not much of a bottleneck anymore. With terabytes of relatively cheap storage and sensors capturing honest 10 MPx or more, photographers are well served in 2007 and Genuine Fractals' main premise seems as if it faded away. Then again, who really used it to reduce file size anyway (besides print services)? Nevermind, large prints often get away with less than 240 dpi. Yet, art print enlargements beyond 11x17 inches still either require very expensive camera equipment (best solution) or an artificial boost resolution to provide pseudo-photo quality (second best solution).
[Interface] - Genuine Fractals is a plug-in for Adobe's Photoshop. Accessible through the Automate function in the File menu, the current picture is transferred to Genuine Fractals and virtually acts as a separate program -- except it locks the host application for the time being. Version 5.0 is now compatible with Photoshop CS3 (v10.0) and Windows Vista (as shown below). However, it's backward compatible and works with both XP and CS2 as well. The Macintosh version is now a Universal Binary which helps performance on intel Macs. Changes are immediately visible upon start and the dark Gray interface looks familiar compared to Adobe Lightroom and DxO Optics Pro v4. The dark neutral background helps to concentrate on the picture, and the use of panels allows to easily access most of the functionality without entering menus. The Navigator panel helps to avoid cumbersome and slow panning in upsized images by quickly finding the right area. There is no histogram etc. since that's really not the focus of this program anyway and no functionality in that regard is provided. The actual process is fairly simple and consists of picking the desired dimensions by either pixel size (absolute size) or in percent (relative change). Alternatively one can also keep the dimensions and simply adjust resolution according to the target application.
The new interface is well organized and very functional. The dark background and the panels remind a lot of Adobe's Lightroom.
The Express interface is handy.
[Functions] - The most obvious functionality would be the resizing with an underlying fractal algorithm that kind of transforms the pixel information into support point of a fractal surface which then allows a more intelligent determination of the "missing pixels". Of course it won't restore information that isn't there (i.e. detailed structures out of a few pixels), but it does produce a more refined appearance of the existing information in a larger picture. Genuine Fractals allows to approach this every possible way, but the most practical one would be to set the size (dimensions) according to your target media and the desired resolution to the equipment capabilities. This makes it very easy for the target application in print media. Electronic publications will rarely need the resolution increase anyway since typical monitors (96 dpi) don't require all that many pixels anyway. In any case, the user is never confronted with any type of math (i.e. seed). Fractals may be the underlying algorithm, but the controls would sure not give it away that such a complex heart is beating underneath the slick surface. New in version 5 is also the ability to preserve layers from Photoshop, and the resizing operation even applies to paths and alpha channels. Version 4.1 required flattening the picture and ultimately lost flexibility. In the new version the original is preserved to allow painless modifications later. The application to 16bit (per channel) data is a great addition, but resources are quickly used up with the bigger color detail. (Prepare for long processing time.)
[Express] - If none of the advanced functionality is required, Genuine Fractals 5 now offers an Express panel which loads a minimalistic interface (see right) that serves basic needs regarding size and resolution adjustments. It saves the time it would take to load the full interface and the resources to render the preview. This is especially welcome for processing large files since even 2 GByte are not all that much when upsizing a seemingly harmless 8 MPx picture, but 800% certainly uses up nearly 1 GByte for the result alone (260 MPx). Add memory for the system, host application, and possibly one or the other process and even a 2 GByte system will make frequent use of the virtual memory (hard drive) and naturally slow down significantly. However, the Express interface doesn't allow access to sharpening or texture controls. Further, a standalone interface that doesn't require to load the memory hog a.k.a. Photoshop could be a more efficient way to work with large files or even batch processes.
Added functionality in v5
[Extras]- I already mentioned that Genuine Fractals 5 offers a few new features that are aimed at more refinement of the results. The newly added texture control basically is a measure of how noise in gradients (not edges) is either interpreted or smoothened. In my experience so far (and the sample above), a very small amount was enough to preserve smooth transitions and still provide some structure to sort of simulate the surface structure in more detail, although somewhat out of focus. The larger the number the more a gradient turns into a mosaic, which heavily depends on the subject whether that's applicable or not. Sharpening adds quite a dramatic effect without the obvious halo as many unsharp masks or similar methods produce. While significantly increasing processing time, the definition of sharp edges is vital for high quality output. Film grain is more or less random noise generated to simulate the looks of film and essentially cover up scaling issues.
[Performance] - One of Genuine Fractals' news-worthy changes is the claimed speed increase of up to 5 times the previous version, a recent e-mail even claimed 10x without mentioning what's that in comparison to. Reasons for the improvements are the full support for multi core processors along with AltiVec (PowerPC) and SSE (IBM) processor extensions. Neither of which apparently was in the feature list of the 4.1 version. However, depending on your processor it may not make such a big difference and especially very large pictures are much more likely to require memory paging which significantly slows the whole process down enough to make the CPU insignificant. Granted, the AMD Athlon X2 4200+ processor in this test with 2 GByte DDR400 (CL2) memory isn't the fastest in the market, but it is likely to represent a good average. If nothing else, it shows the trend on identical hardware. Please note that Genuine Fractals 4.1 and Photoshop CS2 were installed under Windows XP SP2, while Genuine Fractals 5 and Photoshop CS3 are installed under Windows Vista (32bit). As different as this may seem, computing power and resources are still roughly the same.
Speed comparison on identical hardware (Windows XP for v4.1 and Vista for v5)
The graph shows the time it took to upsize a 1 MPx (1000x1000 px, 32bit) picture to 16 MPx (400%) and to 32 MPx (800%) respectively. (That's 4x or 8x in both directions!) The results were somewhat disappointing in light of the lofty claims, but that may also be a result of the processor's support for mentioned extensions (SSE). Further, the difference in speed could also indicate currently lack of optimization for Windows Vista and Photoshop CS3. The small file size was chosen to prevent memory paging during the process as 32bit software like CS2/3 doesn't support more than 2 GByte of RAM (total). It also allowed stressing the process to the extreme by enlarging to 800% which is supported by both Genuine Fractals 4.1 and 5.
The newly added sharpening, on the other hand, appears to demand more computing power and lengthens the process significantly, most dramatically in the smaller upsizing step as the fractal algorithm appears less demanding with a lower matrix and the sharpening becomes dominant. Unless you're planning to process a lot of pictures, the invested time is well worth it as the example below demonstrates.
[Comparison] - The revised algorithm shows significant quality and some speed improvements even compared to the preceding version 4.1 of Genuine Fractals itself. But let's look at the reference methods first.
Starting the comparison with a basic algorithm as found in Corel's PhotoPaint X3 where pixels are filled in by evaluating the neighbors and estimating (averaging) the pixels to add in between. Since such method doesn't know about the content, it's universally the same effect which results in smoother transitions regardless whether it's applied to an edge or gradient. The unavoidable blur then prevents the once sharp edges to be affected by a follow-up sharpening process since the edge-finding algorithm simply won't find any. The result looses the crisp appearance of the original. The Corel sample was done in a single pass.
Not surprisingly, the highly appraised Photoshop (here in CS3 or v10.0) returns virtually identical results using the recommended Bicubic Smoother method. Experts typically suggest to upscale in increments (10%), but as the example shows it's really not much better and in fact CS3 returned some strange artifacts that actually degraded the picture quality. This is likely caused by interpretation problems of the slight sharpening halo in the original (or potentially a bug in the new CS3), but even without the artifacts the results are hardly worth the trouble.
Moving on to Genuine Fractals. The algorithm deploys fractals in order to map an equivalent mesh which then becomes of virtually infinite resolution, whis is not to be confused with infinite detail. Improvements are visible, but version 4.1 shows little of that potential and the effect was rather mild but noticeable compared to the bicubic method or any other "dumb" upsampling.
With Genuine Fractals 5.0 not only has the math been refined but sharpening is now integrated as well. The result is rather impressive, as can be seen best at the edges of the needles. Such sharp contrast is treated best and the achievable improvement reduces with less defined edges. It still shows the blooming effect from scaling the sharpening halo around the geometry, but the edge is much better preserved and in fact even even sharper than in v4.1 and essentially much sharper than any of the bicubic methods. A side effect of the applied sharpening appears to be a slightly more contrasted blooming effect as well. It can also be seen how the less contrasty needle going across is far less sharp and yields less edge detail in the output.
[Overall] - onOne certainly improved the algorithm to a visible extend though some of the improvement also stems from the added functionality. Sharpening inside Genuine Fractals is much more predictable and without the typical halos to contrast edges in order to make them appear sharper. Version 5.0 also yields better results than following v4.1 up with an unsharp mask or similar method after the enlargement. However, any such method is most effective with already pronounced sharp edges in the original. The better the input, the better the possible result. It's fair to say the Genuine Fractals 5 is most likely the most advanced method to date.
Genuine Fractals 5 is a niche product and mostly relevant for large prints. As such it's of limited value for standard applications. Many users may want it but realistically won't need it. Besides, low resolution in electronic publishing (i.e. websites) cannot handle even small pictures from an average digital camera in 2007. Unless you're going to print 11x17" sized pictures, the expense of $159 may be hard to justify. Previous owners have the advantage of knowing if it's of any use to them and upgrade for $69. For thos undecided, a 30-day trial version can be download, but keep in mind that you also need Photoshop CS2 or CS3. However, it may not prove very effective for content without contrasting edges or for only minor adjustment in size (less than 200%). Hence, it's for a few applications only and of lesser value for the average user. Nevertheless, when it has to be large and sharp, Genuine Fractals 5 is likely to be your most effective solution to date.