Mac users have it easy. On OS X, the system decodes all major image types. On Windows however, only the most ubiquitous formats (JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF and TIFF) are recognized out-of-the-box, which becomes frustrating for graphic designers.
You see, Windows actually has a nice, modern, extensible imaging framework called Windows Imaging Component (WIC). In Windows 7, this framework allows new image formats to be seamlessly integrated in the OS, meaning that they’ll have thumbnails decoded, that you’ll be able to search for embedded metadata and that any WIC-enabled application will be able to open those files.
This system makes a lot of sense and it would have the potential to obsolete all/most thumbnail explorers, from ACDSee to XNView. Think about it: why should I launch a whole big application just to see what’s in a PSD file? Sure, image organizers usually have additional image processing abilities, like batch rename or watermarking, but wouldn’t you like to have these seamlessly integrated in the system? I know I would.
Sadly, the company who had the most to offer in this area not only did not add these features, they actually removed the little functionality they had. You see, Adobe CS1 and CS2 had support for PSD and AI images in Explorer. They removed this in CS3, pushing their own Bridge as a replacement. I have not met a single person who actually likes using Bridge. Opinions range from “incredibly bad” to “useless”. Even in CS5, as a response to the numerous complains regarding speed, they created a “mini-Bridge” inside every app, while users try to hack in old versions of psicon.dll and aiicon.dll (which, by the way, don’t work on 64 bit systems).
Adobe also created a DNG codec that was supposed to provide support for DNG files in Explorer, but it was so buggy it proved a complete fiasco (it was added in May 2008 in the Labs and never updated).
With Adobe and Microsoft pointing fingers and each expecting the other to fix things, I found the solution from a small developer.
Axel Rietschin has created a program called FastPictureViewer Codec Pack that adds support for all major image formats (JPEG 2000, DirectDraw Surface, Targa, EXR&HDR), PSD, DNG as well as more than 300 RAW formats.
What’s nice about his codec pack is that it integrates so nicely in Windows that you can preview any RAW file, check its metadata, search for keywords and more, right from Explorer. It’s not supposed to replace Lightroom, but it does replace Bridge for me. Also, in the 4 months I’ve been using it, I haven’t noticed any bugs.
There are only two downsides to this program:
it does not support vector images like AI or EPS and it’s not free. Still, at $15 I think it’s a great deal. This is not a paid review by the way, I wasn’t even contacted by the author and I paid my own copy, but sometimes we should give credit where it’s due and recognize quality.
An alternative to FastPictureViewer Codec Pack might be Mystic Thumbs. It has the advantage of supporting vector files (requires Ghostscript) but I had reliability issues with it. I’m not sure whether it’s my Windows 7 x64 or if Mystic Thumbs doesn’t play nice with the FPV Codec Pack, but it just didn’t work right for me. YMMV. Mystic Thumbs is $29.
PSD and DNG Codecs from Ardfry Imaging support PSD+EPS and DNG files and cost $20 each. I haven’t tried them so I can’t comment on quality.