SmartMorph, a freeware morphing program by Meesoft, has been wildly upgraded and has even garnered a shiny new name. It would seem that Meesoft has teamed up with Popims to create a better version of Popims Animator. I'll take a hard look at this piece of freeware and compare it to the version from which it supposedly evolved.
Another possible title for this article could be: Is Popims Animator Really an Upgrade for SmartMorph?
Please note that Popims Animator is PC-only, so if you are solely a Mac user, then you may want to just move along to the next bit of reading on your list.
It's a 9MB install with a few questions to answer afterward such as which language you want to use and whether you're willing to accept the User Agreement. All associated file types are proprietary to Popims Animator, so no worries there.
<b>Starting off on the wrong foot</b>
Nothing in the world is truly free, so I understand there's always a trade-off when it comes to freebies. But I am never happy with pop-up ads, especially ones that open Internet Explorer when my default browser is Firefox! What's more, I found that this ad opened up every single time I started Popims Animator.
<b>No functionality without IE</b>
I didn't want Internet Explorer accessing the internet every time I opened the program, so I took away its ability to do so only to find that without IE, there was no way to access Popims Animator's toolbar!
<b>Toolbars are usually open by default, aren't they?</b>
For some reason only known to the programmers, this application opens up completely devoid of a toolbar. You must allow IE to access the internet in order to see the button you have to click to bring up the toolbar. It seems like a simple fix to me and one that it behooves Popims to make.
<b>Yet another aggravation</b>
It doesn't bode well that I've yet to import an image, much less morph or animate anything, and I'm still finding things that are quite aggravating about this program. The "Companion" pane - the one I mentioned requires Internet Explorer - has been programmed to remain on top of everything else on your screen unless completely minimized. I don't know about you, but this sort of thing bugs me to no end.
<b>Help is good, not great</b>
Being a larger program than the original SmartMorph I had been using, I expected it to be more complex and perhaps less intuitive, so I wasn't perturbed to resort to using the Help feature, which I found to be good, but not great. It's not overly verbose but it tells you what you need to know in most cases. Of course, it doesn't hurt that many of the functions are activated with the click of an icon. Help isn't great, as I said, and I'll get to its drawbacks in a moment.
<b>Alignment is necessary, and equally complicated</b>
The instructions make it clear that alignment of the two images you are morphing is absolutely key to getting good results. Seems obvious enough. Popims Animator claims, "The best method consists in using our automatic procedure which is very clever."
I'm afraid not. Launching the automatic alignment tool brings up the window shown above. The first drop-down box represents "Maximum scaling up or down in percent". The second drop-down box represents "Maximum movement in pixels".
So you have the option to shift, resize and crop your images. This is done to both images at the same time and in no way enables you to align anything! Even if you have a great eye and are a savant at estimating distances and relative sizes, there is no way to make sure the images are actually lined up the same.
<b>Undo is useless if always grayed out</b>
If you decide you might know how that silly "automatic" alignment procedure is supposed to work, it's important to note that most of what you do in this program cannot be undone. Personally, I got tired of reopening the file over and over trying to figure it out. I just moved on to the alternate, manual option.
<b>Manual is better, but still not perfect</b>
One of the drawbacks of the help feature is that it is sort of hit-or-miss with the information it gives. The manual alignment tool is mentioned in a pithy sentence containing a hotlink that activates the tool. The problem is that the icon and/or function required to access the tool are not given anywhere that I could find. I have you covered, though. It's found under "Frame -> Align to previous...". You can also simply press Ctrl-A.
<b>A setup for disappointment</b>
I'm walking you right into yet more aggravation, but I do this in the interest of full disclosure, so bear with me.
Please note that the images I wish to morph are titled "Teen-DG" and "Baby-DG" and that these titles are accurate representations of the images they describe.
<b>Limited features, but less guesswork</b>
All right then, I've hit Ctrl-A and gone into the manual alignment tool. As you can see, the images are superimposed and slightly transparent so that I am able to line them up the way I want. Well, I can line them up as I like as long as that doesn't involve rotating one of the images slightly. This tool only allows for movement and cropping, just like the automatic alignment earlier.
I should also note that while you are in the alignment tool, whether automatic or manual, you cannot switch over to a different program. Every time I wanted to switch over to Word to write a portion of this review, for example, I had to fully close out of the alignment tool.
<b>What the blazes just happened?</b>
So I line up the photos the way I like and I click on the OK button, expecting the two images to go back to separate frames, but aligned and cropped as I had chosen.
But... no. What I got instead was the first image duplicated and the second image evidently lost to the ether.
<b>Still can't undo anything</b>
The undo feature is, as expected, completely useless in this instance, too.
<b>Conclusions thus far</b>
It turns out that the "Baby-DG" image is not completely lost. It's still there in the first window and can be separated back out with a simple click of the proper icon.
So far, I am not impressed. Between the obvious bugs and quirks that seem easily fixable and the readily evident lack of functionality at the most basic level, I'm not entirely encouraged by this particular piece of freeware. Were it not for the fact that I had this review to write, I wouldn't have bothered going any further. The original program I started with, SmartMorph, was very similar, but so much more reliable and simpler to use. In the amount of time it has taken me to work through the quirks of Popims Animator, I had already morphed these two images together into a four second animated gif.
<b>Adding morph points</b>
Now comes the part that is pretty much standard across the board for freeware morphing programs. I begin adding morph points. When I click on a spot on one image, a corresponding point is added to the other image. I can then move either point individually, placing them wherever I want on their respective images. The software is going to morph the image between each of these corresponding sets of points. The number of morph points you put down and the accuracy with which you place them will determine the blending quality in your final animation.
<b>Corner points would be nice</b>
Placing points in the very corners of the photos seems a practical way of sort of "anchoring" the morph, but eyeballing exactly where the corners are can be problematic. Without precise placement, your animation will suffer. In most cases, your morph will simply look slightly off -- perhaps have sections that appear not to morph at all or that display odd colors. The worst-case scenario is shown above. The software simply cannot interpret what you've done and leaves only the option of deleting the offending morph point.
Before SmartMorph became Popims Animator, there was a special function that added these corner points for you. It's a feature that should not have gone away.
<b>Why won't it play?</b>
For some reason, the first time you want to play your animation, clicking the Play button will only snap you from one picture to the other. In order for the points to be "activated" (for lack of a better term), you must select "Animation -> Show morph mesh". After that, your animation will play until you add new points at which point there is a chance you'll need to "Show morph mesh" again.
<b>Exporting your morph</b>
Once you're happy with your morph, you can add other things like text and filter effects or you can leave well enough alone and simply export the morph animation by itself. I'm going to do the latter, but I'll save my work first as a proprietary ".pim" file in case I want to come back and play with the bells and whistles at a later time. Right now, I just want to see how this program does at exporting my work.
Unlike most programs of this nature, there is no "Export" function. You will find everything you need under the "Save" function instead.
<b>Not a lot of choices</b>
You can export your animation as a .gif or an .avi file. Those are your only choices unless you want each frame saved as a separate still image.
<b>AVI Is clearly NOT the way to go</b>
If you want to produce a quality .avi file, you'll need to experiment with the codec choices. Shown above is the result from Popims Animator's default export to .avi format. Not pretty.
You can select your codec from an extensive drop-down menu after naming your file and clicking Save. I found the Microsoft MPEG-4 Video Codec V-2 worked quite well for most of the PC video players I tried it on.
<b>GIFs are good, but huge</b>
The animated .gif I exported was excellent, but a full megabyte in size (which is rather large for a 360x300 .gif file, animated or not). Controls for saving your .gif are so limited as to being (as you can see) non-existent. There is no settings window between "Save as Animated GIF" and the window shown above.
<b>But what about those bells and whistles?</b>
Popims Animator doesn't tout itself as solely a morphing program, and it boasts a few other features such as extracting images from video, applying various basic filters and transparency, and adding text to animations. But honestly, there are better free programs out there for doing everything Popims Animator does.
At the very least, if you want to morph images together at no cost, I suggest downloading the supposedly obsolete SmartMorph instead, which you can get right here at TechRepublic.
<b>By way of contrast...</b>
SmartMorph has an install of around 900KB. It focuses only on morphing and thus has better features and fewer bugs than Popims. It's far more intuitive and doesn't force you to use Internet Explorer.
<b>Less is more</b>
The Right Tool for the Job?
We all know that an upgrade isn't always so. We're also well aware that mergers are made in the IT world that have dreadful results for otherwise promising products. SmartMorph's move to being the next generation of Popims Animator is yet another example of this.
If you're looking for a free, easy-to-use morphing program, and you have your eye on Popims Animator, I have to be completely honest and tell you I do not think it is the Right Tool for the Job. Unless you're dying to add garish color filters to your animations, you'd be better off with the original SmartMorph.