This Old Workbench Episode Two

Copyright © 1998,2000 Dave S. Matthews

In episode one of This Old Workbench, I stressed the more practical side of things, covering utilities which make using the Amiga easier and more productive. In this episode, I'll cover the GUI aspects of Workbench renovation.

Note, unless you have a graphics card, you may have to restrain yourself from the more flamboyant screen depths, backdrops and icons.

Also, if you find yourself annoying friends and family with slideshows of your Workbench, if talk at a party turns to current events and you begin to discuss the merits of NewIcons vs. MagicWB, if you are at a museum, and can only judge the artwork by whether it would look nice on your Workbench or not, or if you are ready to engage in fisticuffs when anyone mentions the
word MUI, perhaps it is time to take a break from Workbench renovation. Neither Amazing Computing nor the author can accept responsibility for GUI addiction.

The Workbench as Art

Backdrop Patterns and Pictures

To build a house, you start with a solid foundation, and our foundation is the Workbench itself. Unless you are a shell devotee, or use a utility like Directory Opus exclusively, you spend a lot of time looking at the Workbench, so it might as well be a pleasure to look at. The Standard Workbench boots up in four color, 640x200 screen mode. While this conserves chip ram, and makes a certain minimalist fashion statement, it isn't very impressive for a '90s kind of GUI.

Most of the recent backdrop images and icon sets are meant for screens close to a 1:1 ration, that is to say, where the horizontal resolution is roughly equal to the vertical resolution. I myself use a 640x480, 16 color Workbench. If you don't have a flickerfizer or AGA, or don't have a multisync monitor, there are several "half-height" icon sets to use with 640x200 screens. On the other hand, if you have a graphics card, you may want even higher resolutions. An 800x600 256 color Workbench is very nice indeed. In fact, there are programs like Cyril DEBLE's MUIScreenMode (MUIScrMode1_5.lha, Mailware, requires MUI) that allow you to have a HAM or HAM8 Workbench. This is one interesting way around the 16 color ECS chipset limitation, though of course, HAM modes use up a lot of chip ram.

If you have 2.04, you can add patterns to your workbench and windows. If you have 3.0 or above, you can go even further and add pictures as backdrops for your Workbench and windows. The WBPattern program in the prefs drawer let's you specify patterns and/or pictures for the Workbench, the Windows, and the backdrop screen (if you don't have the Backdrop menu item checked in the Workbench menu.) Note that WBPattern uses datatypes, so you are not limited to IFF pictures.

Datatypes are available for just about every type of picture including GIF (GIF_DT3.LHA, ZGIFDT39.16.lha), JPEG (JFIF_DTC.lha) and PNG (PNG_DT431.lha). As far as I can tell, the only major format missing is IFF24.

You may be initially disappointed by some of the pictures you try. When you use a picture for the backdrop, it must use the colors Workbench has available. Some pictures tolerate this conversion better than others. In general, try and use pictures with as few colors as possible, extremely "busy" pictures with lots of detail do not tend to fair well. Also, use pictures that are the same size as your Workbench. Finally, for Window backdrops, you might want to use a small brush that is tileable, i.e. can cover an area with no seams. There are many such images, marble, stone, tiles etc. available online or on CDs.

If you are using OS 2.04, you can use a program like Nicola Salmoria's Nickprefs (freeware) to assign a picture for your backdrop, Nickprefs also offers a busypointer animator and a floppy no-click type program. If you have OS 3.0+, you can use a program such as 0yvind Falch's Magic Selector (MagicSelV1_75.lha, shareware, requires MUI) to display a different backdrop every time you boot, or even change the backdrop picture on the fly, at a specified interval.

Two other programs might also interest you. SysPic, by Grzegorz Calkowski (SYSPIC211.LHA, cardware), displays an IFF picture of your choice while your Amiga boots. It can display random pictures from a group, and can display pictures using your Amiga's overscan settings, so there is no annoying jump when the system prefs get loaded. Frank Fenn's Multireset (MultiReset3_0.lha, giftware, prefs editor requires MUI) is a program which can display a picture and play a sound whenever you hit the Ctrl-Amiga-Amiga keys to reboot. Multireset can also clear the Coldcapture, Coolcapture, KickTag and KickMem vectors, possibly useful to avoid viruses.

Icons, Icons, Icons!

Well, you have a snazzy backdrop, and full multimedia productions upon resetting and booting, now what? The next most obvious targets are the icons. If you don't like the standard four color WB icons, you have plenty of choices in replacing them. There are a few things you need to be aware of, before venturing forth. The first, and most vexing, is the icon colors. Ever download a program, only to be horrified by the mind numbing colors from hell icon design? Is the icon designer color blind, an alien, or a mad artist deep in his "modern" phase?

Hopefully, none of the above (though you never really know). You've run into one of the fundamental shortcomings of Workbench's handling of icons. When you create and save an icon, no color information is saved with the icon, Workbench simply uses the current palette colors on a "first come first serve" basis, without regard for the intent of the icon designer. The fact is, Workbench has no way whatsoever of determining the correct color for the icon. This wasn't much of a problem when all Amiga's were limited to a four color Workbench, but is a terrific nuisance at screen depths with 8 or more colors. It makes it problematic to share icons among different Amigas.

Moreover, the palette editor that comes with Workbench only allows you to control eight colors. If you use more than eight colors on your workbench, the palette editor gives you no access to the new colors.

Even more peculiar, when you move beyond eight colors, the palette editor becomes misleading as to the Workbench colors. The first four colors (colors 0-3) remain the same, and will do so at all screen depths. The second four colors (as reported by the palette editor), however, are no longer colors 4-7, they are now the last four colors, On a 32 color Workbench, they would now be colors 28-31. New colors are created between the first four and last four, though the palette editor will not show this. This holds true for all screen depths. And since icons have no palette of their own, their colors change as the Workbench colors are shuffled. See figure 2.

Figure 2: The Workbench Palette
Figure 2: The Workbench Palette

Perhaps Amiga Tech will fix this in the next release of Workbench! Until then, there are several solutions to this problem, though none are completely satisfactory. Unfortunately, there is no way to fix a normal icon's lack of a palette. If you don't know what colors an icon artist used to originally paint an icon (it isn't a NewIcon, or the palette preset isn't included), there is no way for the Amiga to know how to display it correctly. You'll have to use guesswork and your own artistic sensibilities to correct it.

The first solution is to limit yourself to the eight colors as in the palette editor, and save all icons with eight bitplanes. These icons will display correctly in all screen depths. Of course, this limits you to eight colors, and these icons take up twice as much disk space as regular icons. Eight bitplane icons can easily be 10-20K in size.

A more involved approach is to lock certain colors, say, colors 4-15. This prevents Workbench from changing these colors. The colors that are locked are always the same, so your icons always have the same colors. This is the method that Martin Huttenloher's MagicWB 2.0 (MAGICWB20D.LHA, Shareware) icon package uses. The advantage to this method is you have complete control over your palette, so you can set up the exact palette you want, and not have to worry about colors changing. The disadvantage to this is, the more colors you lock, the less are available for Multiview or other programs which display on the Workbench to remap graphics. Perhaps more importantly, your icons will not display correctly on another Amiga, unless it is using the same palette and color locking you are.

Another even more sophisticated approach is Nicola Salmoria's NewIcons (NewIcons.lha and NI_V2.lha, freeware) . The NewIcons (NI) program actually add palette information to an icon, and thus can display the icon's color correctly (depending on how many colors the icon has and how many your Workbench has.) Anyone running NI will be able to share icons, and know they will display correctly. NI performs this magic by adding the palette and image information as strings in the tooltypes of the icon. NewIcons comes with a program called DefIcon, which expands the Workbench's fake icon abilities. DefIcon can show default icons for dozens of file types, including pictures, libraries, text files etc. Like the pen locking approach, NewIcons has it's share of disadvantages. You have to be running NI to even see the icons at all. NI does allows you to have icons with normal images and the NewIcon image, but this tends to increase the size of the icon. Also, you may find that NI slows your system down a bit, due to the palette remapping. Because NI stores so much information in the icon's tooltypes, there is potential for problems. I've had only two icons get their tooltypes scrambled, out of many hundred of icons, but it is something to be aware of. Finally, NI likes to have more colors available to do its job well. At least 16 colors, and maybe more, depending on your icons, and backdrops etc.

The Art of Icons

Well, I've given the inside story on how MagicWB and NewIcons deal with the icon palette problem, but what about the icons themselves? It is at this point, that a great deal of controversy has arisen. Both NI and MWB have loyal (and vocal!) fans, and equally vocal detractors. Most of the ire is generated by the look of the icons, and particularly the palettes.

MagicWB has a very subdued, pastel palette, heavy on brown, gray and pink. Some people like this, others feel it is gloomy, dull and in the words of one MWB hater- "The MagicWB palette is a disaster!" MagicWB is shareware ($20.) The package comes with the icons, an installer that changes the image of your icons without disturbing the tooltypes etc., and some extra utilities like MagicCopper, which creates a nice 24 bit (on AGA machines) background fade using the Amiga's copper.

The icons included with the freeware NewIcons (drawn by Roger McVey) have a very bright palette, with reds, yellow and greens. Again, some like this, others feel it is cheap, cartoony, and unprofessional. However, it is perfectly possible to use other Icon styles with NewIcons. MWB2NI can convert any 8 color icon to the NI format, and Iconian supports both regular and NI formats.

MagicWB has many, many icon packages available for downloading, so you can probably find MWB style icons for every Amiga program ever written. While NewIcons doesn't have quite as many, there are new ones showing up regularly, including a stylish series of NewIcons by Phil Vedovatti (who also wrote the installer script and docs for NewIcons), called AESIcons (AESicons1.lha - AESicons6.lha).

There are other icon styles available if you don't like either the MWB or Roger McVey style icons. Tom Ekström's Iconografx (IGFX30.LHA) package is gaining a good deal of popularity. This professionally done package comes with both normal 8 color icons (saved with eight bitplanes) and NI format icons. Iconografx also comes with an excellent icon installer, easily the handiest such utility I have seen. Take a look at figures 3-5, for screen shots of MagicWB, NewIcons, and Iconografx, and at figure 1 for my own hybridized Workbench.

../html/figure 3: Magic Workbench ../html/figure 3: Magic Workbench

Figure 1: My Hybrid Workbench

Figure 3: Magic Workbench

../html/figure 4: NewIcons Workbench ../html/figure 5: Iconografx Workbench

Figure 4: NewIcons Workbench

Figure 5: Iconografx Workbench

No matter what your preference for icons, I recommend a good icon editor. Chad Randall's Iconian (Iconian2_96.lha, shareware) is an excellent one that supports both normal and NewIcon type icons. It has a wide variety of painting tools, and can import, (with scaling and dithering, should you desire) not only IFF images, but any picture datatype you have installed. It can save icons in either or both standard (including eight bitplane) and NI style. I highly recommend this program. Two other programs by Chad Randall are the afore mentioned MWB2NI (MWB2NI_2.lha, freeware) and PictIcon (Picticon1_4.lha, freeware). PictIcon creates "preview" icons for pictures by scaling and recoloring the picture's image into an icon. PictIcon also supports normal and NI style icons.

Save Our Screens!

What would a nineties computer be without a screen blanker or saver? Workbench comes with a small one, and there are many available.

Thomas Börkel's Blitzblank (BLITZBLANK260.LHA, shareware, requires MUI for preference editor) and Michael D. Bayne's Garshneblanker (GBlank35.lha, freeware) are popular. A few of the many blankers available are David Swasbrook's Swazblanker (SwazBlanker240.lha, shareware) and Madhouse, by Carsten Jahn and Aicke Schulz (MADHOUSE.LHA, shareware, requires MUI for preferences). All these programs are 'modular', and new blankers can easily be plugged in by anyone with the necessary programming skill (and yes, the infamous flying toasters are present!) All these blankers appear to be engaged in a conspiracy against my Amiga, as none will run stably on my system for any length of time. Most people have found Blitzblank to be the most stable blanker, but Blitz blank exhibits very odd behavior on my machine. When first run, Blitzblank will lock up my Amiga, with an #800000003 error. Upon rebooting, it will run fine. Upon another reboot, it will crash again. I never could nail down the problem. Madhouse has some unique blankers, but the many of the blanker modules were written in Amos (a programming language primarily known for games and for being rather hostile to the Amiga's multitasking), perhaps not the best choice for a system friendly utility. See figure 6-9 for shots of Blitzblank, Garsheneblanker, SwazBlanker and Madhouse in action.

Figure 6: Blitzblanker Figure 7: Garshneblanker

Figure 6: Blitzblanker

Figure 7: Garshneblanker

Figure 8: Swazblanker Figure 9: Madhouse

Figure 8: Swazblanker

Figure 9: Madhouse

Menus, Windows, and Pointers

Now we need to turn our attention to those ever present menus. MagicMenus by Martin Korndörfer (freely distributable) is a program that will turn the boring black and white menus into nice 3D looking menus. Magic Menu also offers "pop up" menus, which "pop up" right under your mouse pointer when you press the right mouse button. I've become very attached to this particular hack, but it does have a few quirks. MagicMenu can interfere with certain programs, so be sure and check your programs after installing it. Also, when accessing the menus, MagicMenu can sometimes suffer a "lock up" which freezes everything. This is aggravating, but will correct itself after a few seconds. See figure 4 for an example of MagicMenus.

Next on our renovation list is the window borders and gadgets. There are several utilities to freshen up the look of window gadgets. The one I like is Sysihack (sysihack.lha, Public Domain) by...uh...Mr. BOOPSI (yes, I know, but it's still a nice program!) This little program adds a sculpted 3D look to the gadgets, and a "bellybutton" to some proportional gadgets. Look at the window labeled "shell.10" in figure 4 for the full Sysihack treatment.

Figure 4: Note the Shell.10 Window Gadgets
Figure 4: Note the Shell.10 Window Gadgets

If you have a fast Amiga, especially with a graphics card, Steve Koren's OpaqueMove (OPAQUE1.1.LHA, freeware) is a patch which alters the look of windows as you move them. Normally, when you click on a window's drag bar and move it, the window is replaced by an outline. OpaqueMove redraws the entire window, and it's contents, as you are moving it. This takes a bit more processing power, and tends to be slow on higher screen depths.

There are also programs like Caboom, by Lee kindness, which add Mac Style 'exploding' windows. Instead of just popping onto the screen, the window starts as a small outline, and sort of zooms open.

Another nice touch is to animate your pointer. Magic Pointers (MAGICPTR10.LHA, shareware) a WB3.0/AGA program, which allows custom anims for both regular and busy pointers (I especially like the hourglass). Nico François has a program called LacePointer for 1.3 and 2.04 users which animates the busy clock's hands.

Magic User Interface

Finally, no discussion of renovating your Workbench would be complete without mention of Stefan Stuntz's Magic User Interface (mui31usr.lha, shareware). If you thought the MagicWB vs. NewIcons topic was controversial, wait till you hear some of the heated debate on MUI! Most people seem to either love or hate MUI. What is this thing anyway? MUI is, at it's most basic, a library of routines to help programmers make good looking easy to use interfaces. MUI is font sensitive, allows scalable windows, and spares the programmer the effort of reinventing all the GUI code. More and more programs are using MUI, including AMosaic and IBrowse, two Amiga World Wide Web browsers, and Digital Universe, an outstanding new Amiga stargazing package. See figure 10 for a screen shot of a customized MUI window.

MUI Preferences
Figure 10: MUI Preferences

The problem many people have with MUI is twofold, first, it does take a bit of resources. MUI consumes more than a little Hard Drive space, ram and slows the system down a bit (though only when using MUI apps, and it's not a problem on my 28MHz 030 based 1200). The other problem is MUI is shareware ($30.) The freely distributable demo is perfectly usable, but you cannot save most of your MUI preference settings. IN order to fully customize a MUI application, with your favorite fonts, window designs and backdrops, and custom gadgets, you will have to register. This is true even of the commercial program Digital Universe. To many this is tantamount to paying twice for the same program. Whether the luxury of customizing your MUI application is worth the price is a question each will have to answer on their own.

Well, there you have it. Now you've got your Workbench looking all shiny and new, what about the actual operation? In part two, I'll check out some of the more useful software to make the Amiga's OS even more powerful and easier to use.


I would like to take a minute here and thank Stace "Professor" Cunningham, sysop of The Gateway BBS. Stace was a big help in acquiring many of the programs covered in this article, in the days before I had Internet access.


This Old Workbench, Episode 2

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