Over the years as FlightSim has evolved and the machines we run it on have become more powerful, we have seen an incredible shift from the 256 color checkerboard world of FS98 into the truly remarkable 32bit hi-resolution world of FSX. From my perspective, having started my flightsim life with FS2000, then stepping back to FS98 because my poor old machine couldn’t quite cope with the demands FS2000 placed on it (sound familiar?), screenshots became part of the enjoyment of simming with countless hours spent trying to capture that perfect ‘image’. But for my money, FS2002 was when screenshots of the flightsim world really started to move forward, and with FS2004 and now FSX taking us even further in terms of visual possibilities, I often find it hard to distinguish between what is real world and what is virtual at times.
In a way screenshots are almost as big a part of flightsim as the sim itself, and they are something that has evolved along with it over the years. When comparing earlier versions, which you can see in the screenshots above reproduced here from Josef Havlik’s Czech Flight Simulator History website, it’s clear how far FS has come and are great examples that if screenshots didn’t exist, we would not have a pictorial record of the advances flightsim has made.
Part of the challenge has been how we can capture the often stunning images we see on the screen easily and effectively. Some commercial graphic software products have built-in ‘capture’ features, but often this software comes at a huge cost well beyond the average simmer, or clashes with video cards and you end up with black screens rather than beautiful virtual sunsets.
For some years, various stand-alone utilities have been available that allow you to grab images as you go. These have been effective enough as long as you have the software to resize and manipulate the images to get them the way you want them.
FSX finally recognized the status flightsim screenshots have in our community and it came with its own built-in capture ability which I have always found to be an excellent feature, and one has to wonder why it took so long to be included?
For many enthusiasts who want to share their greatest flightsim moments or show off their latest freeware/payware add-ons, producing sets of screenshots is a challenge, and then being able to organize and ‘brand’ them, as many forums, virtual airlines and screenshot ‘artists’ (yup we have them now) do, requires both skill and patience to ensure the end result is just right.
As a reviewer, part of the process of working with flightsim add-ons naturally involves taking screenshots. I can quite literally take 100-200 screenshots per review. The task of then sorting through them, selecting the best ones and resizing them all, can be a big part of the process that can take days in itself, so anything that can help free up time and simplify this process has got to be good.
Thankfully, the team at TweakFS have thought about this and come up with a new utility that works in both FSX and FS2004. Let’s take a look at their Screenshot Toolbox.
Installation and Documentation
The download file of 11MB unzips to reveal an auto installer, Readme file and License agreement. I was very impressed that the Readme contained all the information I needed prior to installing the software so I knew what to expect. The license is your standard fare.
Double clicking the installer got the process underway and I was able to select which drive I wanted the files installed on and noted that at face value, the files appeared to being placed directly into the drive's Program Files folder without being separated. I clicked "OK" figuring if something nasty happened, I could always uninstall and do it again.
The install itself was over in less than 2 minutes from start to finish, with various options relating to desktop shortcuts and start menu folders being created, or not if you so select. I’m happy to report that upon inspection of the folders after installation, I found a TweakFS folder happily sitting in my Program Files folder and in this was the Screenshot Toolbox folder itself.
Given TweakFS makes a suite of add-ons, it makes good sense that the installer will create and then utilize this central folder for all additional components you may consider purchasing in the future. With the install process complete I was ready to begin.
TweakFS’s Screenshot Toolkit is promoted as a utility that will bring out the artist in you. Upon first load, I was presented with a screenshot that looked impressive and had some lighting effects and banner overlays, so initially I thought I was going to be able to add a number of effects to my screenshots.
I was presented with a user interface which is made up of 8 tabs along the top. Unsurprisingly, each of these tabs allows you to accomplish different tasks within the software, including changing various settings and looking at your screenshots, to setting up various text or logo overlays. Let’s look at each of these individually.
A Tab for every occasion
The first tab, or in this case the one furthest to the right on the Screenshot Toolbox screen, is the Tweak FS News page. This is similar to an internal internet browser but is limited to the TweakFS website allowing you to see their latest releases, download updates to TweakFS software and gives you access to a number of free tools and FSX flights that have dedicated ATC.
It’s a useful addition to this add-on, making it easy enough to ensure you are running the latest releases, and as a marketing tool, makes it very easy to grab additional TweakFS tools that may appeal to you.
The second tab deals with settings for the software capture options. This is where you start to get into the real mechanics of how TweakFS’s Screenshot Toolkit will look and work for you. There are 6 option areas in this screen that allow the changing of the color layout, what type of screen you are using (standard or widescreen), some visual settings for the 3D viewer, which includes coloring and what type of animation will be used (which we will look at a little later), and whether you want the navigation options to be available when viewing the 3D display.
The middle area of the screen allows you to change save options. This was very useful as I have lost count of the number of times I have managed to obliterate screenshot sets due to doubling up names. You also have the choice between formats your screenshots will be saved as.
File types include trusty bitmaps which naturally will take more space to store, jpegs, being smaller, is great but you do get some quality loss, or PNG format. Of the 3, I found PNG the best in terms of file size. The final couple of areas in this section focus on auto capture options, allowing you to decide what the interval would be between shots being taken and some general application options.
To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed with the capture function from a performance point of view in flightsim itself. In the sessions I used auto-capture, but each capture brought with it a pause in FSX. While this is ok if you are doing a specific screenshot session, if I was in a multiplayer session or flying, this would become annoying very quickly and could actually make flying close to impossible. I feel this does need to be addressed if this feature is to be used as it is intended.
An interesting inclusion is the ability to download images from the internet. I can see how this would be handy if you already had uploaded images that you had taken at an earlier time and wanted to add some graphic overlays. However, I couldn’t help but wonder how this might be used to download other peoples work.
As it was, I used this feature to download some images from my photobucket account. The issue I encountered here was I was only able to download the thumbnails rather than the screenshot itself. So to maximize this feature, the ideal scenario would be linking to a folder that contains all the images. I was able to do this successfully with another website and downloading was as simple as clicking tick boxes to select the images I wanted, and then clicking the download button. Progress was indicated on the download progress bar and all the files were saved to my nominated storage folder.
The next tab allows the automatic upload, via FTP (FTP is File Transfer Protocol and allows uploading files directly from a folder on your computer to a folder on a server),of screenshots to a site of your choice that naturally must support FTP. This is a very handy and simple feature to use. I was able to easily set the dialogue settings to point to my FTP account, and then select individual screenshots that I wanted to upload. Click the upload button and similar to the download function, I could watch the upload progress of the files.
HTML image tags could also be generated from this page, whether they are direct image links for embedding in website pages, or as ‘img src’ links for adding to forum posts. I did note that the links generated did not initially reflect the actual upload location, as Screenshot Toolkit did not seem to recognize a root FTP folder.
My FTP folder was set to www.example.co.nz/TEST, however the tags were generated for www.example.co.nz/. This was easily worked around in the options by specifying the full URL and refreshing, and then the links were correct. This did require a little working to initially understand what was happening, but the system is flexible enough to resolve linking issues easily, but this could provide a problem for those not familiar with FTP.
The ability to email screenshots is also included. I was impressed to see that an built-in zip function is supplied as an option with the Toolkit so I could decide if I wanted to send images directly or have them zipped beforehand. The beauty of this is that I didn’t actually need to leave the Screenshot Toolkit to do this.
Emailing the images was as simple as entering the email address details, my server settings (basically Screenshot Toolkit becomes an email client and you only need to do this once) and adding a subject line and any message I want included and then hitting send. The options portion of this screen allowed me to save email addresses I used, send each recipient I selected a separate email, or include everyone on a single email. Plus I could "CC" the screenshots to my own address and also build up a series of contacts.
The next screen was the screenshot capture work space and it gave me five different option areas I could change to suit my needs. The first is Screenshot Target which allowed me to specify the space I want to capture screenshots from. This was basically the monitor window for FSX and FS2004 in full or windowed mode.
Screenshot Toolkit can be used for general screenshot capturing and not just for Flightsim, as all the screenshots appearing in this review have been captured using this utility. The Capture Output Options allowed me to select the size. Some pre-set screen resolutions were available for standard monitors, but I selected a size that would allow the screenshots to be captured in the preferred AVSIM review size of 800 pixels wide by whatever high, thus saving me edit time down track.
The next two options address the areas that make the Screenshot Toolkit unique, in that you can specify images that will be used as banners and logos that will then be overlaid on screenshots as they are taken. The position of these is fully user definable, as is the alpha blend (how transparent the overlay is) or you can select any of the five preselected locations Screenshot Toolkit allows. Tick boxes on both of these options then determines if your banner and logo will be automatically added as screenshots are taken, or are added later if you decide you want to change some settings.
To finish this off you can also add text. Like the banner and logo settings, this is also fully user controlled, but as there are no preset options for text, you’ll need to work out where you want the text to sit and then specify pixel coordinates from the top and left of the screen to get your text sitting where you want it.
Under the screenshot preview, that takes up a large portion of the screen, are various save, load and capture options. Here you can turn on the auto capture mode and also add or remove the banner, logo and text effects to screenshots. So if you do have images you have created earlier or perhaps from the built-in FSX capture feature, you can add your website logo, etc, later.
One annoying thing about these bottom buttons was the pop-up help boxes. I found these got in the way at times, particularly around the drop down boxes and really started to frustrate me after a while. While help is always good, I would have appreciated an option to turn them off once I was familiar with what each button did.
The screenshot folder tab is pretty self explanatory. Here you select the folder your screenshots are saved in and alongside each image is a tick box. This is how you specific what images will be viewed in the 3D Viewer, as well as uploading via the FTP function, or emailed.
This window works and feels very much like a standard Windows Explorer screen as you select folders and manipulate files in the same way. You can also decide whether you want to display only the images you have selected in the 3D Viewer or the entire folder contents from this tab.
The 3D view page is an interesting feature FSTweaks has included, and based on their publicity info, is the centerpiece of the package. Effectively, what it does is it creates a 3D render of each screenshot, or any image you may want to view, and then based on settings, you create in terms of style, displays them.
Now when I say 3D render, I don’t mean that they take a 3D form as such, it’s more like looking at a book where the pages flip over. It's similar to the new Windows Vista feature that turns each page you have open into a 3D style image that you can flick between. Here it is done on a much larger scale depending on how many images you have in a folder.
What it also does is generate a shadow under each image, so if you have created images that are transparent around them, the image itself will be shadowed as you can see in the 3D Shadows screenshot above. The images will all become a standard size, so any screenshots or photos you have that are not in a standard height/width ration, will be either stretched or squashed. This is a little unfortunate, but in terms of screenshots, not a major issue until you start using this feature for looking at other images. If you click on any image it will then be enlarged for closer inspection.
There are 8 different ways you can select to view your images. Personally, I found the Carousel to be the best. Because Screenshot Toolkit does render each image for the purposes of its 3D type display, depending on how many images and what format they are in, it will determine how quickly it can complete this function. While I didn’t manage to crash the software, I did get a error remark from it twice by overloading it with bmp images from my FSX Screenshot folder. To be fair, this had several hundred screenshots in it and was a test in its rendering performance, so I won’t hold it against this package.
Overall, the rendering performed very well and the images displayed are clear and crisp, and with the very clever and visually dynamic 3D effect, I’m sure anyone could find a reason to show off their screenshot collection to their friends. The fact it’s an image viewer not tied to Flightsim is good because it’s a fun way to display photos and other images. However, a slideshow option would have been nice and seems an obvious thing but has not been included.
Finally, at the top of the screen are some buttons that allow you to maximize the 3D View window, as well as start FSX and FS2004, access the TweakFS website and more in-depth help.
Overall, and particularly as someone who takes a lot of screenshots in FSX, I found Screenshot Toolkit to be useful and certainly something I will use in the future. The ability to overlay a website, forum brand or even your own name on images automatically when screenshots are taken, saves plenty of time. The ability to email and upload images directly from the software is a great idea and is very useful. I like the 3D Viewer but am not convinced it alone is a good enough reason to buy this; the lack of a slideshow option limits it to a degree so it being the centerpiece of the package, is not something I would agree with.
The pause in Flightsim when taking screenshots is a major annoyance. This may have something to do with my own settings, yet my computer is top end, and given I don’t have any problems with FSX’s own screenshot function, I was disappointed with this. In terms of editing functions, I think it would have been better if a few more features were included such as, the ability to crop images and perhaps some visual enhancers like lighting effects. Another handy feature would have been the ability to create thumbnail images for the screenshots you have created.
TweakFS have promoted the Screenshot Toolkit as bringing out the artist in you. In my view, while that sounds good from a marketing perspective, I don’t buy it because the features to allow creativity and ‘artistic’ flair are simply not available. What Screenshot Toolkit will allow you to do, and do very well, is set up capture parameters that automate 95% of the work involved in taking, resizing and branding screenshots.
From that perspective, this tool is ideal for those who take a lot of screenshots for reviews and forums, etc, and want to save themselves a heap of time. At US$24.95, I feel this is expensive for what it does. However, the fact you can download a 30 day trial is a real plus and will let you know if the features it offers are what you are looking for.
What I Like About The Screenshot Toolbox
What I Don't Like About The Screenshot Toolbox
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