Introducing Sparkle 4

Dec 2, 2022

In the days of consumer film photography, photo processing shops honestly thought they were part of the photography process, that their contribution was essential to the outcome.

Next thing you know digital photography takes over, and few people miss the shops and the expensive waste of printing photography mistakes.

Building a bespoke website is somewhat like that. Many people think the specialized web designer is still essential. Sparkle 4 takes everybody one step closer to removing the intermediary, as small of a step as it might be. This is unquestionably good because it brings a variety of voices and design styles to the web, making the web richer.

While it’s easy to buy a website that has commerce, or a website that is fast, or a website that is easy to customize, it’s really hard to find a website builder that empowers you to do all that, and cut out the middlemen.

Sparkle 4 raises the bar again.

Sparkle 4

Looking back at our past releases, it’s amazing how little we changed version numbers in the Sparkle 2.x days. We think it has penalized Sparkle somewhat, and the new features mean this is a great new version of Sparkle.

If the Sparkle 3 upgrade was focused on breaking new ground with completely new features, the Sparkle 4 release has many changes that traverse many features, there are few screens that are untouched

A new release can’t start without a new icon, and we reached out to the amazingly talented Wolfgang Bartelme again for an icon that feels more at home on Monterey.

Taming UI complexity, and the explosion of options, is an ongoing concern. The goal is to be able to design while having to check fewer things, not more. In other words we are working hard to keep a great balance of power versus ease of use.

So let’s get in depth with the new features.

Password Protection

Probably the single biggest addition is the ability to protect pages with a password. We are really happy how this feature turned out. 

After having set up user accounts, making a page password protected is a matter of clicking a single checkbox in the page settings, and all links across pages work transparently, with a customizable login page.

Password protection can be used for anything from simple privacy of family pictures to members only access or customer area, and works across all elements you can add to a page: images, galleries, video, downloadable files, etc.

On a technical level, Sparkle’s password protection feature has no additional requirements on your web hosting as compared to other advanced Sparkle features. In short, PHP support is required, which is available on essentially all web hosts. All the pages and assets will be encrypted on the server, leaving no web-based access means to the password protected content.

Background remover

Removing the background from an image, say a portrait or a product shot, is a tedious job. You can spend hours in an image editor even if you’re not after perfection. Artificial intelligence tools are all the rage, but you just know an online tool will charge you a monthly subscription, show you ads and track you across the web. We’ve seen services that charge 20 cents per image, and often more.

In Sparkle 4, we’re adding an AI-powered background remover, built right in, running locally on your Mac and making full use of the amazing new Apple Silicon chips’ neural engine. More importantly, it’s part of Sparkle Pro, not charged by the image and, since it doesn’t need to go through the net to a slow server, it’s available offline, very fast and doesn’t suffer from server availability issues.

Due to the underlying technology, to use this feature you need to be running macOS Big Sur or Monterey.

Once loaded, the background remover works like magic, often with surprisingly accurate results. The resulting image has a transparency, which helps make the image pop against the background, it’s ideal for headshots and product photography.

On a technical level this also works beautifully with Sparkle’s native image compression support for the “webp” image format, which removes the penalty traditionally associated with transparency and the use of the uncompressed png file format: with the vast majority of desktop and mobile browsers now supporting webp, the image with is as compressed as a jpeg would be (if not more) while supporting transparency in images. Of course a png fallback is provided for older browsers. Sparkle’s perceptual image optimization ensures the visual quality is uniform.

Layout Blocks

We’re really excited about how this feature is going to move Sparkle forward. Layout Blocks make adding or removing content within a page really quick. This in turn makes it much quicker to adapt layouts on mobile, where reflowing content down the page is common.

Layout Blocks are in a way like sections of a page, that can move the following blocks up or down, and always have the same order across all devices.

We added a specific documentation page for more details.

Dark Mode

Your website, like this website, can automatically switch to a dark color theme if the host browser is in dark mode.

The main tool to do this is the color palette, and the initial addition of the dark color theme can auto-convert all colors to a sensible dark theme equivalent.

This is surprisingly effective in transforming most of the website to dark mode, but generally images stick out. For images (and other elements that need a different dark mode design) you can now use the arrange inspector to show an element only in light or only in dark mode.

Finally, SVGs can be colorized with an overlay color, with a light/dark sensitive color, so they can adapt to the dark color theme without the need for a second SVG.

Blog tags

Huge for who is using blogs extensively, you can now add tags to a blog post, and filter the blog index by tag, even linking to it from a different page.

SEO targeting

The most common misconception about how search engines work is that there is some place in your page where you can put “keywords”, and search engines will respect those. It’s probably a good thing that websites don’t tell search engines which queries they want to answer. Rather search engines will decide that one of your pages matches a search query if the words comprising the query are in certain part of the page.

The next best thing is the new Sparkle feature we call “SEO targeting”. You enter the keywords or keyphrase you are aiming your page to rank for, and the SEO Assistant will then guide you to filling in those places where search engines look. This includes:

  • page title
  • page description
  • page text with a “title” style
  • image description

You can also uncheck the SEO targeting checkbox, to limit optimization checking on the page, which is useful for pages that search engines will never look at or that you don’t care about ranking for, like say a contact form thank you page or your privacy page.

Other minor (and not so minor) things

We introduced some asset recycling and under the hood cleanup, which reduces the size of project files in many cases. We also added a summary view in the site settings, to see where the space is used in your project file.

Contact forms add dropdown selection and file attachments, additionally the contact form email itself is constructed in a way that makes it less likely to be caught by spam filters, and overall the contact form is more resilient to spam bots.

We made several improvements to clean up the generated code and improve web vitals, including generating a different CSS file for each folder in the site and embedding small SVGs directly in the page code.

We added mobile auto-scaling, so the page you lay out on the mobile device (320 pixels wide) will be identical on popular smartphone sizes, such as 428/414/375 pixel wide phones.

We changed how publish locations are stored, they’re now part of the Sparkle project file, password protected. This lets you share a project that includes publish settings, and the recipient can enter the password you set and be up and running.

Finally we improved the RSS feed compatibility with feed readers, the compatibility with international domain names (IDN), and we dropped Internet Explorer 8/9 and Android 4 support.

The full list of changes is now available in our new What’s New page.

Upgrades and pricing

When it comes to upgrading Sparkle 4 is two parts, one is the software itself, another it the license tier and version. The Sparkle 4 software can be used with any previous license, and the features you had purchased are still unlocked for you. This makes it a no brainer to update and get all the fixes and improvements.

When you purchased Sparkle, the license unlocked the features available at that time. The new features in Sparkle 4 can be purchased for 50% off the full license price, or $64.99/€64.99/£54.99 for Sparkle Pro 3 to Sparkle Pro 4. The purchase is entirely optional and you can keep using the previous license, without the new features.

The upgrade is free if you purchased Sparkle, or an upgrade to the v3 license, after May 1st 2021. The upgrade is also free and included if you have a subscription license.

We are very grateful to all our loyal customers who upgraded from Sparkle 1.x and 2.x to Sparkle 3 in the first year. Starting today the 50% discount from older licenses to Sparkle 3 is no longer available, and the full license price will be required to upgrade to the Sparkle 4 features.

Get it now!

Sparkle 4 is ready for you right now. If you already have Sparkle on your Mac, run it to update it. You will be welcomed by a screen where you can upgrade.

Otherwise please come over to our store to purchase Sparkle now.

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