Cheap Photo Fixers
Most image editing applications share enough common features and tools that, if you decide to switch, you can learn how a new one works pretty easily. But Adobe's $99 Photoshop Elements 4 and Corel's $129 Paint Shop Pro X have new features that other packages will have trouble imitating.
Like previous versions, Adobe's Photoshop Elements 4 includes an image editor and a photo organizer. Paint Shop Pro X, the first version of the image editor that Corel has released since it acquired Jasc Software, includes a version of Photo Album 6, Corel's stand-alone photo organizer. But with either Adobe or Corel, you'll often run its two applications simultaneously, and switching between them isn't nearly as easy as working with a single application would be.
Paint Shop Pro X's new Learning Center works much like the How To palette that Photoshop Elements has had since version 1. Both walk you through how to use various tools. Most of Paint Shop Pro's tips are excellent, but many editing tasks require you to work in dialog boxes, which don't work with the Learning Center.
The shipping version of Paint Shop Pro that I tested includes the new One Step Purple Fringe Fix, which does a good job of correcting problems often found around the edges of highly backlit objects. The new Makeover tool lets you click to fix blemishes, whiten teeth, or give your subject a suntan. The tool's blemishes mode works mostly by blurring, and thus is less precise than Elements' healing brush, which feathers in nearby pixels. The teeth whitener is quick, easy, and effective. The tanner uses a brush that you are supposed to wipe over someone's face (or other body part); it's easy to miss a spot, and you can't adjust the level of effect. A new Object Remover is supposed to help you erase unwanted items in just a couple of steps--kind of like a clone tool--but I noticed remnants of removed objects in my photos.
Looking for a little guidance in your editing efforts? Paint Shop Pro's Smart Photo Fix suggests ways to improve an image. Choosing the tool pops up yet another dialog box, in which you click Suggest Settings. But instead of providing ideas, the tool actually makes the changes and then gives you the option of overriding what it has done.
Photoshop Elements 4 isn't without faults, either. Its new Magic Selection brush is supposed to help you create selections quickly and easily: Brush in the area where you want the selection to occur, and the application will look for edges and color similarities to use in making it. The tool in the beta version I tested worked very slowly, however, and it didn't perform well except in photos where other selection tools would have had little trouble themselves. Elements 4's new Skin Tone Adjustment feature alters the color of the entire image (not just of specific pixels); consequently, on some photographs it worked subtly, while on others it altered hues dramatically--and incorrectly.
One welcome improvement to Elements involves inclusion of the spot healing brush introduced in Creative Suite 2, the full version of Photoshop; it analyzes nearby pixels to determine the best way to clone over an area, without requiring you to establish a reference point. Elements 4 has gained simplified versions of two other Photoshop CS2 tools as well: shadows and highlights, and noise reduction. Both of these worked superbly (and the latter is easier to understand than its counterpart in Paint Shop Pro).
The feature in Elements 4's organizer that I like the best is its tags. Dragging large, luggage-tag icons onto images categorizes them according to, say, place (such as "England") or person (such as "Bob"). A new Face-Tagging feature is designed to speed up the tagging process: After you select a group of images, it isolates just the faces in them. But preselecting the images takes time, and so does the analysis. I found it quicker to search for untagged images.
When importing images, you can instruct the application to eliminate any red-eye that it finds. Alternatively, you can opt for a single-button red-eye fix; either method works better than any other red-eye tool I've ever used, one click or not.
Elements 4's slide-show creator is pretty snazzy, too, containing features that appear in many video editing applications. Besides being able to pan and zoom photos during the show, you can choose different transitions, set varying transition times, and insert graphics or narration.
You can also create HTML-based e-mail, but with one flaw: an advertisement for Elements at the bottom of the e-mail that you can't get rid of.
Corel's Photo Album has few extras, and its tagging system is much less attractive and less functional than Elements'. Whereas Elements lets you create picture-based tags, Photo Album has only text labels. Its slide shows are basic, and you can merely attach images to an e-mail--no fancy stuff allowed.
Photo Album's one real advantage over Elements 4's organizer is its speed: Despite performance improvements in Elements 4, its organizer operates slowly. In contrast, Photo Album 6 romps through images, even if you choose to view All Photos (which a new command lets you do).
Despite drawbacks involving a couple of its new tools, Elements 4 is still the best low-priced image editing and organization application you can buy. Paint Shop Pro is a powerful, complicated editor, and the additional handholding that version X offers will certainly benefit users; unfortunately, the package sorely needs a better photo organizer.
Photoshop Elements 4
Not every new feature is a star, but this is still the best low-cost image editor/organizer around.
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Paint Shop Pro X
Decent image editor upgrade is paired with a weak (but fast) organizer.
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