Review: Photoshop Touch brings hardcore image editing to iOS and Android
The key to deciding whether to download Photoshop Touch, Adobe’s mobile image-editing companion to its desktop behemoth, hinges on your answers to a couple of quick questions: Are you already a Photoshop user, and are you interested in Photoshop Touch primarily for sharing images on social networks?
If the answer is yes to the first question, then you’re halfway toward making Photoshop Touch part of your mobile arsenal. But if the answer to the second question is also yes, you might want to step back and consider a simpler app for images you want to share on Facebook or Twitter. These would include Adobe’s own Photoshop Express, or any number of similar image-editing filter factories such as Snapseed, Camera Awesome, and Instagram.
Photoshop Touch is a full-service photo editing app. It's available on the iPhone, iPad, and legions of Android smartphones and tablets, and is really most appropriate when you need to do heavy lifting on one of those devices.
Two versions, both solid
There are differences between the tablet version ($10) and the smartphone version ($5), but they boil down mostly to screen real estate.
All mobile controls are present on the phone version, but you may have to poke around to find them. The interface and performance on my iPhone 5 and my Samsung Galaxy Nexus were identical—and impressive. In fact, apart from opening or saving large files, there is very little wait or lag time on any of the devices I worked on, including second- and third-generation iPads. I didn't experience a single crash.
The iPad's tutorials—programmed learning modules with step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish a goal—are short and designed to showcase the app’s major features. There's a more basic and abbreviated help module on the phone version. With Google on my iPhone or iPad, it’s easy to look up how to do just about anything in Photoshop Touch, though you do have to exit the program. Overall, I'd like to see an overhaul of the help section so that users of both versions get more step-by-step narrative as well as searchable results.
Photoshop Touch supports images up to 12 megapixels, and the number of layers you can create depends on image size.
When you dive into the app and start giving the tools a workout, you'll find Photoshop Touch lets you crop and resize images, adjust exposure, sharpen, and even do some compositing work by separating foreground from background and combining images together. The Undo control is conveniently located.
The usual Photoshop adjustments and filters are accounted for: brightness and contrast, color saturation and temperature, noise reduction, transform, and shadow/highlight. Within these tools are additional slider-based adjustments. You'll also find Photoshop's signature curves and levels tools, where you adjust via histogram, and in separate color channels. You can also rotate and flip images.
At first glance, Photoshop Touch doesn't appear easy to use, but it’s not hard to learn, especially if you already know Photoshop. After tapping around for a fairly short while, I was able to memorize the location of most controls. Newcomers without Photoshop references, however, will likely find the path rough going.
When you launch the app and hit the Magic Wand button to begin a project, you can get images from a number of places. Photoshop Touch conveniently worked with all of my camera phone libraries and hooked directly into my Camera Roll, Instagram, and several other social networking subscription services.
You can also access images saved to your Creative Cloud account, where Photoshop Touch gives you 2GB of space free of charge. You can shoot a photo from within the app, or access photos from Google and Facebook. The Google interface lets you search by category, photo type (face, photo, clip art, drawing), color, and even usage rights. For designers looking for a quick mockup using royalty free images, this is very cool.
On the iPad, the interface is limited to landscape orientation. The toolbar along the left-hand side of the app is a facsimile of the desktop version’s toolbar. There’s plenty of room for maneuvering, but given that there are unlabeled interface elements lining three sides of your image by default, it can be intimidating. After some experimental tapping around, the unlabeled icons start to make more sense in that you know which ones to touch when you’re looking for a specific edit, and which ones to ignore because they’ll move you off of the editing canvas. And once you get into the menus themselves, everything is text labeled.
That said, it's not the most fun or intuitive interface I’ve ever used—iPhoto for iOS corners that market—but it’s jam-packed with advanced features and offers the control of layers, selections, transformations, and adjustments that Photoshop artists are looking for.
Just touching the top of the toolbar lets you access Photoshop Touch's major editing tools, and tapping each one reveals its specific options. The toolbar is abbreviated, of course, but it provides major items from the desktop version’s grownup toolbar. There’s the familiar Marquee, Lasso, and Magic Wand selection tools, the Paint and Effects Paint tools, the Clone, Eraser, Blur, Smudge and Healing Brush, and more, nested with flyouts similar to the desktop. The Scribble Selection tool is similar to the old Extract filter, which had been replaced by the Refine Edge tool on the desktop. Photoshop Touch has both the Scribble Tool and a Refine Edge control.
Additional controls reside within those tools, such as on-off buttons for anti-aliasing or edge awareness, and each tool opens its own context sensitive menu. Brush sliders let you adjust size, hardness, flow, and opacity. The clone stamp has a little source icon.
What’s missing? There’s no Move tool, but you can substitute with on-screen gestures. There's no Magnetic Lasso tool, but the polygon tool could serve that purpose. There are no slice tools, content-aware move, patch tools, Dodge and Burn, straightening or red-eye removal tool. And there's no Grabber hand, something I really missed. The tablet version has a Full Screen view, which is nice, but there are no editing tools available in that mode, so it’s strictly for observation, which is a little disappointing.
Lining the top of the screen are the pulldown menus. The Adjustments and Effects menus cram the most used Photoshop controls into the mobile version. A neat and colorful arrangement of adjustments feels friendly. Don't expect an exact replica of the desktop version's functionality. For the Curves adjustment, for example, there are no presets, but you can still manipulate the curve itself. Most adjustments have one or more sliders to manipulate your results.
Though it’s tempting to characterize the FX as just a rendition of Photoshop’s filter gallery, it’s far from it. The FX menu has a similar layout to the Adjustment menu, colorful renditions of each available effect, divided into four tabbed categories: Basic, Stylize, Artistic, and Photo. Photoshop’s desktop effects are not the greatest, so I’m not surprised that there is little unique to offer with the mobile versions. That's kind of disappointing, since Adobe could have taken the opportunity to offer some unique filters here. If you’re set on using effects, import your picture onto the desktop and work on it there. Or better still, use Camera Awesome or Instagram to stoke your filter madness.
Photoshop Touch got the main Apple touchscreen gestures fairly well, so to zoom out, you place fingers on the glass and spread, and then pinch to shrink. Tap to select an object, depending on which tool you choose, but a double-tap doesn't automatically enlarge the image to fit into the window. Similarly, simply clicking and dragging on an image does not move it, as you’d expect. You have to place two fingers on the image to move it.
The connection to Creative Cloud worked well, generally, but I found syncing between devices and the Cloud failed intermittently. If you upload an image to your Creative Cloud account and sign in from another device, you should be able to connect with that image from either another mobile device or from your computer. In practice, this worked most of the time, but not all the time. Setting up syncing controls from the mobile device helped, but there was often an image or an update that I couldn't see on my mobile devices for an unspecified period of time.
Room for improvement
While generally quite impressive, a number of issues prevent this version of Photoshop Touch from being stellar. First, the interface. There are various parts of the app where icons are unlabeled and you have to search Adobe online documentation to find out what they mean.
Often while using the app (on all devices), menus on the bottom obscured parts of the image, forcing you to move the image around in order to edit it. This isn't that much of an inconvenience, but during testing, images often changed size as they moved.
Then there's the incompatibility between files generated by Photoshop Touch—large, uncompressed PSDX files designed to be opened in the desktop program. As of this writing, there are still some glitches in the operation requiring a complex manual install of the Photoshop desktop plug-in that opens the PSDX file. Adobe is aware of the issue and is working on a fix.
Beware those PSDX files. In saving a composite of high-resolution JPEGs on my iPad, a total of some 10MB ballooned into 45MB.
Photoshop Touch, a complex app with advanced functionality, is still in the formative stages of its development. Despite that, it was stable on all the devices I used, and its performance was more than respectable. And Photoshop users will vastly appreciate being able to do compositing work, selective adjustments, retouching, and color correction with high resolution images.
Because of its complexity, a more comprehensive context-sensitive or searchable help system should be developed. Syncing and format compatibility problems should be resolved.
I'm of two minds concerning separate app purchases for smartphones and tablets. It would be great if Photoshop Touch were a universal app where a single purchase buys both versions. That said, I can see why Adobe tried to give smartphone-only users a price break.
Adobe has done a good job of bringing the power of Photoshop to mobile apps. The current version of Photoshop Touch is just the starting point, and I look forward to vast improvements in interface and interoperability in future versions. Photoshop Touch isn't for everyone. Photoshop users will likely want to have Photoshop Touch as part of their editing toolset, but non-Photoshop users looking for mobile photo editing for social networking will want to go with something easier and more intuitive.