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Old 08-27-2007, 06:00 PM
Damion Chaplin
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Default Corel's Paint Shop Pro Photo XI: A Minor League Slugger

Product Category: Photo editing & Illustration software
Manufacturer: Corel Corporation
Where to Buy: Low Price Search
Price: $49.95-$103.48 (as of writing time)
System Requirements: Windows 2000/XP/Vista, 433MHz PIII, 256MB RAM (512MB Recommended), 500MB HD Space, 1024x768 or better resolution, IE6 or higher.

  • Powerful photo editing and illustration;
  • More features than you can shake a stylus at;
  • Easy to learn and use;
  • Considerably cheaper than the leading photo editing software.
  • Almost too much for the beginning/casual user;
  • Ease-of-use of some functions are slightly overstated;
  • Barely adequate printing experience;
  • It’s not the leading photo editing software (and there’s no Mac version).
Paint Shop Pro (PSP) has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a low-cost shareware photo editing program. Billed as “the ideal choice for people who want extraordinary photos,” Corel’s Paint Shop Pro Photo XI retains its humble price while continually offering increased functionality and productivity. Well thought-out and aimed square at the casual home user, Paint Shop Pro is a fully developed program in its own right, as opposed to being a, shall we say, ‘elemental’ version of a larger, more expensive program. If anything, PSP’s main shortcoming is that it offers too much for a user to do. Over the last few weeks I took version XI of Paint Shop Pro through its paces and found it to be a very robust program. Whether it would be right for you, however, depends on how you plan on using it.

Read on for our full review!

First, Some History
Way back in the days of yore, (in this case late 1992), I went to the software store to buy a new ‘drawing’ program to replace my only-so-useful PCPaintbrush (for DOS!) and to go with my spiffy new Windows 3.1. There were two programs on the shelf: Adobe Photoshop (newly released for Windows) and the program I walked home with, CorelDRAW, which included a ‘free’ photo-editing program (Corel Photo-Paint). A few months later I heard about Paint Shop Pro, a shareware program by Jasc Software, that you could download from various places. I remember checking it out, but ultimately set it aside as I already had a program that did everything I needed it to. I continued to hear about PSP, however, as it grew into a respectable photo editing program.

In 2004, Corel bought Jasc, and the next year released Corel Paint Shop Pro. My initial reaction was “Why? They already have a perfectly good photo editor in Corel Photo-Paint,” which Corel was trying to sell as a stand-alone product at the time. I also had raw memories of the Ventura Fiasco and was hoping the same wouldn’t happen to Paint Shop Pro. In fact, the reasoning behind Corel’s decision was never really clear to me until I sat down with the product and gave it a spin.

And Now, a Word about Graphics Programs
Actually, two words: Vector and Raster. You see, computer graphics come in the two completely different flavors of vector and raster, which can be loosely thought of as wireframe and bitmap, and are usually dealt with in two separate programs. Raster (or bitmap) images are square things that can be measured as “so many pixels by so many pixels”, whereas vector images are math-based and are not limited to things like resolution. The computer ‘remembers’ a vector file as a series of points and lines, whereas it ‘remembers’ a bitmap as a grid of different-colored pixels (a map of bits). Think of those behind-the-scenes interviews you’ve seen where a 3D model is shown as a wireframe skeleton and then again with skin and clothing. The model is drawn in vector wireframe and then ‘rendered’ into a raster image for insertion into a movie frame. Digital photographs are raster graphics (bitmaps).

Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW are examples of vector graphic programs and Adobe Photoshop and Corel’s Photo-Paint are primarily raster graphics programs. Both Adobe and Corel expect you to use their two programs in conjunction with each other, preferring to keep the two graphics universes more or less segregated. What makes Paint Shop Pro special is that it combines both bitmap editing and vector illustrating tools in one program that costs less than a third of the CorelDRAW Graphics Suite, and a twelfth of the price of Photoshop and Illustrator together. Paint Shop Pro is able to create and edit layers of both raster and vector objects. OK, end of graphics lesson.

At Last: Initial Impressions
Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo XI comes in a lovely box with a fancy fold-out panel touting all its features and specifications. It’s obvious they’re hoping to convince people with the packaging alone. It is mighty impressive. Inside the box, however, is a program disc, a product authenticity card begging to be lost and a user guide that’s smaller than the one that came with my camera. I don’t know what I was expecting to find inside, but after a box like that, I guess it would be more. I thumbed through the guide and found much of what it was showing me to be self-explanatory, plus it continually referred to the in-program Learning Center, so I didn’t bother to read much of it. I also tend to learn things by doing rather than studying, so reading a software manual is only so helpful to me (undoubtedly an example of why Corel included a Learning Center). One thing I did notice is the guide assumes right off the bat that you know the difference between raster and vector graphics. For a program aimed at home users who haven’t necessarily used graphics software before, (but just bought a spiffy new camera), I found this to be surprising.

Installation from the CD was quick and uneventful. It should be noted that Corel included a copy of their Snapfire Plus photo and slideshow sharing software, and 2 hours of Paint Shop Pro training on the CD. I didn’t really check them out and won’t be reviewing them here, but it’s nice to see some effort put into making the program easy to learn.

Let’s Talk Interface

Figure 1: The main window looks deceptively complex.

Paint Shop Pro’s main program window at first seems cluttered on all sides, but like a dust cloud settling, your eye starts discerning the various parts and it all starts making sense. Along the top you have the normal File/Edit menus, below that the Standard New/Open/Save icon toolbar and below that the Tool Options ‘palette’, which changes dynamically depending on what tool you have selected. Along the left side you have the Learning Center which also changes based on the selected tool (more on that in a bit), along side which is the all-important Tools toolbar, which includes the selection, creation and effect tools. The bottom of the window sports a status bar, which shows the status of the image or tool (and is also the progress bar), above which is the Organizer palette, which by default displays your Pictures folder and the pictures in it much like a mini Windows Explorer. The right side has only the Layers palette open by default, but more palettes are added to the left and neatly stacked as you call upon them or use a function that requires them (like the color mixer). It’s a very efficient layout, but someone with a smaller screen may find themselves closing some of the palettes a lot. As it is, it leaves less room for the actual image on my 24” LCD than I’d like.

Figure 2: The Learning Center Palette.

The Learning Center palette is one of those tools that, at first, seems useful, but becomes less and less so the more you use it. Put simply, the Learning Center is a dynamic, interactive help file. Unfortunately, as with many help files, it never seems to have what I’m looking for. Fortunately, the actual help file is much more helpful! When you first open Paint Shop Pro, the Learning Center presents its home page. If you’re a new user and just don’t know where to start, this home page is a good place to start. From it, you can open, print, adjust, add text to or do just about anything with your photo...except actually learn how to do certain key functions. For example, opening a file (more on that in a second). In a branching fashion, the Learning Center lets the user drill down from general menus to the specific function they want. Unfortunately, it often leaves you there with no indication of where to go next.

For example, to open an image from disk (as opposed to camera or scanner), you click on Get Photos and then Organizer, which gives you a non-helpful description of the Organizer Palette. If the Organizer is closed, the Learning Center will pop it open for you, but since it’s on the screen by default, and it doesn’t even tell you what to do with it, I found its instructions unhelpful. It could have at least opened the Open dialog box. I did, however, find it useful when I selected the various effect and creation tools. In those cases, the Learning Center palette changes to tell you exactly what to do with the tool you just picked up. Even advanced effects I wasn’t familiar with were pretty carefully explained. So, props go to Corel for showing us exactly how to use the Crayon tool, but then taken away for not explaining how to open an image from a file.

Figure 3: The Organizer Palette is an essential tool in Paint Shop Pro.

While I may not like the fact that the Organizer Palette isn’t explained very well by the Learning Center, I do have to say it’s very easy and rather self-explanatory if you’ve ever used Windows Explorer. Split in two, just like Explorer, it shows a tree representation of your folders on the left and a space that shows thumbnails of the files in the selected folder on the right. Opening a file is as easy as navigating to that folder and dragging the image’s thumbnail into the blank space above. It remembers what folder you had navigated to last when you open the program, and I found it very handy when I was processing a bunch of files in the same folder (like the shots in this review). It also has buttons along the top that allow you to do certain things, like rotate an image without opening it, and printing a contact sheet (an array of printed thumbnails of the images in that folder). Best of all, it can be toggled open and closed with a button on the Standard toolbar right next to the Open button. Using the Organizer, you may never need that Open button again.

The Photo Tray Palette is an interesting feature that can certainly come in handy at times, but can largely be ignored by folks who just want to open, tweak and print a file. The Photo Tray allows you to gather ‘shortcuts’ to different images in different folders in one place for easy access. Images gathered in the Photo Tray can easily be opened and closed, which means you don’t have to have all those different working files minimized and taking up memory. When you activate the Photo Tray from the View menu, it pops up below the Organizer palette, bumping the Organizer up the screen (taking up even more screen real estate). From there, thumbnails from the Organizer can be easily dragged into the Photo Tray from their various folders. Once the shortcuts to your photos are in the Photo Tray, you can pretty much close the Organizer for the duration of the project.

Now, Image Input
Corel Paint Shop Pro offers a number of ways to input an image: Create a New image with the New command; Open an image with the Open dialog or from the Organizer; Download photos from your WIA-compliant camera (or memory card? Never heard of a WIA-compliant memory card…); Scan a photo with your scanner; or Capture an image on your screen using a module within PSP that looks suspiciously like ye olde Corel Capture.

The New image dialog box looks much the same as any in an image editor with the exception of Image Characteristics. Paint Shop Pro can create a vector or raster image by choosing Raster or Vector Background Image Characteristics in the New dialog box. What this really does is assign the Background Layer to be raster or vector, but you’re still limited to X pixels wide by Y pixels high. Since raster and vector objects are automatically placed on their own raster and vector layers, it frankly doesn’t make much difference which you choose. It does come with some nice image size presets like 8x10 and 4x6, which should make things easier on beginners.

Paint Shop Pro can open no less than 72 different file types, which makes sense considering it’s a vector and bitmap editing program. What doesn’t make sense is that it will open CorelDRAW .CDR files and Photoshop .PSD files, but not Photo-Paint’s .CPT or Illustrator’s .AI files. What gives, Corel? I would, at the very least, have expected it to support a file format used by a sister program. In any case, it’s PSP’s 72 supported file formats that allow the Organizer’s drag-and-drop approach to opening files work.

Acquiring images from a WIA-compliant (that’s Windows Image Acquisition), digital camera or scanner is supported from within Paint Shop Pro, but if you’re like me and have neither you have to use a different method. For regular digital cameras, using the Windows Camera and Scanner wizard then navigating to that folder with the Organizer works just as well. For those of us with decrepit TWAIN-based scanners, there’s a TWAIN Acquire command in the File>Import menu.

Last but not least is the Capture function that allows you to take screen shots of the active window, the entire screen or just a selected portion with a mouse click or key stroke. I’m very glad to see it included right in the Learning Center and not hidden somewhere deep in the menus or even worse, in the Start menu as a separate program (*cough* Corel Capture *cough*). The capture process, however, automatically minimizes Paint Shop Pro, so unfortunately I couldn’t use it for this review.

Next, Image Adjustments
Paint Shop Pro XI has just about every image adjustment tool one would want or need. From auto-adjustments to more refined and advanced tools, there are simply too many for me to cover here. There are, however, a few adjustments that Corel touts that I’d like to comment on, and a few special tools I found interesting enough to highlight here.

First up are a few automatic controls that Corel lists on the box that claim to take all the effort away from correcting your photos. In particular the Smart Photo Fix (with its accompanying “One Step Photo Fix”) and the Digital Camera Noise Removal (and its “One Step Noise Removal”).

Figure 4: Left to Right: the original photo, after One Step Photo Fix, and after Auto Levels.

The One Step Photo Fix is the first command in the Adjust menu, and when you click on it, the adjustment is automatically made to your photo. End of story. I found this to have varying degrees of success, sometimes correcting the photo nicely and sometime failing miserably. To see what the One Step Photo Fix is doing, simply open the Smart Photo Fix dialog and click Suggest Settings. Its suggestion is what the One Step Photo Fix does. I found I got better results by adjusting the sliders myself and even better results when I click the Advanced Options box and it displayed the levels graph, allowing finer control over the brightness levels. Ultimately, I found the Auto Levels button in the Levels dialog box produced the best results (for an automatic adjustment), even though it does not change the focus like in the Smart Photo Fix.

Figure 5: Before and after One Step Noise Removal.

The One Step Noise Removal function I found to be actually quite interesting. It’s basically a regular noise and smoothing filter – nothing we haven’t seen before – but by some miracle the auto function works very well. My Sony camera gives me notoriously grainy shots, and in low light conditions I often find myself fighting to ignore the noise. The One Step Noise Removal did impressive work on just about everything I threw at it. It did create some artifacting, but the results were definitely less noisy and looked more like an actual photo than a digital image. I even have to applaud it for its attempt at removing the noise from my infrared NightShots (it wasn’t entirely successful but gets an ‘A’ for effort). I’d say for those who just want to remove some graininess from their photo before they print it, the One Step Noise Removal should work just fine. The Digital Camera Noise Removal dialog is more confusing than useful, and I recommend the standard noise removal tools found in the Adjust menu if you want more refined adjustments.

Figure 6: The Crop Tool showing preset 4x6 dimensions.

The Crop Tool is quite cool. Clicking on it brings up a rectangle over the image which you can stretch to whatever size you like (the status bar at the bottom kindly tells you the dimensions of the crop box). What I found really useful is being able to select 4x6 from the drop-down and then stretch the 4x6 box to fill the photo, thereby cropping the photo to perfect 4x6 dimensions.

Figure 7: The Straighten Tool. Make the line parallel to the crooked object and it’s rotated by that many degrees.

Figure 8: Before and after the Perspective Correction Tool. No more climbing scaffolding for me!

The Straighten and Perspective Correction Tools are also useful. Straighten gives you a line on the image which you move to parallel a line in the image that should be true horizontal (like a crooked horizon) or true vertical (like a skewed building). Click the check button in the Tool Options bar and the image is rotated and the edges cropped. The Perspective Correction Tool works in much the same way, instead giving you a box for you to manipulate to the four corners of a perspective-skewed object. Clicking on the check box squares the object or image, simulating a head-on shot.

Figure 9: The Red Eye Tool works quite well.

The Red Eye Tool works much as expected: click on the red part of the eye and the tool darkens the red to black while preserving the specular highlights.

Onto Image Editing and Effects
Just like Adjustments, there are just so many editing tools and effects filters you can use that I just can’t tell you about them all. Again though, I’d like to highlight a few features of interest.

The Makeover Tool, touted highly on the box, is really a ring-type clone tool (Blemish Fixer), a brightener brush (Toothbrush) and a tinting brush (Suntan Brush). My personal recommendation for anyone aspiring to be a photo re-toucher would be to learn the conventional clone, dodge and burn brushes, but I guess one could think of these as specialized ‘facial’ brushes.

Figure 10: With the Scratch Remover Tool I was able to remove the power lines and most of the telephone pole in about a minute.

Figure 11: The Object Remover Tool removed the boat reasonably well.

The Scratch and Object Remover tools are rightly grouped with the Clone tool on the toolbar because they’re simply slightly advanced versions of the Clone tool. The Scratch Remover is like a linear clone that samples the pixels around the line you draw and replaces the area behind the line with randomized sampled pixels. It works great on telephone lines in the sky, not so much on telephone lines across detailed clouds. The example in the manual is removing a scratch from a photo where the scratch runs across the woman’s solid, dark-colored hat. The tool probably wouldn’t work if she were wearing a patterned hat or one with feathers in it. The Object Remover works in a similar fashion. Draw an irregular outline around the object you want to replace, draw a box around the area you want to replicate, and it repeats the pattern found in the boxed area randomly within the irregular area. I used it to remove the boat from an ocean scene and got reasonably acceptable results (I would still have had to touch it up manually).

Figure 12: One sweep of the Background Eraser.

I had lots of fun playing with the Background Eraser. The box promises the ability to easily cut an object out of one photo to put in another. I found the tool took some getting used to, but once I got the hang of it, I was convinced it could be really powerful, especially for those quick-and-dirty cutouts I often do at work. The Background Eraser doesn’t actually cut the object to the clipboard or even select it for you – you still need the Magic Wand tool for that – but it does cut down a major portion of a graphic artist’s work.

Figure 13: The Color Changer works OK, but don’t expect magic things from it.

The Color Changer tool is something I eyed suspiciously when I first saw it on the box. The box features a man in a green shirt and next to it the same man in a blue shirt. The text next to it says “Change the color of anything in your photos using the Color Changer.” In the manual is a picture of a little girl with a dark dress and then a light dress. [Note to Corel: Please stop printing user manuals for graphics programs in black and white.] The caption says “One click can change the color of the girl’s dress.” These are hefty claims and I was anxious to see if they were true. In essence, the Color Changer tool is just like the Color Replacer tool that we’ve all used for ages, but in this case the program attempts to guess what the ‘base’ color is and changes it, attempting to preserve the shadows and highlights in that area. Well, after playing around with it for a while, I was, in fact, able to change the color of the shirt of someone in a photo of mine. It was, however, nowhere near as easy or straightforward as was alluded to. With a little persistence, you can in fact change an object from one color to another, and the results are actually pretty impressive. It’s just not very easy.

Other effects were pretty standard or rather ho-hum. We all know how Emboss works, and while I’m not interested in making my photos look like they’re from the 1850s or giving them frames, I did try both the Time Machine and Picture Frame features. Some people may find them entertaining. I found them safe to ignore.

Touching on Object Creation
Every graphics program has to at least let you draw stuff, and Paint Shop Pro is no exception. It has pen tools and paint brushes, crayon tools and chalk tools, square and circle tools and, of course, text creation, all of which I found to be pretty standard. One cool thing I did note is text is (naturally!) treated as a vector object, and thus is much easier to manipulate than in a regular image editor, though I did find it annoying that text has to be entered into a pop-up box even though it’s clearly being generated in real-time on the image. Why couldn’t I have just typed it on the image directly?

Figure 14: Help! There’s a pile of cars in the bushes on fire! This took about 90 seconds to draw using the Picture Tube tool.

The Picture Tube tool is one that follows the 80/20 rule: It’s 80% annoying and 20% useful. Using the Picture Tube, you paint on images of various things that are defined within a Picture Tube file like a rubber stamp. For example, a Picture Tube file could contain 5 different pictures of fire, or trees or cars. By choosing the fire, tree or car Picture Tube file, you either click to place one image or click and drag to place many randomized images. The effect is supposed to be that of a large fire composed of small flames or a forest composed of many trees or a car pileup composed of the same 5 cars. OK, so the cars one doesn’t seem too useful, but there have been many times I could have used that fire one. They also have two grass ones that could be useful. What would be really cool though, is if they allowed us to easily make our own Picture Tube files, maybe ones that had 20-50 different pictures of flames or trees (there is a way to save one image as a Picture Tube, but I don’t find that too helpful).

Then on Image Output
As opposed to input, Paint Shop Pro outputs to a mere 44 file formats, (plus some variations), this time omitting .CDR files among others, .PSD is still available though. You can also email the image, which formats it and opens your default email client with the image as an attachment, a function I would find only marginally useful.

Then there’s the print engine. You know, the print engine is more important to an image program than some might think. I know you’re reading this thinking, “Well, duh,” but you’d be surprised how often the print engine is only given a casual effort. Unfortunately, Paint Shop Pro seems to be one of those cases. The printing experience is at best ‘adequate’, and at times ‘frustrating’ (those are my official review designations). What makes this puzzling is that CorelDRAW (and Photo-Paint) have always had very strong print engines. Again, Corel, why must you shun the family so?

The very first thing I tried to do with Paint Shop Pro was open a photo and print it. That very simple task failed because PSP didn’t see my photo printer. See, I have two printers connected to my machine: a laser printer (default) for everyday use and a photo printer (secondary) for, well, printing photos. All PSP could see was my laser printer. Checking the help files and the guide confirmed that there should be a drop-down for me to select my printer, but it was mysteriously missing here. If I switched the default to my photo printer, the program saw it just fine, but I really should have been given a choice. Updating my printer driver had no effect. It was not enough of an issue for me to attempt tech support, but I still must take marks away for seeing a 10-year-old networked laser printer (seriously), but not a 2-year-old locally-connected USB photo printer. I mean, this program’s certified to ‘work with’ Vista, but not this printer? Frustrating. Once Paint Shop Pro saw my printer though, it printed great results.

I would also like to add that the Print Layout window requires the creation of Print Templates (to facilitate printing multiple images on one page) which I found annoying. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to do my layout within the program itself. Were I to do it in the print layout window, it had better have some powerful image handling tools for me to use. Most people this program is targeted at probably won’t have a problem with it though.

Until At Last, a Conclusion
After spending a bit of time with Corel’s Paint Shop Pro XI, I have to say I’m pretty impressed ovreall. PSP is in fact a very powerful image editing and creation program, even if the print engine could use some help. For my everyday graphics applications at the office, PSP would probably work for just about everything I need to do. If you’re an average user just looking to do a few alterations to photos or dabble around in a drawing program, Paint Shop Pro is clearly a better choice at a fraction of the price of even the ‘elemental’ version of its competitor. For those aspiring to be graphic artists, (and don’t have a lot of money and don’t own a Mac) Paint Shop Pro is certainly a good starting point, but you should consider saving up for one of the more professional suites, if only because it’s what everybody else is using.

Damion Chaplin is a graphic artist and digital media freak living in the San Francisco Bay Area with his brilliant and lovely wife Lorri and His Imperial Majesty “The Kitty” Grimalkin I. He did all the illustrations for this review using Paint Shop Pro XI.
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