If you're interested in buying new photo editing software, are there really any other good options out there except for Adobe Photoshop? Actually, there is one, and it's Corel's PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate. As we'll see in this review, while Corel's product is not Photoshop, it is a highly worthy (and a much lower cost) alternative.
When it comes to photo editing software, there's an 800-pound gorilla in the room with "shop" in the name. It isn't Corel's PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate, reviewed here. The gorilla is made by Adobe, and it's called Photoshop. Photoshop is very expensive, and it's the industry standard. I can report, though, that the much less costly PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate combines powerful photo editing and design features that are comparable to Photoshop's with easy-to-use filter effects and photo management features you won't find in Photoshop.
The retail box version of PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate comes with two DVDs, one containing the main program and the other a set of filter effects and other frills that distinguish the Ultimate version, at $99.95 list, from the regular version, list priced at $79.99.
I installed PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate on a relatively humble Acer Aspire One mini-notebook running Windows 7 with an AMD-50 processor (dual core, 1-GHz) and 2 GB of RAM. This barely met the system requirements, but the program installed and ran almost without a hiccup.
When you first launch PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate a splash screen appears indicating that this is actually version 15 of the program. I was delighted to find that the software does not first try to organize your entire photo library. Instead, it very politely asks which file types to associate with the application, the suggestion being "none," which I accepted.
Then, a pop up window tells you that you must register for the Corel Community to read the onscreen Corel Guide. This is similar to the way the Corel VideoStudio Pro program works, and it's one of the only drawbacks, especially if you install the program onto a computer that does not always have Internet access. But most users will probably consider this complaint to be minor, and there are plenty of onscreen tips and instructions available offline even without the full guide.
Three main tabs along the top of the screen let you choose between Manage, Adjust, and Edit, with the program opening on the Manage tab showing what's in the "My Photos" folder. A "Browse More Folders" option lets you choose different directories to look through. A very cool dual monitor mode, accessible from the View menu, lets you keep the Manage tab open all the time on one screen, while using Adjust or Edit on the other.
In the single-screen Manage mode, the selected picture appears in the middle while others in the directory appear filmstrip-style along the bottom. On the right of the screen are windows for Info about the selected photo (such as which camera it was taken with, location information, etc.) and "Instant Effects," pictured in one of the screenshots at right. (To see expanded views of screenshots, please click on the images.)
Dozens of effects are listed in "Instant Effects," including effects for black and white, artistic effects, film styles, landscapes, portrait (skin tones and effects), retro, traditional, and "user-defined."
As soon as you apply an effect, the program asks if you want to save a copy of the unmodified original photos, which you should definitely do so you have a backup in case you don't like your changes. There is an undo button available for these effects, although it's hidden in the Instant Effects menu. It's labeled "revert current editing," and it gets rid of all the applied effects all at once. You can't remove them one at a time.
The photo management options along the bottom strip are also extensive. These include face recognition software which lets you locate photos of the same subject, as well as organize photos by time period or location. You can also share photos or albums with online services such as Facebook, Flickr and Google+. You can either upload full resolution or reduced resolution versions of the photos.
Where To Find the Photo Editing 'Basics'
The Adjust tab is where you'll find what most beginners would consider the guts of photo editing: adjusting brightness, contrast, colors, cropping, etc. A histogram appears in the upper left corner of the screen mapping red, blue, and green light in the image.
A simple but very useful drop down list of presets in the crop menu lets you change cropping free form, as most other photo editing programs do. However, it also includes several aspect ratio presets, such as 16 x 9, square, and 3 x 5. These are quite useful if you're planning to print the image or use it as part of a video production.
A tool called "Smart Photo Fix" suggests adjustments to the image. I tried this on a few images but I really didn't like these suggestions all that much. More useful, I thought, was the Fill Light/Clarity adjustment here, which lets you adjust sharpness and change the brightness of the background while leaving the main subject untouched. (That's their definition of fill light, not a photographer's!)
More sophisticated adjustments here include digital noise removal, local tone mapping (grouping blocks of pixels together and creating high contrast effects), and high pass sharpen (adjustable sharpening). A red-eye removal tool is also on hand. An Edit drop down menu lets you undo each adjustment, as well as quickly revert back to the original.
When it comes time to save the modified image, PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate offers dozens of file types, including of course all the familiar ones like jpg, tif, bmp, etc. Corel also offers its own format, which retains all the editing information so you can continue working on an image. Also offered are several Macintosh-compatible formats. Most significantly, however, the all-important psd Photoshop file format is included, which means you can be compatible with the rest of the world.
Speaking of Photoshop, it is the third Edit tab where the full power of PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate becomes apparent, and where comparisons to the 800-pound gorilla become relevant. This is where you'll find Photoshop-style layers, including all of the previously mentioned effects and adjustments and a zillion more, as well as a titling tool, shape tools, freehand drawing tools and brushes, and much more.
Among many other noteworthy features, the familiar Magic Wand tool from Photoshop is present here, allowing you to quickly select irregularly shaped objects within an image. Unfortunately, this was the one hiccup I experienced. The program crashed the first time I used the Magic Wand, though when I re-launched the program and tried it again the Magic Wand worked fine. just like the Photoshop version. (Also, in fairness, as I finished testing and shut the program down I was informed that an update is available; I have no idea whether this update would have prevented the crash.)
The options in the Edit section are many, organized into menus labeled Adjust (as previously described, plus more choices like smart photo fix, depth of field, and chromatic aberration removal); Image (includes rotations, borders, resize, color depth, grayscale, and watermarking); Effects (such as photo effects, 3D effects, artistic effects, distortion effects, edge effects, geometric effects, illumination effects, image effects, reflection effects, and texture effects); Layers (vector layer, raster layer, art media layer, and mask layer), and Objects. The choices in Objects let you align objects vertically or horizontally, make them the same size, arrange them, and convert text to curves.
Changing People's Facial Expressions
The adjustments and creative options here are so expansive that it's very hard to imagine why you'd need Photoshop, other than for bragging rights, for professional purposes, or if you only own a Mac. (Unlike Adobe Photoshop, PaintShop Pro X5 is available for Windows only.)
The second installation disc adds three separate items, each requiring a separate installation. These include NIK Color Efex Pro 3, FaceFilter Studio 2, and Ultimate Creative Collection. The NIK Color Efex shows up at the bottom of the Effects menu as a plug-in. (This takes a bit of figuring out.) It then launches as a separate program with its own wide variety of effects, such as fog, glamour glow, Polaroid transfer, pastel, and many, many more. After you create an effect, the image transfers back into the main PaintShop Pro program.
The FaceFilter Studio 2 installation requires a separate serial number, which is provided with the disc. This installation is rather slow, but of course, the speed depends on which optical drive you're using.
FaceFilter Studio 2, a completely separate program, lets you change people's facial expressions. You set four points on a photo of someone's face, and then you can choose from a wide array of expressions such as smile, cool, confident, kind, angry, and so forth. The program makes subtle adjustments to the eyes and mouth to achieve these results.
The Ultimate Creative Collection takes the longest time to install, and perhaps adds the least. It consists of stock photos, brushes, and textures which can be used with the main program.
PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate has two big advantages over Photoshop: a lower price and easier-to-use modes for beginners who might be intimidated by working with layers. PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate is a versatile, pro-quality full-featured photo editing program which even demanding, experienced Photoshop users will find perfectly capable. It crashed once on my underpowered mini-notebook during many hours of testing, but other than that I can find very little here on the down side.
The current version of Photoshop CS6 for Windows lists for $699 from Adobe. At just $99.99 list price -- discounted to $79.99 on the Corel web site when we went to press with this review -- PaintShop Pro X5 Ultimate is an extraordinary value. Free trials of the downloadable version of Corel's top-of-the-line photo editing package are available on the Corel site.