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Corel PaintShop Pro

Note (September 2015): A week after I last updated this review, I received an e-mail from Corel inviting me to buy the newly-released PaintShop Pro X8. I’ve received further invitations from Corel every week since then. As it has been ten years since I last bought anything from Corel, I find it rather strange that they would suddenly start sending me unsolicited advertising (which technically isn’t spam because of the previous “business relationship” I had with Corel).

A look at Corel’s Web site suggests the reason they feel a need to reach out to former customers: X8 doesn’t add much to X7. Corel claims it’s faster, and there are a few new features, including text wrapping inside shapes and support for the highest-resolution monitors. But it otherwise offers only a few minor tweaks and interface improvements, and seems mainly intended to meet Corel’s need to sell a new version every year. I can’t say whether it’s finished, fully-debugged software.

That said, I do understand the difficulty Corel— or any software developer— faces with a mature, feature-rich product like PaintShop Pro (or Photoshop). It’s a real challenge to keep adding genuinely compelling features and improvements that make users want to buy new versions. Adobe solved that problem with Photoshop by adopting a rental model that produces a continuous revenue stream. Corel doesn’t have Adobe’s market power to force users to rent its software; so they must rely on marketeers “selling the sizzle” (and a side order of spam) to create interest in their annual updates.

Corel actually offers a more sensible approach to the problem with an “Ultimate Edition” of PaintShop Pro that sells for an extra $20. Rather than trying to add compelling features directly to PaintShop Pro, it bundles other useful software. X8 Ultimate includes ON1’s Perfect Effects, Athentech’s Perfectly Clear, and Corel’s own AfterShot. Perfect Effects is a stand-alone collection of filters and effects similar to Nik/Google’s ColorEfex plug-in. I’ve tried it and can recommend it, although I prefer ColorEfex because I find a plug-in more convenient. I have not tried Perfectly Clear, but it seems rather similar to PictoColor’s iCorrect EditLab. AfterShot (formerly Bibble) is a raw converter Corel acquired when they bought Bibble Labs. It’s likely to provide a useful alternative to PaintShop Pro’s built-in raw converter, which has long been a weak point in comparison to Adobe Camera Raw that’s part of Photoshop and Elements. Even though X8 itself may not offer anything significant, the bundled software in the “Ultimate Edition” may be worth the $79 cost of an upgrade.

Note (August 2015): The last time I fully updated this review was in February 2012, for PaintShop Pro X4. The current version is X7. I’ll admit to (and apologize for) not having had much inclination to download and evaluate the trial versions of the past three annual updates.

I know that along with the usual small tweaks and dubious additions that serve the needs of marketeers selling annual releases, Corel has continued to “borrow” genuinely useful features from Adobe Photoshop. Content Aware Fill (which they call “Magic Fill”) is probably the most notable addition. They’ve also added face detection and features for social media sharing that many users may find valuable. Corel provides a summary (PDF) of what they’ve added since 2012.

The lengthy “historical” discussion that follows may still be valuable for readers who are unsure whether to choose PaintShop Pro or Adobe Elements. I relate the history because it raises valid questions about whether the apparent management priority of cranking out a new version every year allows developers to deliver the finished, high-quality, adequately-tested products that users deserve. A look at some recent user forum discussions suggests that Corel may still fall short in this area, as well as in user support.

I have also seen reports that Corel laid off the entire PaintShop Pro development team (based in Taiwan) as part of a 2014 “restructuring,” and outsourced development to contractors in unspecified locations. Corel laid off the PaintShop Pro development team once before, when they shut down Jasc Software, the original developer, soon after Corel acquired it. While this “restructuring” should clearly benefit the venture capital firm that owns Corel, the effect on the product and its users is much less clear.

For those reasons, in addition to those I discuss below, I still would choose Elements over PaintShop Pro. But PaintShop Pro nonetheless seems a good solid choice for casual photographers who want to share their memories in e-mails and social media posts. In light of Adobe’s transition of Photoshop to a “rental” model, which upset many loyal users, I really would like to see serious competition for Photoshop. But I’m still not sure that Corel has any interest in making PaintShop Pro that competitor.

I have left this review from 2012 mostly unchanged, except to update prices and links (when possible), and to update or remove some obsolete information not directly related to PaintShop Pro. I’ve also added a few [notes in brackets].

Executive Summary

Corel’s Paint Shop Pro® (“PSP”— $66, $50 upgrade from version X5 or later; Windows only) is a full-featured photo editor that’s easy and friendly even for users new to digital photography. It’s well suited for people who consider the art and craft of photography mostly incidental to the memories they’re capturing and sharing. It’s a particularly good choice for scrapbookers and others who use their family photos as a starting point for artistic projects.

Despite many powerful features that should make it a cost-effective tool for people interested in the art and craft of photography itself, PSP has some frustrating and longstanding basic deficiencies that Corel is only slowly addressing. The current X4 version has functional improvements that make it more competitive with both Photoshop Elements and Photoshop itself. Still, if you want to use color spaces beyond sRGB, better exploit the power of raw camera files, or edit in 16-bit color, Adobe’s comparably-priced and similarly-featured Photoshop Elements® would be a better choice, if you don’t want to pay $10 a month to rent the full version of Photoshop®.

Some History

I’m very ambivalent about PaintShop Pro. Beginning in 1999, I happily used four versions of it over nearly seven years to prepare the pictures on this Web site. It was an affordable alternative to Photoshop that offered plenty of image editing power in a well-designed and very usable package. Jasc Software, the original developer, seemed to be gradually driving PSP toward becoming a serious competitor to Photoshop. Then Corel bought Jasc in 2004.

In September 2005 Corel released Paint Shop Pro 10 (called “X ” even though it’s not available for Apple’s Macintosh OS X). The advertising touted color management, support for color spaces beyond sRGB, and 16-bit-per-channel editing. The absence of these features had been a longstanding weakness that limited PSP’s usefulness for the professional or serious “prosumer” photographer who wants the best and most consistent color. So I eagerly bought the upgrade.

I only gradually discovered that those new features were unfinished, with undocumented deficiencies and limitations that made them unusable for me. Even worse, Corel seemed to have prematurely released Paint Shop Pro X as “beta” software, suitable for public testing but not yet a finished product ready for sale. The help system— the only available documentation, since Corel provided only a terse “getting started” guide and no real manual— had no information about several new features, and very obviously had not been copy-edited or proofread. When I wrote to Corel’s technical support staff, they promptly acknowledged the problems. But they could provide no information about when, or even if, they planned to correct them. So with some reluctance, I concluded that Adobe’s “industry-standard” Photoshop CS2 would be a better upgrade.

Corel released Paint Shop Pro Photo XI in September 2006. It looked like a disappointingly insignificant upgrade primarily intended to serve Corel’s marketing needs. Perhaps its most impressive accomplishment was that it beat Adobe’s Elements 5.0 to market by about a month. And it added the word Photo to its name, presumably to better define it as a photo editing product. Some of XI’s new features were useful, including improved Curves and Levels tools, limited editing of video clips, and a new “image organizer” that replaced PSP X’s widely-disparaged “browser.” Other features looked like gimmicks thrown in to give an unimpressive upgrade some marketing buzz: A “skin smoother,” a “color changer,” filters that simulate different types of film, and a “time machine” that simulated the look of various antiquated photo technologies.

Starting with XI, Corel also added a feature that their marketeers understandably don’t mention. Installing PSP also stealthily installs Protexis Licensing, an anti-piracy system that runs continuously in the background even when you’re not running PSP, and remains even if you uninstall PSP. [The company that developed Protexis seems to have disappeared, at least from the Web. I don’t know what anti-piracy system Corel currently uses.]

XI did not correct any of X’s deficiencies (which I’ll discuss at some length). So what I say about PSP X also applies to XI (and also to X2 and X3, and to a lesser extent X4). And following X’s precedent, XI was released as beta software with some significant bugs, including broken PNG transparency and the inability to save 16-bit files in any format other than its native pspImage. Corel fixed those bugs four months later in the 116-megabyte “11.11” patch.

Right on schedule, Corel released PSP X2 in September 2007. It fixed 70 bugs in XI, but had 35 new “known issues” identified in its release notes. Again, it added enough gimmicks to give the marketeers some sizzle to sell, but rather little steak to justify buying an upgrade. X2 added an “express” workflow for processing batches of images, a new “theme” for its user interface, some improvements to layers, and visible watermarks. It also continued the PSP tradition of “borrowing” features from Photoshop. This time it was adjustable color filter settings for black and white conversion (inspired by the new black and white conversion tool in Photoshop CS3?), and a tool to combine multiple exposures of a contrasty scene into a “High Dynamic Range” image (first introduced in Photoshop CS2). But I do have to acknowledge the sheer brilliance of the marketeer who dreamed up the only genuinely original feature in X2: Thinify™, a tool that’s supposed to make people look thinner!

In September 2008, instead of the expected X3 beta, Corel split X2 into two editions. The “Standard” edition was last year’s model at a lower price. The “Ultimate” edition had two useful additions: Raw file support for “more than 250” cameras— they’re apparently counting Canon’s Rebel XT, 350D , and Kiss Digital n as three different cameras— and a “background remover” plug-in. To bulk up the “Ultimate” package, the marketeers also threw in some rather dubious fluff: A “creative content pack” with frames, edges, and “picture tubes;” a version of the Corel Painter drawing software “to turn photos into paintings in 3 easy steps”; PhotoRecovery LE, basic data recovery tool similar to what’s bundled with all but the cheapest memory cards; and a 2GB USB flash drive (available for $10 from mail-order vendors).

Corel finally released X3— renamed PaintShop Photo Pro— in January 2010. It was a fairly minor update to X2, mainly to support Windows 7 (along with Vista and XP ). It came in only one “edition.” Its unimpressive list of new features included basic high-definition video editing, a new object extractor, and a “Photo Project Creator” apparently aimed at the scrapbookers who have long been important users of PSP. It was also bundled with a new version of Corel Painter.

Probably the most significant improvement in X3 was a new “Camera Raw Lab” that processed raw files from 330 cameras (if I counted them correctly). It looked to be better than the raw support in previous versions; but it’s still less capable than Adobe Camera Raw, even in the simplified interface of Adobe Elements that omits some “advanced” controls. PSP X3 can process raw files only in the constricted sRGB color space (but Elements can open them in Adobe RGB with 16-bit color depth). That limitation probably isn’t significant for the intended users of PSP, but it does negate some of the benefit of using raw files. Corel apparently uses the open-source dcraw conversion engine, which explains why the impressively lengthy list of supported cameras includes some very expensive professional models (Hasselblad, Leaf, Leica, and Phase) whose owners probably would not use PSP.

Corel updated PSP X3 in January 2011 with a bug fix (version 13.2) claimed to improve performance and raw conversion; it’s a free download for X3 owners. The marketeers also repeated their X2 gimmick of an “Ultimate” edition. The X3 “Ultimate” included a renamed and (possibly) updated version of Corel Painter Essentials 4, which applies effects that make photographs look like paintings and drawings. (Both X2 and the original release of X3 included Corel Painter Photo Essentials 4, which claims the same features.) The X3 “Ultimate” also included a bundle of 24 “creative photo effect” plug-ins. But “Ultimate” did include something that might actually be valuable: a “full printed user manual,” which PSP hadn’t included since Corel took it over.

However, X3 still did not correct the deficiencies that I found to be showstoppers back in 2005, which I’ll discuss at length. Corel perhaps wisely chose not to publish a list of fixed bugs and “known issues” as they did with X2, so I can’t comment on whether it’s beta software.

Corel released X4 in September 2011. Although previous versions mainly piled on the gimmicks, X4 offers an impressive array of improvements that should be genuinely useful— assuming they’ve been adequately tested and debugged. Among them are dual-monitor support, improved creation of multiple-exposure HDR images, a “photo blend” tool to combine elements from different pictures of the same scene, and improvements to performance and usability. It finally provides full support for many Photoshop plug-ins, including iCorrect EditLab Pro. Some thirty tools gain 16-bit capability, though there are still some significant omissions, including “Clarify” and the all-important Thinify™. It “borrows” half of Photoshop’s very useful Highlights/Shadows tool, with a new “fill light” tool to brighten shadows. And its file manager can upload pictures directly to Facebook and Flickr. Corel also removed the word Photo from the product’s name, so it’s now PaintShop Pro.

As with previous versions, Corel offers an “Ultimate” edition of PSP X4. For an additional $20 it includes a version of Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3.0 plug-in. I use (and highly recommend) the full Photoshop version of this plug-in, and it’s certainly more than enough to justify buying the “Ultimate” edition (even if the plug-in isn’t the latest version). The “Ultimate” package also includes 21 royalty-free images from Fotalia, presumably for use with scrapbooking or crafts projects; and one custom printed photo book from Blurb® (“shipping and taxes not included”). [In typical Corel fashion, these add-ons were all dropped and replaced in subsequent versions.]

Strangely, no “professional” review of PSP I’ve seen in the paper or electronic press even mentions the shortcomings. Did any of the authors actually use the program? So I will discuss the deficiencies at some length, to help potential buyers and upgraders make an informed decision.

A Full Toolbox

How does PSP compare with Adobe’s Photoshop products? I’d call it comparable to the $100 Photoshop Elements. Though similar in capability to Elements, it has some useful features Adobe omitted: notably scripting, tool presets, channel mixer, and a fully-functional Curves adjustment (Elements 5.0 finally included a lobotomized version of Curves). But it lacks the commercial printing, pervasive 16-bit color, and complete color management capabilities of the full Photoshop.

Corel has tailored PSP for the user who is new to digital photography, emphasizing a friendly and easy user interface. An “Express Lab” quickly makes common corrections, and may be all that’s needed for many images. A “Learning Center” patiently guides novices through more complicated tasks; it can be turned off if you don’t need it. There is also digital camera noise reduction, red-eye removal tools, and basic support for video clips.

Since its debut in 1991 (as a tool for converting between image formats), PSP has continuously “borrowed” a rich subset of Photoshop’s advanced features, including the myriad flavors of layers, palettes, tools, and filters. When I made the transition from PSP to Photoshop CS2, I found that the learning curve was more about adjusting to a different approach, interface, and details than about learning new or different ways to do common tasks. Much of it was amazingly familiar.

PSP includes a full set of classic Photoshop-inspired manual adjustment tools (Curves, Levels, Histogram, Channel Mixer, Hue/Saturation/Lightness; most of them are also available in adjustment layers) along with a suite of automated and semi-automated photo enhancement tools to easily adjust color balance, contrast, and saturation. The manual adjustments aren’t complete implementations of their Photoshop counterparts, but they’re close enough.

There are also handy tools to correct common lens distortions, remove scratches and red-eye, and straighten crooked horizons (the last is much better than Photoshop’s old two-step Ruler and Crop; it remains friendlier than the new automatic cropping in CS5’s Ruler tool). PSP X added a set of “Makeover Tools” for beautifying portraits and people pictures; and “Object Remover,” a very useful enhancement to the Clone Brush that replaces unwanted objects with a background you designate (Photoshop CS5’s “content-aware” Spot Healing Brush and Fill tools finally caught up with and surpassed PSP’s “Object Remover”).

Some of the Photoshop-inspired tools are more powerful and convenient than the Photoshop equivalents. The Unsharp Mask tool, used for sharpening, is a good example. The PSP version includes a check box to select luminance-only sharpening. That option ignores color, so it allows more sharpening without halos and artifacts and usually allows better (and smaller) JPEG compression. Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask lacks this option, so luminance-only sharpening is unduly complicated: Immediately after using Unsharp Mask, you have to select “Fade Unsharp Mask” from the “Edit” menu, scroll down to the bottom of a large pull-down menu to select “Luminance,” and finally click “OK.”

Most tools let you save adjustment settings as presets to use later for similar images. The presets are perhaps the simplest example of a scripting facility that lets you record and name a sequence of operations that you can play back whenever you need it. Unless you’re a programmer, you don’t need to know that PSP stores the presets and recorded sequences as scripts in the Python programming language. If you are a programmer you can edit the scripts or create them from scratch.

Clarify, and Some Bells and Whistles

PSP’s “Clarify” is a unique and valuable photo enhancement tool. Corel’s literature claims that it’s a new feature in X4, but it’s actually been present since version 7. Regardless, the PSP documentation has been rather taciturn about what “Clarify” actually does. It seems to redistribute brightness and contrast throughout an image to improve the subjective and intangible properties of “snap,” “clarity,” or “impact.” The effect is similar to the local contrast enhancement technique that uses Unsharp Masking with a large radius, but there’s more to it than that.

With some images, “Clarify” can almost miraculously improve shadow detail while toning down overly bright highlights. Other images turn garish and blotchy, with odd halos and hidden noise glaringly revealed; this is particularly a problem with outdoor scenes that include sky. You can often avoid these problems by masking out the sky in the picture before trying “Clarify,” but there’s no way to predict what you’ll get. “Clarify” is worth trying on every image after you’ve finished adjusting the color balance and histogram. The result will either delight or horrify. Corel describes “Clarify” as an alternative to other sharpening effects, but it’s still necessary to sharpen the final image.

For Photoshop users, Adobe Camera Raw’s “Clarity” slider in CS3 and later versions is similar to PSP’s “Clarify,” but there’s no comparable adjustment or tool in Photoshop itself. A tool that provides a similar effect is the “Tonal Contrast” filter in Google’s Color Efex Pro. With the proper settings, the enhancement effect can be truly spectacular, better than either PSP “Clarify” or simple local contrast enhancement. This plug-in, which includes 54 other filters, supports 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Photoshop for Windows and Macintosh. It’s part of Google’s “Nik Collection,” which includes six other useful plug-ins. Before Google bought Nik Software, the original developer, the “Complete Edition” of Color Efex Pro (the only version that included the “Tonal Contrast” tool) had a jaw-dropping $300 price tag. Google now offers the entire bundle of seven Nik plug-ins for $149. It’s well worth buying. [The “Ultimate” edition of PSP X4 included the previous version (3.0) of Color Efex Pro. But following their usual practice, Corel dropped it in X5. The $85 “Ultimate Edition” of the current X7 includes Athentech Imaging’s Perfectly Clear, a one-click “intelligent photo correction” tool; and Reallusion’s FaceFilter3, a portrait retouching tool.]

For monochrome aficionados, PSP includes a black-and-white conversion tool that simulates the colored filters traditionally used to emphasize specific tones in the picture. It’s easier than doing the same thing with the Channel Mixer tool. A related tool simulates the look of infrared black and white film, turning green vegetation a ghostly glowing white and adding a specified amount of grain. Though it clearly belongs in the “bells and whistles” category, “Infrared Film” can be quite effective for certain pictures (and I’ve found that it works better than any infrared-simulating plug-in or Photoshop action I’ve seen). [The Color Efex Pro plug-in includes a rather powerful black and white conversion tool. The “Nik Collection” bundle also includes Silver Efex Pro, a separate plug-in specifically for “darkroom-inspired” black and white conversion.]

PSP allows nearly limitless customization of the user interface “workspace” to organize all those tools the way that’s best for you. There are seven pre-loaded toolbars, but if you keep them all open you’ll clutter the screen needlessly. It’s better to use the “Customize” tool to add, delete, or move the commands you use most often in the standard toolbar and pull-down menus. For example, I removed the icon to open a TWAIN scanner, but added an icon to reduce a 16-bit image to 8 bits. The standard toolbar includes an “Enhance Photo” button that contains a pull-down menu for putting photo-related tools in one convenient place.

The Complaint Department

The new 16-bit and color management features of PSP X looked compelling enough for me to buy the upgrade the day after Corel announced it. With any software, the impulsive early adopter inevitably risks volunteering for an unpaid job as a tester. PSP X demonstrated this risk more than most software. The implementation of those features was (and remains) frustratingly incomplete.

Most tools for adjusting color balance, density, and curves work with 16-bit images, as do most types of adjustment layers. But some essential tools do not, including the Histogram Adjustment, Edge-Preserving Smooth, Salt and Pepper Filter, and Chromatic Aberration Removal. You need to convert the image to 8-bit color before you can use them; otherwise you’ll get a warning and an option to do the conversion with one button click. You might be able to work around the limitations by using the tools that do support 16-bit color before reducing the image to 8 bits and using the other tools, even if that’s not the order you prefer.

Corel didn’t implement 16-bit color, color management, or EXIF metadata for plug-ins until PSP X4 (presumably to support the Color Efex Pro plug-in bundled with the “Ultimate” edition). In PSP X, XI, X2, or X3, plug-ins are “grayed out” on the Effects menu and unavailable when editing a 16-bit image. Plug-ins do work once you’ve reduced the image to 8 bits.

Another significant flaw in PSP’s color management is the lack of a command to convert images between color spaces. When you’re working in Adobe RGB (or another color space other than sRGB), you can’t easily convert an image to sRGB so it will look right in Web browsers, e-mail clients, and other software that doesn’t support color management. Saving files for Web or e-mail use is such a common scenario that Corel really needs to “borrow” some form of Photoshop’s “Convert Profile” command. [I checked the User Guide for PSP X7. It looks like Corel still hasn’t provided a way to convert between color spaces.]

But there is a kludgey workaround. Save the file as a TIFF or pspImage file with an embedded profile (along with JPEG, those are the only formats for which PSP supports embedded color profiles— another undocumented secret). Then close the file, reset the color profile in PSP to sRGB, re-open the file, and select the “Use embedded profile” radio button when the color profile mismatch warning appears. That makes PSP convert the Adobe RGB image into sRGB when it opens the file; any versions you subsequently save will be in the sRGB color space. Just be careful not to overwrite the original file, and remember to reset the color profile when you’re done.

To their credit, Corel’s technical support representatives quickly acknowledged the deficiencies when I asked about them. One of them even pointedly noted that “color space support is new to Paint Shop Pro X and we are still working to iron out any discrepancies.” But Corel doesn’t seem in any pressing hurry to finish the ironing. Color space support remains wrinkled.

If you’ve found the previous six paragraphs incomprehensible, the point is that PSP is clearly intended for the vast majority of digital photographers, who capture family memories as JPEG files in the Web-standard sRGB color space. That’s the most likely reason why Corel has made support for other color spaces and 16-bit functionality a much lower priority than adding features like Thinify™. Those shortcomings might not matter for most users, but you should be aware of them. They could matter if your interest in photography ever increases to the point where they do become a limitation. They’re a showstopper for for me because I use raw files exclusively, edit them in 16-bit color in the Adobe RGB color space (and sometimes ProPhoto) on profiled and calibrated monitors, and convert the finished images to sRGB for Web use.

There is considerable controversy in on-line photography forums about the merits of raw files and color spaces other than sRGB, which offer more tolerance for imperfect exposure and a wider range of colors, at the cost of more complicated (and potentially error-prone) processing. I’ll only say that using them happens to suit my working style and preferences, but I’ll never claim that my approach is best for everyone. Photographer and writer Ken Rockwell makes compelling arguments for JPEG and sRGB, with which I mostly disagree. But many of his pictures are technically and artistically beautiful, which is ultimately what matters. I’ll certainly agree with his frequently-stated assertion that it’s the photographer who makes the picture, not the camera— and also not the file format, color space, or image editing software.

Paved With What Intentions?

Corel Corporation bought Jasc Software, the original developer of PSP, in October 2004. Corel is something of a hospice, mortuary, and cemetery for a diverse collection of products acquired from troubled or bankrupt companies. WordPerfect, once the dominant word processor, is probably the best-known example. Corel acquired it from Novell, whose management got it from the bankrupt original developer and then all but destroyed it (and their company) in an inept scheme to challenge Microsoft. Thanks to its remaining loyal users, WordPerfect hangs on with a marginal share of the “office suite” market thoroughly dominated by Microsoft. (The increasingly popular LibreOffice, a free near-clone of Microsoft Office, could well be the coup de grâce for WordPerfect.)

Corel had its own soap-opera history of brushes with bankruptcy, until a venture capital firm acquired the majority of its stock in 2003 and apparently stabilized its financial condition. In 2008 there was talk about selling Corel, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the venture capital firm acquired the rest of Corel’s stock and now fully controls the company.

The acquisition of Jasc and PSP coincided with the near-simultaneous release of PSP 9 and Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 3. The new Elements added (limited) 16-bit support, Photoshop’s renowned Adobe Camera Raw plug-in that reads raw files for a wide range of digital cameras, and a revamped user interface. PSP 9 was essentially a minor update to PSP 8, apparently rushed to premature release so Corel could announce a new product along with the acquisition. So I had every reason to expect that PSP would meet a fate similar to that of WordPerfect, especially considering that Corel was already selling several competing image-editing programs.

With the release of PSP X nearly a year later, Corel’s promotional materials made it look like they intended to actively promote and improve PSP, giving Adobe some serious competition. After I saw the prematurely-released and poorly-documented software, I was thoroughly puzzled about what Corel was trying to do. I was even more puzzled when they bought Ulead in 2006, and added its line of imaging and video software to their collection. Corel still offers Video Studio, formerly a Ulead product, but Ulead’s other imaging software looks to have gone to the Corel Cemetery.

With PSP X, Corel quietly killed Paint Shop Pro Studio, introduced with version 9 as a simpler and lower-priced photo editor and organizer for casual digital snapshooters. Corel filled that place in the product line with a new version of Corel Photo Album. Along with basic image editing functions, it provides tools for cataloging and archiving image files along with “creative projects” like scrapbooks and greeting cards. Those functions complement PSP’s, so Corel included a somewhat stripped-down version of Photo Album in the PSP X bundle. I never installed Photo Album, so I can’t say anything about it.

With PSP XI, Corel introduced Snapfire. Corel’s Web site unfortunately didn’t make the distinction between this and Photo Album very clear. Like Photo Album, Snapfire offered basic photo editing tools for family snapshots, an image organizer, and various templates for calendars, collages, and “creative” projects. PSP XI included a stripped-down version of Snapfire rather than Photo Album. Corel later released that version of Snapfire as a free basic imaging program. For some unfathomable reason, the free release reportedly also installed Protexis Licensing.

Just to keep everyone confused, Corel re-branded Snapfire as MediaOne Plus in 2007. PSP X2 included a stripped-down version without DVD production capabilities. The current incarnation is called Corel PaintShop Photo Express (they’ll probably remove the word Photo when they update it, if they don’t replace it with something else). I don’t have enough interest in it to investigate its genealogy.


If you make your living from digital graphic arts and work with commercial printing— or if you’re a Macintosh user, as PSP is available only for Windows— you’ll definitely need to pay the monthly or annual fee to rent Photoshop.

When I got started with digital photography in 1999, PSP was the only real option for anyone who wanted most of Photoshop’s features at an affordable price. But since then Adobe came out with Photoshop Elements. They’ve continually improved it to where it’s now fully competitive with PSP in features, usability, and price— though you’d have to do without Thinify™ and the related tools for whitening teeth and giving skin a virtual suntan.

Despite the significant improvements in PSP X4, I would favor Elements over PSP because it includes Photoshop’s color management system that supports the Adobe RGB color space, along with the excellent Adobe Camera Raw converter (though with a simplified user interface). That would make it the best choice for users interested in using their camera’s raw files and getting the most out of them, and for anyone with a properly-calibrated monitor.

Other potential advantages of Elements include a closer resemblance to Photoshop, which should make the transition easier if you decide to take that plunge. Adobe has a much better track record than Corel when it comes to releasing finished software, and also for timely updates of raw file support for new cameras. (That’s the reason for the lengthy recounting of PSP history at the beginning of this review.) The collection of third-party books about Elements is far more extensive than what’s available for PSP. And Adobe seems a much more stable and grounded company than Corel.

Conversely, PSP may be a better choice if you’re more interested in sharing and enhancing your family memories than in photography itself. If you’re like most digital photographers, and use JPEG files from the camera in the Web-standard sRGB color space, PSP offers everything you’re likely to need in a very friendly, very easy to use package. PSP is particularly popular with scrapbookers and others who use pictures in arts and crafts projects.

If you choose PSP, be aware that no other software fully supports its unique native .pspImage file format. If you switch to Photoshop in the future, you may not be able to read files you saved in that format. Instead, use TIFF for archiving image files. It supports all the advanced PSP features; and just about every program that edits or displays images can read it.

The Australian company Telegraphics has a free Photoshop plug-in that can read (and write) .pspImage files, and also the .psp format PSP used before version 8. It’s available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, as well as a Macintosh version. Its main limitation is with files that contain multiple layers: It can read only one layer, and will ask you which one you want. I also don’t know whether it can read profile information for color spaces other than sRGB. Telegraphics considers it “beta” software that may or may not work. I wasn’t able to get 32-bit Photoshop CS5 to even load the plug-in, but the 64-bit version updated in May 2011 works correctly with 64-bit CS5. But I’ve only tried it with .psp files I created with PSP version 5 in 1999 and 2000, before I switched to TIFF and PNG.

If you can’t get the Telegraphics plug-in to work, the excellent freeware file viewer IrfanView can read and view PSP files and convert them to TIFF or JPEG. You’ll need to download and install its free plug-in package. It too can only read one layer of a file with multiple layers, but it doesn’t let you choose which layer.

I enjoyed using PSP for nearly seven years, and I really did like many of the improvements Corel made in X. I wish I could continue using it, as in many ways it’s more pleasant to use than Photoshop.

Regrettably, Corel seems to have spent six years trying to figure out what to do with PSP. The (unfinished) features in PSP X suggested they wanted to compete with Adobe for serious “prosumer” digital photographers. But the gimmicky features they added to XI, X2, and X3— while leaving PSP X’s advanced features unfinished— suggested they might have intended to focus on snapshooters and scrapbookers and leave the “prosumers” to Adobe. The name change with each new release, and the continual juggling of associated bundled products, suggested confusion at Corel.

With PSP X4 they now seem to have returned to directly competing with Elements, and perhaps even with Photoshop. If that’s the case, giving increasingly arrogant Adobe serious competition can only be good for consumers. But all the past dithering and fiddling makes it difficult to predict where Corel is actually headed. The only thing I can say with confidence is that they lost me as a customer when they sold me the inexcusably unfinished PSP X. Subsequent versions have yet to convince me of their ability to provide finished, adequately debugged software.

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Pixmantec RawShooter Essentials

Pixmantec was a Danish company that developed and sold RawShooter, an innovative viewer and converter for digital camera raw files. RawShooter Essentials was the free version, powerful enough for professional use. RawShooter Premium was the paid version that added a number of useful features.

Adobe bought Pixmantec at the end of June 2006. They made a public relations blunder when they abruptly “vaporized” RawShooter Premium, greatly angering its loyal and vociferous users. After several weeks, Adobe announced that Premium owners would receive a free copy of Lightroom 1.0 when that was released. The marketeers seem to have done a brilliant if belated job of converting the Pixmantec customers they carelessly snubbed into eager gamma testers for the first Lightroom release.

Adobe took down the Pixmantec Web site and the official RawShooter downloads in February 2007. But you can download Essentials from this unofficial Raw Shooter Resources page. If that page isn’t available, type RawShooter Essentials 2006 download in a search engine to find other sources. The final release (with support for Canon’s 30D) is “version 1.2.1 build 72.” The Resources page also has the final version of Premium, but that’s effectively useless because it’s no longer possible to buy a new registration key.

Essentials remains a great raw converter at a great price (free) if you’re using an old camera that was on the market at the beginning of 2006 or earlier. But the list of cameras it does not support grows every day. That list includes Canon’s 5D (Mark I, II, and III), 40D, 50D, 60D, 70D 7D, S90, S95, S100, S110, S120, 600D/Digital Rebel T3i, 550D/Digital Rebel T2i, 500D/Digital Rebel T1i, 450D/Digital Rebel XSi, and 400D/Digital Rebel XTi, 450D/Rebel XSi, 500D/Rebel T1i, 550D/Rebel T2i, 600D/Rebel T3i, 650D/Rebel T4i, 700D/Rebel T5i, 750D/Rebel T6i, 100D/Rebel SL1; Nikon’s D40, D40x, D60, D80, D90, D3, D3x, D4 D300, and D300S and D800. There’s also no support for any current Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, or Sony Alpha models. Both RawShooter versions can read DNG files, but that won’t save them from obsolescence. The implementation is incomplete, so it works only with cameras for which it can read native raw files.

Raw Shooter Essentials requires on-line registration with a Pixmantec server that no longer exists. Each time you start an unregistered copy, it will display a nag screen while it attempts to contact the registration server. While there’s no official solution to this problem, the Raw Shooter Resources page includes a “Fixup Utility” that “writes a key to your registry to indicate that RSE has been registered.” I haven’t tried it, but I would recommend making a complete system backup before running it.

Adobe assimilated some of Pixmantec’s innovations into version 4 of Adobe Camera Raw, used in Lightroom, Photoshop CS3, and Elements. Those include the adjustments for “Fill Light” (which selectively lightens shadows) and “Vibrance” (which selectively adjusts the saturation of unsaturated colors). But Adobe clearly intends for the “legacy” Pixmantec products themselves to disappear quietly into oblivion.

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