Corel PaintShop Pro X4 Review: Capable But Overcrowded Image Editor
By Alan Stafford
At a Glance
Lots and lots of tools
Useful HDR editing
Extremely cluttered interface
Many overlapping tools
If you can wade through the clutter, you’ll find many powerful tools in this image editor.
Is your workshop like mine? 37 screwdrivers, 16 of which are nearly identical; a saw over here, a saw over there–wait, where did I leave that saw? Corel’s PaintShop Pro X4 ($100, as of October 17, 2011) is like my workshop, too–enough tools to serve the needs of almost anyone, assuming that they can find the right one for the job at hand. Though PaintShop Pro X4 is a powerful, extremely capable image-editing application, it would benefit greatly from having a ruthless cleanup crew step in and throw some stuff away.
The Commercial Kitchen Sink
That’s not to say that Corel hasn’t tried to put things into some semblance of order. PaintShop Pro X4 has a revised interface, with three large workspace tabs across the top of the screen: Manage, for photo organization; Adjust, a lead-me-by-the-nose editing mode; and Edit, which provides a vast array of manual image-editing tools. Changing from one mode to another isn’t like starting up a new application, as it is with Adobe Photoshop Elements 10, but you still have to wait while PaintShop Pro X4 shifts things around, and the application makes you save your image between mode changes. The Adjust mode doesn’t allow you to toggle before-and-after views of your edited image, but the Edit mode usually does.
Sometimes, similar tools appear in the Adjust and Edit modes, or even within the same mode. For example, in the Edit mode, the One-Step Purple Fringe Fix and the Chromatic Aberration Removal are located next to each other. But since purple fringing is usually due to chromatic aberration–though it may be the result of other factors–I’d say that Corel could safely have combined these tools. PaintShop Pro is littered with other “one-step fixes” that are obviously aimed at novices; but it also has many more-complicated tools that come with gazillions of settings. Often these tools have overlapping capabilities.
The Adjust mode includes a new Fill Light tool, which is supposed to brighten only the primary subject in your image, rather than the entire image. In my tests, it worked about as well as the Shadows command elsewhere in the Adjust mode–which, by the way, is paired with a useful Highlights command (for toning down blown-out areas of your image).
The Edit mode houses a few interesting new features. Vignette allows you to select the primary subject of your image, then blur and darken the areas around it. With it, you can create a neat “Hound of the Baskervilles” look. It worked best for me when I drew a selection around my primary subject and then opened the Vignette tool, because trying to draw a selection in the tiny dialog box was difficult.
Like a depth-of-field tool, the new Selective Focus option enables you to specify an area of your image that should be in focus; the tool feathers the selection and then blurs the rest of the image. Selective Focus would be useful for mimicking the function of your camera’s aperture setting, except that it doesn’t allow you to draw a precise selection around your subject before applying it. The effect can be very dramatic looking, in part because of the exaggerated saturation setting that PaintShop Pro X4 adds by default.
But should Corel include settings for common adjustments anywhere users might need them, even at the expense of cluttering things up, or should it put them only in one logical spot and rely on users to find them as needed in a relatively spare interface? I vote for the latter.
Footprints and Making Prints
Corel says that PaintShop Pro X4 contains more than 75 performance updates, including GPU optimizations, that improve on its predecessor, PaintShop Photo Pro X3. The application never crashed on me, and it seemed very stable. However, I found the application a little lethargic on my fairly powerful PC. Sliders would respond to my first click, but then I had to wait while the application applied the interim change before I could make further adjustments. During these operations, the screen didn’t go blank, but it often looked as though I had zoomed in all the way in and then back out. Corel says that this effect on higher-performing machines is a result of the company’s gearing the application to lower-performing computers. I found that the trait hindered my ability to make quick, precise adjustments.
According to Corel, PaintShop Pro X4 has a smaller processing “footprint”: Depending on which parts of the application you install, it may require 200MB less hard drive space. The app also supports editing 16-bit images with more tools than before (important for editing RAW files).
One area that usually requires substantial computing horsepower is high-dynamic-range (HDR) editing, which is a prominent new feature of PaintShop Pro X4 (though some competing applications offer it, too). With HDR editing, you can combine multiple exposure-bracketed images to produce a final image that incorporates the best-exposed elements of each image. So, instead of showing a landscape with an overexposed sky and underexposed shadows, the final image can display a nice blue sky and easily visible areas instead of shadows.
There’s no practical limit on the number of shots you can use for an HDR image, but the more you add, the longer PaintShop Pro X4 (or any other application) takes to process the content. I tried using 26 shots for one HDR image, just to see if the application would choke; it was certainly slow, but it did finally complete the job. Corel says that the normal number of shots is 3, 5, 7, 9, or 11 shots; and in my projects, using 3 to 5 shots worked well. The tool allows you to mask out certain elements of your composition while marking other areas as ones to include, but this feature it didn’t always work: I tried several times to mask out a lamppost, and it always appeared in the final shot. Otherwise, though, I was pleased with the results.
Another new feature lets you merge a few photos into one, so that you can include some elements and remove others. Your success with this tool will depend on the source images, of course–the less complicated the background, the better. When I tried using it on a few shots from a soccer game, a woman in the background, though mostly removed, remained easy to discern as a ghosted image. Other elements of the shots would have required extensive cloning to remove.
Like many other image- and video-editing applications, PaintShop Pro X4 supports direct uploads to your Facebook account; you can upload directly to Flickr, too. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the Facebook feature to work, because I have Facebook’s login approval feature turned on. If someone tries to log in to my account from an unrecognized device, Facebook sends a text message to me with an approval code that I must enter in order for the device or application to work. I managed to get a text message sent and to set up PaintShop Pro X4 as an approved device; but after giving me a “Success” message, PaintShop would go no further, even after I disabled the login approval feature and retried authorizing the application. Corel acknowledges the glitch and says that it is working on a fix. If you don’t have this Facebook feature turned on, PaintShop Pro X4 probably wouldn’t have any problems, since many apps offer a Facebook tie-in, and PaintShop Pro’s implementation is fairly straightforward.
Your Photos in Lights
PaintShop Pro X4 has lots of image-editing tools, many of which I found useful. But despite the revamped interface, the application still seems to take the “Wall of Sound” approach–include as many features as possible–when I think many people would prefer a more streamlined version that’s easier to use.
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