Corel certainly plays second fiddle in a lot of areas—to Microsoft in office apps, to Adobe in design and photo software, and to Nero and Roxio in multimedia authoring. But, then again, the company’s prices are far below those of the market leaders. Case in point, PaintShop Pro Photo X3 sells for a mere $99.99, compared with Adobe Photoshop’s whopping $699. To be clear, the app isn’t a direct Photoshop competitor: PaintShop Photo Pro X3 plays in a space somewhere in-between Photoshop CS4, Photoshop Elements 8, and ACDSee, offering some features of each. In fact, many who think they need the steeply priced Adobe Photoshop CS4 could get by with PaintShop Photo Pro. Corel’s suite can perform nearly all the same photo adjustments and enhancements, and it even supports Photoshop plugins.
But pros will still want the industry Adobe standard app, even at seven times the price. Photoshop Elements 8, on the other hand, is more suitable for those just entering the world of photo editing (it’s got fewer features than PaintShop, and a much easier-to-learn interface, for one thing). Corel, as a self-described “enthusiast” product, falls somewhere in between. PaintShop trails Photoshop in technological terms, too. The latter supports 64-bit operation and graphics card acceleration, and is much faster even at simple things like loading a raw image file. Despite its wealth of tools, the slowness of PaintShop was its downfall, quite noticeable even on a relatively powerful 3.16GHz Core2 Duo-based PC with 4GB of RAM running 64-bit Windows 7.
In addition to being faster, the Adobe products are more stable—I managed to crash PaintShop a couple of times on a heavily taxed yet powerful machine. At one point I was trying to open an 18MB photo, and the program generated an insufficient memory error, even though I was only using 50 percent of memory on a machine with 4GB RAM. The Adobe products I was comparing it with remained rock solid throughout testing.
PaintShop Photo Pro X3’s UI is a cluttered with icons and text. Granted, it’s got a ton of features to squeeze in, but, even so, it’s nowhere near as slick or easy on the eyes as either Adobe image editor. If you don’t like where the panels and toolbars, you can customize the PaintShop interface by setting up workspaces of palettes and toolbars, but there are no helpful presets like those in Photoshop for basic editing, analysis, 3D, typography, and so on.
When you first run the app, you see a help column of action suggestions along the left panel, which you can close once you’re adept with PaintShop. This is a big help towards getting going, and it’s similar to Photoshop Elements’ Guided editing view. Choices here include common activities like Get Photos, Adjust, Retouch, Collage, and Effects.
When it comes to importing a RAW file for editing, Photoshop Elements actually has finer control, adding vibrancy and fill light sliders, and its bigger preview and sharpening tab are plusses not offered by Corel.
PaintShop includes a Monitor Calibration Wizard, which takes you through seven screens where you make adjustments to create a color management profile for the monitor. As in Photoshop, you can also set the color working space for print and monitor, you can and configure color management profiles—advanced features not available in Photoshop Elements.
PaintShop isn’t merely an image editor. It also takes on Adobe Lightroom and ACDSee Pro 3 with its photo-management tool, Organizer, designed to let you easily scan groups of photos, tag and rate them, and open them for editing. I prefer PaintShop’s more integrated Organizer to Photoshop Elements’, which requires launching an external app, but Paintshop opens images far more slowly than Photoshop, Elements, or ACDSee. There’s also a little annoyance with PaintShop’s Organizer: When you move between it and the Editor, you’re not taken back to your last place in the Organizer’s filmstrip. Sounds like a small complaint, but it gets irritating if you’re handling a high volume of photos—another interface complaint.
PaintShop’s photo editing and enhancement capabilities rival those of Photoshop and surpass Elements’. And it makes many identical tasks easier than they’d be in Photoshop, though you can still step through detailed operations to get to the end result. Elements makes common operations as easy as PaintShop does, but it doesn’t offer the same level of drill-down.
PaintShop offers two photo editing interfaces—Express Lab and Full Editor. The Lab reminds me of a simpler photo-editing tool like Windows Live Photo Gallery; changes available here include adjusting brightness, shadows, highlights, and saturation, as well as rotating the image. For one-click photo correction, PaintShop yielded some of the best results I’ve seen, even when compared with what you get in iPhoto and Picasa.
The Full Editor’s wealth of options approaches those available in Photoshop. PaintShop brings a bunch of tools to the fore that you’d have to burrow for in Photoshop, such as High-Pass Sharpen, One Step Noise Removal, and One Step Purple Fringe Fix. The new Vibrancy control—something photo editors all seem to be getting these days, boosts color saturation on dull parts of the image while maintaining skin tones.
PaintShop lets you do some advanced image enhancements, such as combining multiple shots for HDR images and adding depth-of-field effects. . You can do a few 3D effects such as buttonize, chisel, bevel, and drop shadow, but it doesn’t work with 3D file formats such as 3DS or OBJ the way Photoshop does.
Like Photoshop, PaintShop can record a script of editing and formatting options, and then run them in batch mode to perform them on a whole gaggle of image files. Photoshop Elements offers a few canned actions, but you can’t make your own. PaintShop lacks Photoshop’s ability to take a snapshot at any point in the editing history, and Photoshop’s powerful history brush tool. Like the Adobe products, however, PaintShop does offer a history window and the ability to undo any action shown there.
Output—Printing, Web, and Creative Projects
PaintShop offers a wealth of output options, whether you want to user your image on the Web, on the screen, for editing in other programs, or for printing. But unlike Adobe, Corel doesn’t offer online galleries, though you can upload to third-party image hosts.
A multitude of file formats are supported for output, even Photoshop’s PSD. PaintShop can also save for Office, and a JPEG, GIF, and PNG optimizer works like Photoshop’s Save for Web to make quick-loading Web images that look good. There’s even a wizard to take you through the process.
PaintShop also has its own format, PSPIMAGE, as well as subtypes for drawings, animations, and more. And you can even save to Photoshop’s PSD as well as to pretty much any other image format you can think of, with the notable exception of PDF (though you can open those).
Like Photoshop, but unlike Elements or Lightroom, PaintShop Pro can print CMYK color separations for professional graphics production. The Print Layout screen offers plenty of template and layout options—Avery and other standard sizes—and lets you create custom layout templates.
Corel doesn’t host online galleries as Adobe does with Photoshop.com, and you need to run the separate Project Creator to upload to sites like Flickr. It also lets you create photobooks, calendars, cards, and slideshows. Photoshop Elements, though, has a nicer, more integrated interface for both online galleries as well as CD/DVD creation from its Share tab.
Which Photo Editor Is Right for Me?
Photoshop has a slicker interface and a bigger professional user community than PaintShop, and it and goes beyond PaintShop in support for 3D and video, as well as tools for some design professionals in highly specific niches. Just as importantly, there’s no PaintShop equivalent to Photoshop’s industry-standard, highly integrated Creative Suite stablemates (Flash, Illustrator, Lightroom, and InDesign). Finally, PaintShop lagged behind when it came to 64-bit computing and speed. All these things combine to rule out Corel’s app when it comes to the most serious users.
But for most people who want to manipulate photos, PaintShop is more than stable and capable enough. While Photoshop Elements is still our favorite consumer-level app, you can get a lot more power (in a less-slick interface), with PaintShop—for about the same price. All three apps, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and Corel PaintShop Photo Pro X3, have free trial versions available, so you can check them all out before buying.