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Corel PaintShop Pro X4 review

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £54
inc VAT

It can't quite topple Photoshop Elements, but this capable, low-cost editor has a huge amount going for it

We can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for Corel, which produces some outstanding creative software but seems to be perpetually in Adobe’s shadow. Can this latest version of PaintShop Pro finally put an end to Photoshop Elements’ reign? The short answer is no, but it’s not a complete whitewash.

There’s been a major rethink of the layout of the software, with its three workspaces – previously known as Organizer, Express Lab and Full Editor – now presented as three tabs: Manage, Adjust and Edit. The Project Creator, which handled tasks such as photo books, calendars, backups and uploads to Flickr and Facebook, has disappeared. Most of its functions are gone too, but uploads are now integrated into the Organizer tab. The bundled copy of Corel Painter Photo Essentials 4 that we liked so much in X3 is another casualty.

It’s easy to combine two photos for HDR effects

Still, upgraders needn’t uninstall these extra applications, and PaintShop Pro’s neater, more integrated layout is a big improvement. Corel also claims faster performance, although we weren’t able to make direct comparisons. Because the Manage mode didn’t bother to cache thumbnails until we asked to see them, initial browsing of our photo library was frustratingly slow. Manage mode is also fairly light on options to sort and filter the library.

There are lots of new features to help users get more from their photos. High dynamic-range (HDR) photography involves merging photos taken at different exposure settings into a single image. It’s been available since version X2, but now there’s greater control with the ability to define which bits of each image should be prioritised, and to adjust the brightness and contrast of highlights, midtones and shadows after merging. It can produce anything from subtle highlight and shadow recovery to dramatic, obviously processed images, but pictures often had a few odd-looking areas in our tests.

Photo Blend takes the effort out of combining the best bits from a set of group portraits where there’s no single photo where everyone looks normal. We had to be a little more prescriptive than we expected in order to avoid ghosting, but on the whole it worked quickly and effectively.

PSP blend
Photo blend lets you merge the best bits of a series of images into one

Selective Focus is similar to the Depth of Field effect introduced in Photoshop Elements 10. The area to keep sharp is defined by a circle or rectangular strip, so it lends itself to giving photos a miniature effect where buildings resemble model villages rather than Photoshop Elements’ ability to isolate more complex shapes. PaintShop Pro subtly varies the blur amount across the transition from sharp to blurred, rather than just manipulating sharp and blurry layers – this looks more convincing but it means the effect can’t be modified after applying.

PSP depth of field
Selective Focus lets you create depth of field effects

Adjustment layers mean it’s now possible to edit photos non-destructively, applying various filters to images but storing the filters’ settings rather than the result of applying them. This means it’s easy to go back and tweak settings later without repeated reprocessing, and also makes it easier to use multiple colour-correction processes in tandem.

PaintShop Pro has only offered development tools for raw-format pictures since version X3, but sadly, they’re not much better than the last flawed effort. It now shows a bigger preview area and includes a highlight recovery function, but there remains a paucity of other processing options and the quality of the results simply isn’t up to scratch.

PSP raw
There are editing functions for raw-format photos, but they are rather flawed

Confusingly, sending a raw file to the Adjust rather than Edit mode gave a completely different set of raw-processing tools, which were a little better in terms of both control and output quality. However, they still lagged behind Photoshop Elements’ sublime raw processing, especially for noise reduction. Even more confusingly, it seems that PaintShop Pro’s two raw-processing modes are unaware of each other. After using the Adjust tab’s controls and then clicking Edit, we were invited to Save As and then process the raw file again from scratch using the other, inferior controls.

Raw processing aside, PaintShop Pro isn’t far behind Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 for features and output quality, but it’s the little things that add up to make a big difference. PaintShop Pro often kept us waiting while it updated the preview image, which made fine-tuning effects settings laborious, and the screen lagged behind our actions during fast brush strokes. It can still claim curve-based colour correction as an advantage over Photoshop Elements, but now that both support layer masks, PaintShop Pro is no longer obviously better for advanced users. It’s not quite as strong as Photoshop Elements 10, but comes a close second.


Price £54
Rating ****

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