By Jerry Jackson
Corel recently released the newest version of its image editing suite, Corel Paint Shop Photo Pro X3. The new "X3" gives enthusiast digital photographers an entirely new set of tools to unlock their creative potential. Packed with applications for downloading, viewing, sorting, and editing/processing images, is X3 truly a better alternative to Photoshop?
As with previous releases of the Paint Shop series, Corel promises in their advertisements that X3 is an easy-to-use, powerful image editor at an affordable price. Retailing for just $99 or less, X3 is certainly a viable option for consumers who are also considering products from Adobe. What sets X3 apart from the competition is a wide array of old and new features (some of which are unique to Corel).
Below is an overview and review of some of the new and updated features in X3 along with sample images to illustrate the pros and cons of this affordable application.
The New Organizer
The new Organizer interface is the first thing you'll see when using X3 and it's a very intuitive image management tool. Think of the Organizer like a hybrid of Adobe Lightroom and Microsoft Picture Manager. You can view images in a variety of ways, tag photos with keywords, rate photos so you can sort them according to quality, you can view the EXIF data, convert RAW images to another file format, and even apply basic edits to multiple images using the Express Lab.
Updated Express Lab
This streamlined editing mode was first introduced in Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 to help photographers edit multiple photos at the same time, but Corel added a few new features to the mix in Paint Shop Photo Pro X3. New features include adjusting color balance (white balance correction), local tone mapping (increasing the dynamic range in part of your photo), a new sharpen tool that lets you selectively sharpen parts of the image, and one step noise removal that removes random color noise and artifacts from your images. All the other common tools such as crop, rotate, red-eye removal, makeover/blemish removal, brightness, saturation, and other quick fix tools are still available inside this interface.
New RAW Lab
One of my chief complaints about the previous version of Paint Shop was the complete uselessness of the limited RAW editor. When I heard that Corel included a new RAW Lab feature in X3, I was eager to give it a try. Adobe Camera RAW is one of the main reasons I use Photoshop, so if Corel's RAW Lab works as advertised I might have a reason to switch.
Unlike compressed image formats like JPEG, RAW images record more color, greater dynamic range (more shadow detail and more highlight detail), and allow you to easily change the white balance during post-processing in case you used the wrong white balance when you took the photo. X3 supports a wide range of RAW image formats used my most digital cameras. I tested the new RAW Lab with RAW files from multiple Nikon and Pentax cameras and the software opened the RAW files without any problems.
Unfortunately, the RAW image editor built into X3 is once again not as functional as it could be. You can adjust exposure, brightness, saturation, shadows, sharpness, white balance and noise reduction, but the level of control isn't as in depth as what is offered with Adobe's RAW editor. The lack of cropping tools, highlight recovery, or independent color channel adjustments might be frustrating to some users. So, if you "need" a variety of controls when editing RAW images then X3 may not be the best program for you to use at this time.
New "Smart Carver" Tool
This brand new feature promises to "seamlessly remove objects from an image with professional quality." Smart Carver is essentially a modified version of the standard object remover tool previously seen in Paint Shop but it's also supposed to let you expand or contract objects without distortion. In practice, the Smart Carver tool isn't as smart as it could be. You can easily select the area or object that you want to remove from your image, but when you actually "carve" out that section of the photo the remaining image clearly looks as if something was removed. There are undoubtedly situations where this tool will be useful, but I suspect the smart carver tool won't be commonly used by most consumers.
This improved color saturation tool lets you boost color in the least saturated areas of a photo without affecting the rest of the image. This tool is extremely useful for high ISO images that usually suffer from reduced color saturation as a trade off for improved low-light sensitivity. I found the vibrancy tool to be the perfect fix for under-saturated skin tones in my high ISO shots.
New Project Creator
The Project Creator is an extremely simplified user interface that lets you create photo books, collages, photo calendars and more with a few simple clicks. My personal favorite project is the collage creator, which makes it remarkably simple to print a collage poster of your best images.
Corel's Depth Of Field (DOF) Control isn't a new or improved feature but it's one of the reasons I think Paint Shop is an attractive alternative to Photoshop. One of the common problems with compact digital cameras is the lack of shallow depth of field (DOF). In other words, if you take a portrait of someone standing in front of a building with a compact digital camera then both the subject and the background will look sharp and in focus. In that case, the background is distracting and takes attention away from your subject. With a shallow DOF you can "blur" the background while leaving your subject in focus. X3 gives you the tool to draw attention to the main subject in your image by creating this simulated DOF effect.
Photo Aging Tools
This is once again a feature seen in previous releases of Paint Shop, but is a quick and easy way to add an artistic look to your images. A unique and easy-to-use feature in X3 is the ability to apply aging filters to your images and make them look like film images from decades long ago. The "Time Machine" feature gives you a choice of seven different historical periods to give your photos some creative effects. You can also customize the preset options to give your images a unique look ... such as combining saturated colors with a late 1800's style vignette.
Compatibility with Photoshop Plug-ins
An excellent feature in Corel's Paint Shop Photo Pro series that doesn't get much attention is compatibility with "most" Photoshop plug-ins and filters. Many creative plug-in filters such as those from Nik Software or Imagenomic are 100 percent compatible with X3, so you can use many of the same creative tools used in Adobe Photoshop. However, not all plug-ins are fully compatible with X3 and X3 cannot use Photoshop Actions or Scripts. Bottom line, check with the plug-in manufacturer to confirm X3 compatibility.
Minimum System Requirements
Corel lists some pretty standard minimum requirements in order to run X3. We tested the software on a number of desktop and notebook PCs with a variety of hardware configurations. The minimum system requirements are:
In general Paint Shop Photo Pro X3 worked perfectly on all of the PCs we used for our tests, but we did discover one glitch when used any PC with an AMD processor. If we saved over an existing JPEG with a new JPEG using the same file name the new JPEG file would save as a corrupted image. This error only happened with AMD-based machines and only when we saved over an existing file name. There is an update which corrects the problem, but we point out the issue for the sake of encouraging users to get the latest online update (the software will do this automatically unless you lack an Internet connection or declien the update) before your JPEGs are corrupted.
Overall, Corel Paint Shop Photo Pro X3 is an impressive image editor with a wide selection of powerful tools that are easy to use. In some ways X3 is a much easier and offers more creative possibilities than the similarly priced Adobe Photoshop Elements. Features such as the updated Express Lab, the new Project Creator, and the ability to add instant DOF effects or simulate old film make X3 much easier to use than anything the competition has to offer.
I was a little upset by the lack of features in the RAW Lab and the issue we found when using AMD machines, but Corel has a genuinely attractive piece of software on their hands.
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