Software Review: Paint Shop Pro 8

By Eric Grevstad | Posted August 29, 2003

It's rarely a good idea for a software company to wait two and a half years between upgrades. It's a downright bad idea to do so during an explosion of popularity for image editing, with consumers snapping up digital cameras and competitors shipping stellar products like Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0.

That was becoming clear in October 2001, when we reviewed Paint Shop Pro 7 10th Anniversary Edition from Jasc Software — the shareware pioneer still had plenty of power, but was starting to look rusty and geeky compared to more polished, friendly entries. Frankly, we feared Paint Shop Pro (PSP) was in danger of slipping back into shareware hardcore status, destined to dwell alongside the likes of Linux's open-source image editor The Gimp rather than mass-market offerings from Microsoft or Roxio.

Happily, we were wrong. The finally, completely revamped Paint Shop Pro 8 not only walks a tightrope between ease of use and creative power, but goes further along that tightrope than anyone else: It's still pretty daunting for casual users who just want to crop a snapshot or fix a flash portrait's red eyes, but PSP 8 is remarkably accessible for a program that ranks second among image editors only to Adobe's ark-of-the-covenant Photoshop 7.0 — at one-sixth the latter's price.

Starting from Scratch
Indeed, newcomers may have a slightly easier time of it than users of earlier versions, so thoroughly has Jasc rearranged Paint Shop Pro's toolbars and palettes — not only movable, dockable, and customizable on an individual basis, but giving you the option of saving different arrangements or workspaces. (A big monitor helps; 1,024 by 768 resolution feels a little crowded.)

Not only have Windows 3.1-era icons and toolbars been redesigned, but so have dialog boxes — dabblers get handy previews or try-before-you-apply windows akin to PSP's at-a-glance Effect Browser, while power users can save (and even share) their favorite combinations of parameters or presets for filters and tools.

Newcomers will also be welcomed by an improved help system including a "learning center" palette — project wizards for tasks such as turning an image into a greeting card — and extensive, animated tutorial tour. Spring for the $109 CD rather than $99 download version, and you get an attractive 430-page manual (though you'll still have to download a 16MB patch to version 8.01).

From Mild to Wild
Like Photoshop's, Paint Shop Pro's toolkit offers extensive manual controls of virtually every facet or aspect of its plentiful painting and drawing tool and special-effects filters. Version 8, however, goes beyond its predecessor in offering quick-and-not-so-dirty fixes for everyday users — including, yes, a crop tool (with handy presets for common sizes such as 4 by 6 or 8 by 10 inches), scratch remover, and red-eye correction for flash photos.

A One-Step Photo Fix button swiftly runs through the default optimizations for color balance, contrast, clarity, saturation, and sharpness; we found it a remarkable improvement for about half of our pictures and disliked the results with the other half. Individual tools include clever ways to correct — or, if you want, add — lens distortions such as pincushion, barrel, and fisheye effects.

We admired the Straighten tool, which lets you drag the ends of a line to set an image's horizontal or vertical axis instead of plodding through trial-and-error tilt functions (40 degrees, no that's too much, 30 degrees, no that's too little, etc.). A similar Perspective Correction tool lets you drag the corners of a box or trapezoid to turn an angled into a (simulated) head-on view of a building or doorway.

Take It to the Limit
When you're ready to move beyond realistic touch-ups into special effects, Paint Shop Pro still trails Adobe Photoshop Elements in one category — easy ways to make digital images look like watercolors, oils, or other fine art — because Jasc gives PSP buyers only a couple of the plug-in filters from its $45 Virtual Painter package.

But otherwise, you can go wild with everything from dreamy soft focus to dot-or-dash halftones, from PSP's trademark Picture Tubes clip-art brushes to superimposed magnifying lenses or floating soap bubbles. Impatient with using the Warp brush to stretch or distort a small portion of an image? Slap a Mesh Warp grid over the picture and yank it in a dozen directions at once for a real funhouse-mirror effect.

And Paint Shop Pro 8 gives serious artists more power and control than ever before. The old Retouch tool has been subdivided into separate brushes for Dodge, Burn, Smudge, Emboss, Soften, and other functions, and PSP has redoubled its already industrial strength when working with layers and masks — indeed, a new Background Eraser is a nifty alternative to conventional masking for selecting an object from one image, even including fine details like a person's hair, and pasting it into another.

Finally, Paint Shop Pro not only retains its you-won't-find-these-in-other-value-packages options for creating Web-page elements such as image maps or rollovers (and animated GIFs, since the partner program Animation Shop is included), but adds a powerful scripting language and script recorder for automating single-image or batch processes. And Jasc's program is still unmatched at supporting image formats you've never heard of (the new wireless bitmaps optimized for cell phones, for instance).

Paint Shop Pro has traditionally been 80 or 90 percent as powerful as Adobe Photoshop, with an 80- or 90-percent-as-steep learning curve. Version 8 is both more flexible and more approachable; it's still not the program we'd give to a beginner for his first batch of digital-camera snapshots, but it's the one we'd pick for anyone really getting into image editing, and an even better value than before. Paint Shop Pro 8 is avalable now for $109 in the box or $99 on the download.

Adapted from WinPlanet.com.

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