9 inexpensive photo editors compared
January 15, 1999
by JoAnne Robb
(IDG) -- Almost every photograph can benefit from a quick fix. If your company's CEO has bags under his eyes, you can make him look more alert before you pop his image onto the Web site. If an overexposed photograph makes your home's paint job appear washed out, you can tweak its brightness before you print the real estate brochure.
Thanks to photo-editing software, you don't have to hire a graphic designer to make simple changes to a photo; now you can fine-tune images to your liking. But the range of features each tool offers (and the quality of the finished product) can vary widely, and there's no fair way to compare the simplest applications with office-oriented tools. (See the features comparison chartfor more.)
We looked at nine programs -- from basic packages designed for nongraphics pros who occasionally need to touch up digital photos, to high-end designer tools with additional features that cost far more -- and we awarded two Best Buys: one for the top basic-level tool, and another for the program that offers practically every feature an intermediate user would want, for a great price. (See the How much photo editor do you need? chart for more.)
Each application underwent the same testing. Here we categorize each program by how well it performed the tests, how much hand-holding it does, and how much control it offers. We classify seven products as basic-level tools: They offer a simple, friendly interface and wizards to guide users through a touch-up process, but they may not be able to perform some tasks. The other two -- Jasc's Paint Shop Pro 5 and Ulead's PhotoImpact 4.2 -- are intermediate packages; they're designed for experienced image manipulators who would rather have a finer level of manual control than wizard-based automation. (See casual cleanups, midrange magic, and advanced projects for more details on these tests.)
If you need (and can afford) more than these packages provide, take a look atthe kings of the hill, Adobe Photoshop 5.0, Corel's Photo-Paint 8, and Micrografx's Picture Publisher 8 for three advanced utilities that are appropriate for graphic designers. (See skimming the basics, pro photo tweaking, and time exposed for more.)
Of the dozen programs we tested, only Kai's Photo Soap is a one-trick pony -- it only lets you touch up your photos, nothing more (and it doesn't even do that very well). The rest of the programs offer extra features ripe for the picking. Cool effects filters can change the entire look of your photo, giving it the appearance of an impressionist landscape, say, or dripping wet paint.
Other tools can make your photo appear to be composed of a mosaic of smaller images, sketched in charcoal, or drawn on a wad of just-uncrumpled paper. Micrografx's Picture Publisher 8 stands out in the special effects ranks; its Effects Browser generates thumbnails of multiple effects in one window. (See masters of manipulation for more.)
Advanced programs allow impressive control over effects. If you want to create a mosaic effect using Adobe Photoshop 5, for example, you can change not only the size of the tiles, but also the color and thickness of the grouting between them.
But simple editing applications have some nifty extras as well. They include task-oriented project templates, notably lacking in the more-advanced programs. For example, Picture It offers templates for flyers and business cards and lets you mat your pictures, much as a frame shop would. Similarly, LivePix Soho, MGI PhotoSuite 8.0, Adobe PhotoDeluxe Business Edition, and Corel Photo House 2.1 feature business-oriented templates, generate on-the-fly slide shows, and can store images in searchable albums (which are useful for archives of related images).
Best buysFor basic image editing, we recommend Microsoft's $49 Picture It 99. Its numerous how-to wizards not only assist in the completion of tasks but also educate users about the process of basic photo editing. Picture It's bargain-basement price and ease of use compensate for its inability to perform some tasks in our advanced tests.
Intermediate users willing to trade hand-holding wizards for finer control will appreciate the $79 Paint Shop Pro 5 application from Jasc. This useful tool easily completed all our tests, and it offers the intermediate user a wide variety of design features that go well beyond simple photo cleanup.
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