Photoshop Elements can no longer be dismissed as a cut-down version of its professional sibling, Adobe Photoshop. A powerful mix of editing and organisation tools have qualified it as a leading graphics app in its own right. But with cutting-edge features, Elements 4.0 inherits a different focus: to make life a lot easier for beginners.

Similar to its predecessor, Elements 4.0 is divided into an Organizer mode for sorting image collections and a choice of editing modes for adjusting pictures.

The Editor mode most clearly reveals Adobe's attempt at simplification, with two tools that claim to take the awkwardness out of object selection. The Magic Selection Brush lets you choose an object by clicking or dragging the brush loosely inside it, while the similar Magic Extractor pen allows the cutting of objects from their background by drawing inside objects in one colour to retain them and roughly drawing over the background with another.

Both Magic tools work well with defined objects against a plain background, but results with more complex, everyday images were unreliable. Considering the calculation time needed by Magic Extractor in particular, most users will revert to the existing Magic Wand tool for serious object selection.

We had varied results with both a tool to adjust a photo's colour balance based on the subject's skin tone and an enhanced red-eye removal feature. The effectiveness of this, which has the ability to automatically correct images as they are imported, can veer between stunning and mediocre within the same photo.

In fact, it's the less-heralded editing features that prove most welcome, in particular a Defringe Layer command – that neatly removes the halo that can appear around a subject when pasted onto a fresh background – and an excellent Straighten tool. The method used to straighten might lack glamour – you click and drag along a horizontal plane – but it works impeccably. More consistent improvements, such as the ability to search by camera metadata, are obvious in Organizer mode.

Although it's easy to dismiss a Face Tagging tool as a gimmick, its role – to spot faces in pictures and group them – is both clever and handy.

Enhancements to the slideshow mean that you can add multiple moving pan-and-zoom effects to slides, while the text and graphic overlays add a bit of extra polish.

While Elements 4.0 boasts the ability to export these creations to TV, it's a pity this can be done only through a Windows XP Media Center Edition-based PC. To play through a standard DVD player, you must burn to a low-resolution video CD format.

A different way of browsing

Elements' Editor and Organizer can work independently, but Adobe wants you to think of them as a single unit and has dropped the familiar file browser option from the Elements 4.0 menu. This means that to browse photos you must switch to Organizer view. This won't make a difference if you already sort your collection in Organizer, but it will hinder your workflow if you edit images without cataloguing or tagging them. Elements 4.0's offering – a Folder Location View that lets you navigate folders not catalogued by Elements – isn't quite compensation enough.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0: Specs

  • 800MHz Pentium III processor
  • Windows XP SP2
  • 256MB RAM
  • 900MB hard disk space
  • 800MHz Pentium III processor
  • Windows XP SP2
  • 256MB RAM
  • 900MB hard disk space

OUR VERDICT

Elements, the most fully-featured budget image editor available, is better than ever for beginners. However, a less-than-generous upgrade price and arguable enhancements may deter existing users.

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