For the best part of a decade, PSP (Paint Shop Pro) has been the valiant underdog in the fight for the hearts and minds of creative computer users who are looking for a decent image editor.
Committed to the PC when most graphic designers only had eyes for the Mac, Jasc Software consistently provided innovative features that offered much of the power of Photoshop, and which were occasionally even more advanced than those of Adobe's flagship product - but at a fraction of the cost.
When the company released PSP 9.0 last year, we were extremely impressed by what it had to offer. Almost immediately afterwards, Jasc was purchased by Corel, so this version is the first PSP release by the Canadian graphics giant. With other applications such as Painter, Designer and (of course) CorelDraw in its portfolio, the company now covers just about every element of image editing and design.
Nor has Corel been idle with regard to developing PSP. The beta that we tested displayed a host of elements designed to appeal to both new and experienced users.
The digital toolkit
With PSP 9.0, perhaps the biggest innovation introduced by Jasc was to offer a simplified version of the program, called Studio, that offered simpler editing tools for occasional users who just wanted to sort out their digital photos. This meant the main application could concentrate on targeting image professionals who wanted the power of Photoshop without the price.
With PSP X, Corel has redesigned the user interface, leaving behind the previous slightly austere design. PSP X has also been designed to be easier to use, thus appealing to photo hobbyists and enthusiasts as well as to professional photographers.
There are some good points with this user interface. The new Learning Center offers users quick access to common tasks, as well as context-sensitive help that will be familiar to anyone who works with applications such as Office 2003.
Yet it does also feel like a step backwards in some respects. PSP has developed into a very powerful tool over the years, but in its effort to turn it into a hand-holding and immensely user-friendly program, you can't help feeling that Corel has run the risk of overloading the interface with data that is simply irrelevant for the more experienced image editor.
Features and performance
This is not to deny that Corel has engaged in a great deal of work in updating the program. Many of the new tools and features are aimed at occasional users who need quick fixes to common problems, such as Smart Photo Fix for automatically and rapidly correcting colour, brightness and saturation, or the handy red-eye removal tool.
More generally, the Adjust and Retouch tools have been regrouped, which makes them much easier to access, and Corel must be congratulated for rationalising the PSP interface.
There are some particularly useful new makeover tools for removing blemishes and wrinkles from portrait photos, and an Object Remover that allows users to take out unwanted foreground elements from photos and replace them with background detail.
Some of PSP X's other new features are aimed more squarely at professional users - particularly the Color Management Engine, which ensures colours on the screen can be matched to output for commercial printers.
However, while the additions have plenty to recommend them, it is also worth bearing in mind that the latest release of PSP continues to put into practice all those familiar elements that have made the program stand out for some time.
Thus, for example, this release retains the high-quality graphics tools for creating vector effects within images - an exceptional inclusion for an image editor at this price (and an area where, it must be pointed out, the application led the way well before Photoshop).
Likewise, gimmicks such as the Picture Tube - which is basically an image hose that can fill up areas of a given picture - and Warp tools are good fun. More useful still, particularly for the professional users, are the scripting and batch-processing tools and support for a massive range of file formats, including RAW data from digital cameras.