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Paint Shop Pro provides top-quality features at a starving-artist price.

I’ve long been a proponent of Paint Shop Pro. Cast in the role of the little guy against Adobe’s Photoshop, David routinely beat Goliath, at least insofar as what I needed out of a paint program. It was easy to use yet contained a wealth of options for veteran users and consistently produced good, quality artwork.

Having since lost its underdog status (Jasc, Paint Shop Pro’s parent company, was purchased by graphics giant Corel) it is still a top contender in the world of graphics programs, and version X, the second revision since Jasc’s sale, further cements the program as the low-cost, high-performance alternative to Photoshop.

And for their 10th edition of the graphics suite, they’ve really pulled out all the stops. Focusing on photography rather than graphics in general (“The intelligent choice for people who want great photos”), Corel has added true black and white and infrared conversion support, one-click red-eye removal, advanced retouch tools, and more. They’ve also improved what was already good to begin with–the help files are more accessible than ever before–and added more effects and options such as the ability to turn your photos into greeting cards and calendars.

The learning center, which is docked to the left side of the screen by default, has been totally revamped into something invaluable for even the most experienced of Paint Shop Pro users. The program gives you simple, step-by-step instructions for accomplishing even the most complicated operations, and once you get the hang of it, you can close the instructions with a single click of your mouse.

The menu is also more accessible and easier on the eyes. There are some cons to this (more on that later) but for the most part, you’re now able to find the tools, filters, and options much easier than you were able to before. PSP can also now open up images in 16-bit mode, which means adjustments can be made without any compromise in quality. Of course, several tools (clone, for example) only work in 8-bit mode, so you’ll have to convert to 8-bit if you want to use those. Still, it’s nice to have the option of keeping images in their native, raw format.

And, while not as comprehensive as the Learning Center, the printed user guide that comes bundled in the package is a huge improvement over any that came before it. Installation, of course, in covered in detail, but the guide doesn’t stop there. It also offers up easy-to-understand instructions for performing tasks such as cloning and cropping images, using the picture tubes, and adding picture frames. All basic stuff, but potentially very useful for novices or someone only vaguely familiar with the program.

PSP X now comes bundled with the standard version of Corel Photo Album 6, a program that easily rivals–if not surpasses–Adobe Photoshop Elements in terms of ease-of-use and image-editing power. It does, however, lack many of Elements higher-level features, such as Video CD and Web gallery creation and support for RAW formats. But it’s a definite start.

The most important upgrade, however, at least for me, is that this version loads in about half the time that the previous version did. No longer is deciding to boot up Paint Shop Pro a serious commitment. If you just need to alter a photo, for example, you can open the program, run red-eye removal, and be done with the fix in no time flat.

And now, the caveats. Some of the tool commands you might be familiar with have disappeared. Well, they’re still there, but now you have to look harder to find them. For example, the tool used to set black and white points in an image can now only be found via View>Customize>Unused Tools. You then have to drag that tool onto one of the other existing menu bars if you want to use it with any regularity. This isn’t the end of the world–in fact, several of the seemingly-missing tools can now be found as part of other toolset menus–but it’s frustrating if you’re used to working with PSP 9 and suddenly find yourself lacking for the right tools to do the job.

Another complaint is that Animation Shop, long a part of Paint Shop Pro, has been annexed from the suite. (You can purchase the program separately from Corel for $40.) Photographers won’t miss the tool, but Web designers and other folks who routinely work with clip art and Web graphics might–and won’t appreciate being forced to pony up 40 bucks for something that used to be a part of the program.

Despite those drawbacks, PSP is still well worth the $99 MSRP (or $59 if you’re upgrading). Compared to Photoshop, which costs upwards of $500, Paint Shop Pro is a bargain. Easy to use for novices yet offering advanced tools for veterans, PSP X definitely deserves a spot on your PC. You can purchase the program or download a fully-functional, 30-day trial version at www.corel.com.

Contributing Editor Joe DeRouen writes Windows Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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