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Corel PaintShop Pro X5 review


  • Inexpensive
  • Lots of powerful editing tools
  • Offers geo-tagging with maps


  • Weak importing
  • Overly cluttered interface
  • Lacking overall usability

Since 1990, Corel's image editor, PaintShop Pro, has been a low-cost alternative to Adobe Photoshop (which first appeared in 1988) and the later Photoshop Elements (2001).Though it offers a lot of image manipulation capabilities, during its whole existence PaintShop Pro has lagged behind Adobe's products in both features and slickness of interface.

This latest PaintShop Pro X5 version adds some major features we've already seen elsewhere – face tagging, mapping, and Instagram-like one-click photo effects. That's not to say Corel hasn't innovated, with its own twists on these features. Also, with the boxed copy retailing at £59.99 (and the download version at £51), the software is cheap and undercuts Adobe’s asking price – but it still trails in deep features and in terms of overall usability.


PaintShop Pro is available in a regular edition (the £59.99 one) and an Ultimate edition that adds Reallusion FaceFilter Studio 2.0 portrait enhancement tools, Nik Colour Efex Pro 3.0 filters, and a collection of royalty-free images, brushes and textures. However, it’s £20 more, which makes it the same price as Photoshop Elements.

You can download and install a fully functional 30-day trial version of PaintShop Pro X5 from Corel's site. It's a 138MB download, and the installer unfortunately tries to side-load a browser toolbar, which you can deselect if you're alert during installation.


The interface is little changed from X4's, but with competitors like Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 cleaning up their interfaces considerably, PaintShop's remains overly cluttered with buttons, icons, rulers, panels, and menus. It's a standard three panel affair, with folder navigation on the left, the main image view in the centre, and an info and action panel on the right. Along the bottom is your filmstrip view of photos in the current folder, aka the "tray." I do like how you can undock or hide any panels to suit your taste. You can choose interface colours other than the default (and best, to my eyes) dark grey. An odd choice here is a distracting baby blue.

In contrast to the busy working area (see the below pic for an idea of just how busy it can get), three simple mode selectors grace the top of PaintShop's window – Manage, Adjust, and Edit. Most photo workflow apps add one or more output modes – Print, Web, and so on. Lightroom is the king of this, with the ability to customise which modes appear to taste.

The Adjust Mode doesn't actually offer all of the adjustments the program is capable of, instead just offering some quick fix options, similar to Photoshop Elements' new design. One thing I'd like to see in PaintShop is a simple Revert button, for when you've gone beyond the pale with editing and need to start over. An optional History panel shows all your previous actions, and can even run scripts.

Importing and organising

Importing is a weak point for PaintShop Pro. It adds a "Review Photos" entry to the AutoPlay dialog that pops up whenever you plug camera media into your PC. However, I had to navigate down to the folder where the captures resided, while Photoshop Elements found them for me. PaintShop does have an Import menu choice, but while it found my iPhone, it didn't find the photos on an SD media card. Of course, you could just use Windows' pretty good photo importer, which even lets you tag pictures on the way in, but Adobe Photoshop Element's import capabilities beat PaintShop's.

The app's documentation claims that you don't really need to specifically "import" images – PaintShop will enter any photos you open in its database, keeping track of changes and optionally keeping a copy of the original. But this isn't helpful when you're viewing photos on a memory card. It also means you have no way to preview raw camera photos before importing, or to select only some for import as you can with rival packages. Though I could do this with my iPhone photos, once I hit the import dialog's Get Pictures, I received an error message saying the file couldn't be written.

Once you've got images in, the Quick Review, summoned by double clicking a tray thumbnail, shows your photos in full screen, with controls at the bottom for rating, discarding, zooming, and moving to the next or previous image. Doing the latter with large raw camera files was still slow when they were on the SD card, but was faster when they were moved to the hard disk, and that made quickly deciding on photos' merits a smoother process.

PaintShop Pro gives you the usual ways to organise images – star ratings from one to five, and tags that can be easily set from a sidebar Info panel, though not from a control that appears when you hover the mouse cursor over the image, as with Photoshop Elements. An Auto Group option lets you keep photos shot within a specified time frame together. You can also have the program create Smart Collections, specifying parameters like date range, name, caption, size, or tags. You can easily zoom in on the thumbnails or even beyond 100 per cent size in Manage mode, which for some reason Elements' Organiser doesn't allow.

Face recognition

Now added to the usual organising tools are face and place organisers. To get started with face recognition, you select some photos in a collection and hit the head icon, then choose Find People. This doesn't work if you've selected photos from a computer folder – only from a collection. I scanned all my 1320 image files for faces, which took about 7 minutes. Once it was done, I could either attach a name to a photo's full preview, or switch to thumbnail view to see groups of found faces.

As with all face detection, non-faces (shrubs and such) were misidentified, but it seemed like more were tagged wrongly here than with most applications. Also, the same person's face would often appear in multiple groups, and there were a lot of ungrouped photos that contained the same faces that had a group.

The program doesn't have as clear or effective a system for "learning" a face as other apps do, though when you click in the name box, occasionally a previous name appears. But if it doesn't, even when you start typing, suggestions from previous names you entered don't show up. Another problem is that the grid view doesn't zoom into the face, so if there's more than one face in the photo, you don't know which you're naming.

Once you've face tagged, you can select a person's name from the Collections panel to show just photos containing the named person's mug. But after that, there are no fun options like collages or face movies.

Maps and location

PaintShop Pro's new mapping capability does include a nifty sharing project, called Share My Trip, but first let's take a look at the basic location feature. It can use embedded GPS data in photos, or you can manually place them on a map integrated into the program, or import a KML file.

The easiest, automatic way is if you have GPS data embedded in the photo files – usually the case for smartphone pictures. With those, you don't have to do anything; the program creates Collections based on location, which you can filter through. You can also import locations from your Facebook check-ins. In Manage mode, one of the main view options along with Preview and Thumbnails is Map Mode. This shows a map with pins for each photo's location. A search box even lets you find specific locales.

Now for the Share My Trip feature. The sharing comes courtesy of Facebook and Dropbox – yes, you need an account with both for the online sharing, though you can create your geographical pictorial locally, too. You select applicable photos in the tray, and then run through a wizard, logging into both services for web sharing. The results are attractive, with a filmstrip across the bottom and a map with large thumbnails at each location. You can also simply view a small slideshow of the geo-tagged photos. The production values aren’t as high as iPhoto's Places slideshows, but they’re good enough.

Basic photo fixes

The Adjust mode offers simple fixes like cropping, straightening, red eye removal, white balance, and lighting. Adjust mode's Suggest Settings and Edit mode's One-Step Photo Fix did a decent job of making most photos look better, or at least getting me to a place where I could tweak them for optimal adjustment. The Shadows adjustment did a pretty good job of bringing out dark objects without blowing out the highlights, as did the seemingly identical Fill Light.

Fancy photo editing

New for PaintShop Pro X5 is the Instant Effects palette, which offers one-click Instagram-like effects. You simply double click the effect's thumbnail (which shows a sample photo, but not your current photo, with the effect applied).

The first time you try one of these, a dialog asks if you want to preserve the original photo – always a good idea. This Auto-Preserve feature can also be set in Preferences.

The new effects range from artistic ones like charcoal drawing and stained glass to B&W, through retro film styles, to simple things like contrast or brightness increases.

One oddity was that when I applied an Instant Effect in Manage mode, it didn't show up on my photo, though when moving to Adjust or Edit mode the affect was applied. I saw other examples of strangeness upon shifting from mode to mode. For example, I did some editing on a camera raw file in Adjust mode, but this disappeared when I moved to Edit mode – it's more like separate programs than modes. The Edit mode even offers its own Quick Adjustments panel, duplicating the Adjustment mode. But I do appreciate the Learning Centre panel's many walkthroughs of editing tasks.

Just as with Photoshop, you can add layers, manipulate grouped objects, and adjust curves and levels. The Curves tool is particularly powerful, allowing up to 16 control points. This let me create some pretty crazy effects by itself (see the image below).

Chromatic aberration correction is much more difficult than in some other photo apps, such as Lightroom – you have to select sample boxes of the offending colours and remove them. Each step in the process takes some time to complete. I found this even more unusable than the many ineffective chromatic aberration removal options in other software, including the one in Apple Aperture. What's more, PaintShop's "one-step purple fringe fix" didn't do anything on my test image.

One-step noise removal did a tolerable job of removing the noise in a dark shot, and going into the Digital Noise Removal tool let me adjust the size, blend, and sharpening of the correction. The program also offers corrections for small scratches, JPEG artifacts, moiré patterns, speckling, and a texture preserving smoother.

PaintShop can do the popular tilt-shift and depth of field effects, and even has a photo merge tool for getting the best shot of everyone in a group photo. New for X5 is Retro Lab, which mostly lets you add a diffuse glow and mess with colour saturation, and a faux HDR effect using a single raw camera file. This involves creating three versions of the photo and choosing the exposure value, which can be dicey. I found CyberLink PhotoDirector's faux HDR creator easier and more impressive, and that works on JPGs as well as raw files.

The new graduated filter effect adds a gradient overlay, with settings for opacity, colour, blend, rotation, and more. It's the kind of thing you could do with layers, but the dedicated tool makes it more of a pleasure. And that's just what's new: PaintShop is already bursting with a huge assortment of effects – skin smoothing, specialised blurs, 3D effects. There's even lens geometry correction, but without DxO's and Lightroom/Photoshop's lens profile based automatic fixes, and there's no spilt before/after window to see its results.

As with Photoshop CS6, you don't need to start from a photograph to create in PaintShop. You can create raster and vector graphics from scratch, adding layers, filters, formatted text, masks, and brush strokes.

Output and sharing

From the Edit mode's File menu, you can export to all the expected formats: JPEG, GIF, and PNG optimisers, and an image slicer are useful extras for web producers. Printing options abound, too, with CMYK separations, and standard layout presets. The program even offers soft proofing with a wide variety of printer profiles in the Colour Management settings.

For web sharing, PaintShop can upload directly to Flickr, Google+, and Facebook. One cool thing about the application’s web sharing dialog is that you can select more than one of these sites for multiple uploading. You can also choose whether to upload the full-size originals or reduced size versions for easier transmission. A downside is that I couldn’t just share to my Facebook wall or Flickr photo stream, but had to choose or create an album. And forget about syncing edits with the online album versions or viewing online comments, as you can with Photoshop Elements, Lightroom and Aperture.

PaintShop Pro does let you export and import the databases that hold file editing info (as with pretty much all photo editors these days, edits in PaintShop are nondestructive, meaning the edits are saved in a database and the original images are untouched). But there's no reminder feature to back up your work, nor an online backup service such as that offered by Adobe Photoshop Elements.


PaintShop Pro scores points for the sheer number of tools it throws at you. For those unwilling to pay the extra for Adobe's software packages, Corel's product can likely fulfil many of their needs. It's just not as smooth, and lacks some of the more mind blowing content-aware capabilities found in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.

And for photographers less interested in visual arts and crafts, Lightroom is a far better choice, making the workflow from memory card to output far smoother. Every one of those Adobe products is a top notch choice, while PaintShop tries to cover all of these categories, without really excelling at any.