Serif PhotoPlus X5 £71
25th Jun 2012 | 14:00
Can PhotoPlus 5 beat Photoshop at its own game?
Photoshop has become a by-word for image editing. Pictures aren't enhanced, they're "Photoshopped". But Photoshop CS is an extremely expensive program, especially for amateurs, while the cheaper, more amateur-orientated Photoshop Elements and Photoshop Touch lack many of its high-end features. Does this leave a gap for a high-powered, low-cost image editor such as Serif PhotoPlus X5?
It really is like a kind of cut-price Photoshop. The application's interface, which has been subtly updated in this latest version, has a vertical tools panel down the left-hand side whose contents will look pretty familiar to anyone who's used Photoshop.
And on the right side of the screen is a series of stacked palettes offering Adjustments, Layers, Channels, Macros (Serif's alternative to Photoshop's Actions), History and more.
Actually, Photoshop has moved on. This is what it used to look like, and in many respects Serif PhotoPlus X5 looks more like Photoshop Elements now. It does offer features that Elements doesn't, such as Channel adjustments, Curves and more advanced black and white conversion tools.
But a fly-out 'How To' panel on the left shows that Serif is also targeting novice and intermediate users, which is Photoshop Elements territory. This market is also targeted by fellow Photoshop rival software, Corel PaintShop Pro x4, so Serif isn't without competition.
This main rivalry with Photoshop Elements is emphasised by Serif PhotoPlus X5's new Organiser application. It fills exactly the same role as the Elements Organizer, bringing together all your photos into a centralised catalogue, where you can apply tags to photos, create smart albums based on specific search criteria, locate your photos on a map and even stack related photos so that they don't become separated.
You can open photos in Serif PhotoPlus X5 direct from the Organiser, and open the Organiser to find photos from within PhotoPlus X5. When you save a new version of a picture it appears in the same folder as the original in the Organiser, although it doesn't offer to stack the new version with the existing picture (Elements does, which is very useful).
There's a rather dated look about the PhotoPlus Organiser compared to the Elements Organizer, and a few rough edges too. It's less sophisticated - there's no equivalent to Elements 10's visual search tools, or its in-built quick image fixes - although you can open pictures in Serif's PhotoFix window. More on this shortly.
You do get a set of photo projects, worth £19.99, courtesy of Serif's CraftArtist scrapbooking product, and you can also upload your photos to Facebook or Flickr.
The new Organiser application is the big news in Serif PhotoPlus X5, but there have been other enhancements, too. You can now apply vibrancy as well as saturation adjustments - vibrancy targets weaker colours for enhancement and avoids over-saturating skin tones.
A new Clarity filter applies a localised contrast effect that makes outlines stand out more clearly and gives photos more punch.
The Brightness and Contrast adjustment has been improved, as has the Adjustment panel, and there are some new blend modes to create different effects when combining image layers.
Performance and verdict
Serif PhotoPlus X5 mimics Photoshop CS and Elements very closely, right down to the way adjustments are made. Like the Adobe programs, PhotoPlus X5 no longer applies adjustments directly to image layers the old-fashioned way. Instead, you choose an adjustment from the panel and it's applied as an adjustment layer, together with a mask that you can use to control the area the adjustment is applied to.
Its list of features places it somewhere between Elements and Photoshop, with support for channels (including alpha channels, for saving and manipulating selections) and the Pen tool for paths and shapes, for example.
It also has features you don't find in either Adobe program, including the PhotoFix tool and Cutout Studio.
But in many ways, PhotoPlus X5 falls short. The Organiser lacks the automatic version sets of Photoshop Elements, and will overwrite your original photos unless you remember to save new versions.
It also gave us an insufficient memory warning at one point, despite the test machine having six times the minimum RAM requirement listed on the box.
And while Serif PhotoPlus X5 does come with a raw converter, it doesn't support the same range of cameras as Adobe Camera Raw, its adjustment tools are limited, and its highlight recovery is very poor, often producing strong colour casts or severe underexposure.
It's difficult to see the point of the PhotoFix tool, too. This is a separate window, available in both the Organiser and PhotoPlus itself, which offers a stack of expanding panels for fixing white balance, lighting, chromatic aberration, lens distortion and more.
These aren't simplified, semi-automatic enhancements. They're quite complex manual adjustments - you can even mask the parts of the image you want to modify, and crop the picture, remove spots and fix red-eye.
A series of preset adjustments on the left-hand side can speed things up, but in the end this still feels like using one image editor inside another. It's both odd and confusing. What can you do here that you can't do in the regular PhotoPlus window, and why split and/or duplicate common adjustments and present them in such different ways?
The Cutout Studio is interesting, but it too feels a little superfluous. It's meant to make it easier to cut objects out by defining and adjusting the areas you want to keep and those you want to discard.
It looks like Photoshop's old Extract tool, but really it just works like the Quick Selection tool in Photoshop, and with limited selection adjustment options, the results are patchy.
"Patchy" sums up the whole program. PhotoPlus starts out with a great premise, as a potential Photoshop-beater at a fraction of the price. But in reality it doesn't even compare that well with Photoshop Elements.
The image editing world definitely needs more competition and innovation, but to be blunt, Serif PagePlus X5 feels more like a low-cost copy rather than a genuinely different alternative to Photoshop CS and Elements.
It looks good on paper, and it does what it says, but it lacks both polish and user-friendliness. Corel PaintShop Pro x4 is a much more successful Photoshop alternative.