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Comparing PaintShop Pro, Photoshop Elements and PhotoPlus: Which Is the Best Photo Editor?

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 9/16/2011

Are you still trying to find that perfect photo editor that offers plenty of features at an affordable price? In this comparison, we take a look at Corel PaintShop Pro, Adobe Photoshop Elements and Serif PhotoPlus to see how they stack up against one another.

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    Search for the Best Photo Editor

    Search for the Best Photo Editor 

    While there’s really no argument that Photoshop is the staple of the professional digital photo editing world, its $700 price tag puts it out of the running for a lot of users. In addition to the financial investment, users who want to get the most out of that product need to be willing to put in a fairly substantial time investment to learn all the ins and outs of the software.

    On the other end of the cost spectrum, there are a number of free photo editors available. Although these programs vary quite a bit in terms of their offerings, they all seem to suffer in one category or another. Either they don’t contain the powerful features found in commercial products or they’re just too hard to use (or both, in some cases).

    In this comparison, I'm going to take a look at three applications that fall somewhere between Photoshop and the freebies. That is, I’ll examine photo editing software that is feature rich, relatively easy to learn and use, and affordable for the average home user. All of these products have already been reviewed individually here in the Digital Photography Channel. If you’d like additional details, you can find these reviews at the following links.

    Now, let’s see how these applications compare with one another.

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    Price

    Price 

    Normally when evaluating software, I wait and look at the price of the product last. After all, it’s hard to say whether an application is worth the price until you know its full capabilities. In this case, however, since we’re looking at a comparison of three photo editors, I think price is the best place to start just to make sure all of the products begin on relatively even ground.

    PaintShop Pro X4 Ultimate, Photoshop Elements 9 and PhotoPlus X4 all come in under $100. The official list price for both PaintShop Pro and Photoshop Elements is $99.99 while PhotoPlus retails for $89.99. Don't let this minor difference in "official" price fool you, though. All three products are very competitive with one another, and there are always sales promotions and discounts available. At any given time, you may be able to pick up any one of these applications for around $50-$60.

    If you’re a bargain hunter and you’ve decided which application you want to buy, I recommend going to the product web site and signing up for their newsletter or mailing list. That way, if you have a little time to spare before making your purchase, you can try waiting a bit and see if a sale pops up. These are always advertised heavily through the mailing lists so you won’t miss out.

    Ranking for the Price Category:

    Because of frequent sales promotions and the competitive nature of these three products, I'm going to rank them all equal in this category.

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    Ease of Use

    Ease of Use 

    All three products have a fairly intuitive user interface that is accompanied by a built-in guide or learning center designed to walk new users through the process of basic photo editing. If you’re a more experienced user, you shouldn’t have much trouble switching from one application to another since the basic layout of all three programs is the same once you take away the bells and whistles that are unique to each one.

    In terms of an integrated help system, I think Photoshop Elements has done the best job – especially when considering newcomers to the photo editing world. Not only can you obtain advice for your editing situation while still having full view of your photo in the main window of the application, but you can activate the necessary tools for basic editing tasks right within the “learning" panel of the screen. That is, you have full access to the brushes and features you need without having to leave the guided walkthrough of how to use them.

    PaintShop Pro is a close second here. The software’s Learning Center can easily be toggled on and off, is easy to navigate, and allows you to view instructions for basic editing functions while you’re actually performing the modifications. The only difference is that tool usage is not integrated into the guided system so you do have to access them separately.

    PhotoPlus also has an integrated help system that is useful for several features, but it’s not nearly as easy to navigate as the similar tools found in the other two applications. Still, it’s sure to be quite beneficial to new users and has the advantage that it can be undocked from the main user interface and function as a standalone window. This can free up a lot of room in the work area portion of the application – a great feature for those with smaller display units and for those who do a lot of detail work on large images.

    Ranking for the Ease of Use Category:

    1. Photoshop Elements
    2. PaintShop Pro
    3. PhotoPlus
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    Features

    Features 

    All three applications offer full layer support, advanced filters and special effects, and included creative content on top of basic photo editing tools. However, when it comes to creative tools, PhotoPlus is extremely underrated. I was surprised by the number of vector-related tools contained in the application – that’s something you don’t usually see in a photo editor in this price range.

    Overall though, PaintShop Pro seems to offer the broadest range of general features both on the technical and creative side. Moreover, these elements are easy to access and in intuitive locations. On the flip side of the coin, locating some of the more advanced tools in Photoshop Elements can take a bit of work sometimes. There have been many instances where I thought Elements didn’t have a certain feature only to discover it later in an almost hidden submenu.

    Ranking for the Features Category:

    1. PaintShop Pro
    2. PhotoPlus
    3. Photoshop Elements
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    Performance

    Performance 

    There’s no way to hide the fact that a robust photo editing application is going to be a drain on your system’s resources. Without enough RAM and a decent processor, no image editor is going to perform well. Likewise, bumping up your RAM and upgrading your CPU will do wonders for your photo editing, no matter what software you’re using.

    With that being said, some applications just seem to manage memory better than others. I haven’t analyzed all the benchmarks, but I can certainly tell from personal experience that PhotoPlus is far ahead in this category. The application starts up faster, processes edits quicker, and rarely hangs or crashes (except when I accidentally try to upsize an image by 20,000% instead of the 200% I originally meant).

    PaintShop Pro also ranks well in this category, but sometimes it seems to take forever for Photoshop Elements to load. I will admit that once it is fully loaded, it performs almost as well as PaintShop Pro. However, if you do decide to go with Photoshop Elements, make sure it’s not your default picture viewer. While I don’t think twice about firing up PhotoPlus just to look at a photo that I’ve been emailed, I would never do this with the other two applications because of the slow frontload time.

    Rankings for the Performance Category:

    1. PhotoPlus
    2. PaintShop Pro
    3. Photoshop Elements
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    Plugin Support

    Plugin Support 

    This may not be a category of interest to everyone, but if you do a lot of photo editing, you may eventually want to check out some of the powerful plugins that simplify or improve the functionality of the host editor. Most plugin developers create their product with Photoshop in mind and compatibility with other applications is a bit of an afterthought.

    Since Photoshop Elements is also an Adobe product, it generally has the highest degree of compatibility with the majority of available plugins. However, PaintShop Pro is an extremely close second in this category since it’s not only compatible with most Photoshop plugins, but there are quite a few creative people out there who design plugins specifically for the Corel editor.

    PhotoPlus is also compatible with a number of plugins originally designed for Photoshop, but it can be a bit of a hit or miss process. Some work, some don't. Moreover, while developers are usually good about testing and letting you know if a Photoshop plugin is compatible with Elements or PaintShop Pro, most don't check or document PhotoPlus compatibility. So, most of the time, you're left with trial and error – you'll generally have to download and try to access the plugin in PhotoPlus to see if it works or not. Hopefully this will change as more people start using PhotoPlus..

    Rankings for the Plugin Support Category:

    1. Photoshop Elements
    2. PaintShop Pro
    3. PhotoPlus
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    User Support and Documentation

    User Support and Documentation 

    All three products offer a great deal of user support both from the developers and from third-party sites. This support and documentation comes in many forms – integrated help systems (which we looked at in the Ease of Use category), offline manuals, online materials and tutorials.

    Despite having a great deal of online materials and tutorials along with an excellent integrated editing guide, Photoshop Elements lacks an easily accessible offline manual. You can download a PDF version of the online material from the Adobe web site, but I still like having the option of accessing an internal help system.

    One thing that I really like about PhotoPlus is that you can access PDF tutorials and help files from the program’s interface without having to go online. PaintShop Pro also has an offline help system that is easily searchable even if it is not as visually appealing as the one provided by PhotoPlus.

    When it comes to third-party tutorials, Photoshop Elements and PaintShop Pro are far ahead of PhotoPlus. This is mostly due to the larger user base of the formerly mentioned applications, but it still makes a big difference. If you’re trying to figure out how to do something in either Elements or PaintShop Pro, the answer is usually just a Google search away. In fact, Bright Hub even offers a fairly large collection of Paint Shop Pro tutorials.

    Rankings for the User Support and Documentation Category:

    1. PaintShop Pro
    2. Photoshop Elements
    3. PhotoPlus
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    Final Verdict

    Although it’s difficult to say which application is the best, there are some recommendations that can be made for those looking for specific qualities in a photo editor.

    If you’re not too concerned with advanced technical editing or universal plugin compatibility, PhotoPlus is worth way more than second look. It’s very user-friendly, has a wide arsenal of creative content and has the best vector support of the three applications examined in this comparison. It may not have the reputation of the other two products we looked at here, but I think that may start to change in the near future. I've found that PhotoPlus has slowly become my "go-to" photo editor whenever it can handle the task needing done, simply because of its faster performance. On the other hand, I can't let go of PaintShop Pro because of its versatility and wide range of functionalities.

    Each of the last few releases of Photoshop Elements has shown marked improvement, and version 9 can stand on its own two feet despite still being referred to as Photoshop Lite. While I found previous versions of the application somewhat lacking in the feature department, I’m rather impressed with the latest release. However, I still get a bit frustrated at times because of the slow start up and processing times. Also, I do wish some of the more advanced tools weren’t tucked away so deep in the application’s menu system.

    On the whole, PaintShop Pro seems to offer the most in terms of features, stability, and usability. It’s definitely superior as a technical editor, and its creative abilities aren’t too shabby either. Moreover, you can supplement the software with plugins, including many free ones. Many people out there consider PaintShop Pro to be the best Photoshop alternative. I may go a step further and say it’s a better investment than Photoshop when you consider all you’re getting for the cost.

    If you want to try before you buy, both Photoshop Elements and PaintShop Pro have 30-day free trials that you can download from their respective web sites. In addition, there is actually a completely free version of PhotoPlus that you can download from the Serif website – it doesn't have all the features and tools that are available in the full version, but it is robust enough to handle many editing needs. Also, trying out the free version is a good way to tell if you'd be happy with the more comprehensive paid version of the product.