With version 3.0, Adobe Photoshop Elements has finally developed a personality of its own. No longer simply a stripped-down version of Photoshop, this $99 hobbyist-targeted image-editing package looks, feels, and behaves more like competitors from Microsoft, Ulead, and Jasc. Though folks looking for a cheap version of Photoshop will likely be disappointed, overall Adobe does a better job of addressing the needs of consumer digital photographers with this version than the last. Unless you gravitated toward previous versions of Elements for its low-budget resemblance to Photoshop, version 3.0 is definitely worth an upgrade. And if you're still searching for a hobbyist-friendly imaging program, it's definitely worth a look.
First, there's a lot more hand-holding. For instance, the program now has three different interfaces for retouching images: an Auto Fix window, which provides a handful of automatic tools; a Quick Fix editor that offers a full set of retouching options but with friendlier tool implementations; and Standard Editor, which provides a more Photoshop-like interface for all the tools. Version 2.0's Recipes have evolved into the more common How To, and there are a lot more automated, template-based projects.
The program also encompasses a wider set of capabilities than before, from its much-improved Organizer to its ability to burn discs and back up photos. On the acquisition and organization front, version 3.0 supports raw files, using an import module very similar to Photoshop CS2's; camera phones; and offline storage, such as CDs and DVDs.
While Adobe does a credible job of cramming all these new tools within the interface, it has a tendency to be too controlling; there are a lot more places where you have to commit changes or can't use a particular view. Furthermore, Adobe has reduced color management to three options--None, Limited (uses sRGB), and Full (uses AdobeRGB)--but there's no place to set your display color space, so images don't consistently show up accurately. And some of its automatic operations don't produce good results, although its red-eye removal works particularly well.
Unfortunately, Elements can be a memory and CPU hog. For instance, on our primary test system, a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB of RAM, it sometimes took 40 seconds before the splash screen even appeared. Though Elements handles raw files, anything exceeding 10MB slowed a fast P4 with 1GB of RAM to a mild crawl, and background thumbnail creation in Organizer brought the interface to knees. Inexplicably, however, with both of the same systems, the program worked smoothly and relatively quickly on some days.
As always, Adobe's support is exemplary. Its Web site contains tutorials, troubleshooting tips, support announcements, a searchable knowledge base, and even a place to submit feature requests. Adobe itself hosts forums, where you can get help from other users, as well as some pricey paid-support options: $39 per single incident or annual subscriptions that start at $159 for a single user or a single product. A host of third-party books and a sprinkling of Web sites should keep you from needing to resort to paid support, however.