Photoshop Elements 7 preview: A little whiz, mostly gee

Adobe has added just enough useful new features to make it worth an upgrade, but the signal-to-noise ratio is definitely dropping.

With the latest versions of Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements, Adobe's laying on the Web subscription message really thick. Take, for instance, the Welcome screen, which is your first encounter with either one of the applications. The standard Organize, Edit, Create, and Share options get relegated to a task bar that's relatively inconspicuous compared with the large, rotating slide show heralding the many benefits of the free and $49.99 Plus memberships for Photoshop.com (more project templates, remote backup, and 20GB-plus of storage space). Adobe might as well have sold the space as an ad; it's that annoying. (For more on the online and mobile aspects of the Elements release, read our coverage on Download.com.) And that's too bad, because Photoshop Elements remains a very nice midrange photo editor, but all of these bells and whistles--some pretty off-key--increasingly detract from its core strengths.

Click here for a tour of Photoshop Elements 7's features

The program's main advantage is that it's cheaper than Photoshop and Lightroom, but remains powerful enough for most photo retouching tasks. Thus, the improved raw workflow is quite welcome--improved, in that you can bypass it entirely if you want. For example, to create a slide show of NEF (Nikon raw) files, it simply applies the default raw-processing settings and treats them like JPEGs.

Also quite useful is the new text search box in the organizer, which is a fast, easy way to filter by keywords or basic metadata. Very basic metadata; you can only search on time, data, camera, and caption text. But that should be sufficient for this class of user.

Of course, there has to be at least one whizzy feature per version, and this one has the Photomerge Scene Cleaner, an extension of Group Shot. It allows you to seamlessly combine variations of a photo to eliminate unwanted objects in the scene. Features like this never work for me immediately; this one did, on two random photos (which met the similarity criteria). I haven't tried the other variations, Photomerge Faces, or Panorama--but those are derivative of existing Photoshop CS3 tools.

Adobe has also streamlined adjustment operations with Smart Brushes, which consolidate multi-operation adjustments, such as selecting then creating a new effects layer, into a single selection operation that automatically generates the layer and mask.

For a more complete tour of the product's new features, click through to the slide show.

However, I can't get around how confusing the user interface remains, in part because everything seems organized by technology, rather than by task. Before and after views are still only available in Quick Fix and Guided modes. A hodgepodge of stuff lives on the Guided palette, some of which you can't find elsewhere in the program, like the Photomerge tools, or which don't seem guiding at all, like the Saturated Slide Film effect or the Action Player. The latter runs scripts that request user input, which is why I suspect they're considered Guided, but in that respect they're no different than dialog boxes or Wizards. I just can't remember where to find things a lot of the time.

Unfortunately, these are the things that rarely change before the product ships. Stuff that I expect to improve are the performance (the beta is slow) and the selection of presets, actions, and templates (they're pretty thin). But I'll check back when it ships at the end of September and see if there are any pleasant surprises. Price is either $79.99 or $99.99, depending on if you buy it via the Adobe store and/or believe in mail-in rebates. Add $40 for the plus-membership option.

 

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