Review: Adobe Photoshop Express beta

Adobe's long-awaited, and long-hyped, 21st-century debut online.

Adobe's VP of Hosted and Consumer Services refers to Photoshop Express as "the on-ramp to the Adobe digital-imaging franchise." Next exit Photoshop Elements? Construction delays? Slippery pavement ahead? The mind reels with metaphorical possibilities. With its familiar-looking organizational tools, slick Flash-based interface and robust retouching algorithms, Express embodies Adobe at its potential finest--this is a newborn beta, after all, and we should expect bugs. (If it should reach senior betahood, like Gmail, we will cease to forgive.) But there are also a few potholes in this on-ramp to beware.

The good: Slick, attractive interface; useful retouching tools and well-done interface for using them; most operations relatively fast.
The bad: Doesn't support photos from 12-megapixel or higher cameras; some unnattractive Terms of Service; no filtering or keywording; no printing options.
The bottom line: Though there's a lot to like about Adobe's first stab at online photo editing and sharing, you probably want to wait until the company fixes a few problems with the beta--and de-fangs its terms of service--before uploading scads of photos to Adobe Photoshop Express.

Ratings:
Design and ease of use: 8
Features: 7
Performance: 7
Policies: 5
Overall: 6.8 "/>

Photoshop Express is two things: a photo-sharing site targeting the millions of snapshot photographers who think software such as Photoshop Elements is too difficult, too disconnected or just too much, and a platform from which Adobe will serve partner sites with editing tools. At beta launch, Facebook, Photobucket and Picasa comprise the short list of partners; Flickr will be next in line, though a date has not been announced.

As a sharing site it's simultaneously pretty and functional. And it succeeds as a proof-of-concept that Flash and Flex allow you to create robust online applications that look and feel like local ones. For sharing, the feature set is pretty typical: it lets you upload photos into albums (up to 2GB), organize them, make them public for sharing or share them privately via email links, and generate and email nice-looking self-contained Flash slideshows. There's lots of dragging and dropping to organize, and a free vanity URL.

For editing, it delivers a better-than-average experience. In addition to a more-than-sufficient set of tools for adjusting exposure, color and sharpness and touching up artifacts like red-eye and fixing blemishes, it also supplies a basic set of specifial effects that let you turn bad or boring pictures into something a bit more interesting. The application also displays a snapshot history of your edits, which is a nice touch missing even from Adobe's desktop products. Most of the tools operate relatively quickly; only Distort left me singing the not-so-realtime blues. (For a discussion of the interface, click through the slide show.)

Click to take a tour of Photoshop Express.

Similarly, working with the third-party sites seems painless. For instance, you can open and edit your Facebook photos directly in Express, and it sends 'em back when you're done. However, rather than replacing the photo you just edited it adds it. (I'm not sure if that's a problem with Express or the Facebook API, so I'll reserve judgment.) For the time being, all editing must be initiated from Express; initially, Adobe plans to control all development. However, the company plans to release an API later this year that should allow for more interesting solutions.

Express obeys two of my most important policies for sites of its kind: when you send an album link to friends, it doesn't try to fool or force them into registering, and it allows you to upload and download the original-resolution files.

But there's a policy pothole on the ramp that almost broke my axle: Adobe's claims on your publicly shared photos. From the Terms of Service:
Adobe does not claim ownership of Your Content. However, with respect to Your Content that you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Services, you grant Adobe a worldwide, royalty-free, nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable license to use, distribute, derive revenue or other remuneration from, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, publicly perform and publicly display such Content (in whole or in part) and to incorporate such Content into other Materials or works in any format or medium now known or later developed. (emphasis mine)

In comparison, even Flickr's (now Yahoo's) TOS will relinquish its claim on your photos if you unregister from the site or make what was once public private. But "perpetual" and "irrevocable"? I'm going to give Adobe the benefit of the doubt and assume someone forgot to put the choke collar on the lawyers, letting something this heinous undesirable slip through. But I suggest avoiding making any albums public until this is changed. I'll update once I get some feedback from Adobe.

Even if you're not as paranoid about TOS agreements as I am, there are still quite a few rough spots in the initial beta. If you've got one of the shiny new 12-megapixel snapshot cameras, for example, you're out of luck: Express only supports photos with both dimensions less than 4000 pixels. There's no way to print--that's waiting on a partnership. You can't import email addresses. There's no keywording or filtering; the best you can do is sort. The uploader won't allow you to select directories, only files, and once you've started an upload you have to wait till it's done before doing anything else. As far as I can tell, however, no great technical hurdles block fixing these omissions.

As you'd expect, Adobe has big plans for the currently free Photoshop Express, which includes rolling out paid premium services and making it a platform to integrate with desktop products like Lightroom and Elements. And though it wasn't mentioned explicitly in my discussions with company representatives, I'm sure video support and integration with Premiere Elements is in the cards, too.

As the foundation for those big plans, I view Photoshop Express with cautious optimism. Taken at face value as a consumer photo-sharing site, the Flash-based interface makes it a lot more fun and natural to use than most competitors, and the editing tools are robust and nonthreatening. Still, I'd wait until the TOS are fixed before making any sort of commitment to the service.

 

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