Editors' note: This is an updated and rated version of the First Take published on April 15, 2013, based on subsequent testing of the final software.
The latest iteration of Adobe's raw-editing and management software, Adobe Lightroom 5, offers a modest set of enhancements that will make some photographers very happy but will probably make a large number of others shrug and choose to skip it. The biggest news: support for proxy editing of disconnected images, a feature dubbed Smart Preview. Other highlights include an overdue distortion and perspective correction tool, Upright; reusable custom page layouts and page-numbering tweaks in the Book module; a radial filter; the expansion of the spot healing/clone tool into a full-blown healing brush; and the option to insert playable videos into slideshows. Plus, there are the usual myriad small updates. What's not here: still no face recognition or tagging, HDR editing, panorama stitching, or expansion of the video capabilities.
Lightroom 5 is available for free with a Creative Cloud membership; full single-copy price is $149 and upgrades are $79, the same as the previous version. The full retail price is a bit higher than some competitors like Apple Aperture ($79.99) and Corel AfterShot Pro ($49.99), but not as high as DxO Optics Pro Elite Edition ($299, though currently $199) or Phase One Capture One Pro ($299, with a special offer of $249). That's about right, as its capabilities fall in the middle of the pack as well.
With this version, Adobe dropped support for Windows Vista and OS X 10.6.8 and earlier. The latter may prevent some folks from jumping to Lightroom 5 -- the last estimates I found indicate that about 30 percent of OS X users have resisted the call of the wilder, sticking with Snow Leopard rather than moving to newer, sleeker cats. In the interim between the beta release and now, however, there've been some grumblings but not a great outcry, at least that I can find.
Upgrading from LR4 entails importing your old catalog file(s); LR5 offers to back up the old version, and the import parses the file to add the new searchable metadata fields added in LR5. I gave up timing the import at 40 minutes, when the progress bar indicated it was about 10 percent of the way through. This is something you'll probably want to leave for overnight.
As far as I can tell, performance hasn't improved; in fact, it seems a little slower on my system. Oddly, it took about 4.5 minutes to import in place 11,850 files for the beta but about 13 minutes to do so for 6,568 files, 133GB, with the final version (on a 2.2GHz Core i7 system with 8GB RAM equipped with a 2GB Nvidia Quadro 2000M and running 64-bit Windows 7, from an external drive connected via USB 3). Import in place doesn't copy files, so this is mostly CPU performance with some file reading that might bog it down a little. (Please, Adobe, the import pane could use a date-sort option.) The pause when switching between modules as it loads the full image also remains. Overall, however, working in the application feels zippy enough on a reasonably powerful system.
So, on to the new features. Lightroom plays catch-up with Phase One, adding the really useful proxy editing Smart Preview feature for working with images stored on disconnected drives. Called Smart Previews, LR5 can selectively or automatically generate roughly 2,560x1,596-pixel (size depends on original aspect ratio), 1.5MB (or smaller) versions of images that it stores in its lossy DNG format. You generate them via a globally applied check box on import, select to generate them individually on already-imported files, or set a global preference for it. They can also be selectively discarded. By using the new Has Smart Preview metadata flag I quickly built a Smart Collection of images without proxies; with the final software it took just under 26 minutes to generate about 1,400 Smart Previews, far slower than the 45 minutes to generate the SPs for a little more than 6,000 images with the beta.
When a drive is disconnected, you can work on these proxies; when you reconnect the drive, the application automatically syncs the changes. You can also export from the Smart Preview. The Smart Preview files reside in a separate catalog that lives in the same folder as the main LR catalogs. Since they're regular DNG files, you can even open them in Photoshop, which is nice, though the folder structure is annoyingly discrete, creating a separate folder for each file. SPs for 9,410 files took 7.17GB of disk space (in contrast, the minimal previews for 20,847 files took only about 5.2GB).
Smart Preview worked seamlessly for me. If you have images scattered across multiple storage devices that you have to retrieve periodically, this may come in quite handy. But if you have a smallish solid-state drive (SSD) the catalog bloat may require you to use another storage device for your Lightroom catalogs. You can filter by Smart Preview for quick purges; other new filter criteria include file size, bit depth, number of color channels, color profile, and PNG file type (you can now import PNG files).
Another universally welcome new capability is the expansion of the spot healing/clone tool into a brush for working on irregularly shaped areas. It's not without its glitches, perhaps because it's unused to finding matches for larger areas -- while trying to fix a large under-eye area it drew from the lips in one case and eyelashes in another, neither of which is a good look -- but it's certainly a useful feature extension. Also, Shift+Q will toggle you between clone and heal.