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Hands on preview: Adobe updates its Elements

New versions of Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements boost organizational capabilities, automation and ties with

Time again for Adobe's annual update of its consumer photo- and video-editing applications, Photoshop Elements (Windows | Mac) and Premiere Elements (Windows only). We're up to version 8 now, and while there's no killer must-have new capability--unless you consider automatic sync across multiple computers--the two products still provide solid mass appeal for their respective markets.

As in the past, you can buy the pair together for $149.99, which is a far more attractive buy for video-editing shoppers than Photoshoppers, and in fact the combination makes quite a nice bundle for home videographers. Independently, they're $99.99 each. Tack "Plus" to the name of the product for another $40 and you get an extra 20GB on the otherwise free membership (along with ongoing new template and tutorial content), which will then cost you $50 annually to renew.

The latter becomes key if you plan to take advantage of one of the nicer new features, the ability to sync your videos, photos, music, projects, and PDF files across multiple systems using as the hub. (In case you missed it, rolled out video support last month in preparation for this release of Pre.) While Adobe doesn't make a Plus membership a requirement for doing so, you'll very quickly max out your free 2GB without it.

After allowing the product to languish for a while, with 8 Adobe brings the Mac version of Photoshop Elements up to parity with the Windows version and with the buzzy new features in iPhoto, including face recognition and geotagging/mapping. Unlike iPhoto, however, there's no direct upload to Facebook, though it supports a broader number of services, including Kodak EasyShare Gallery and Smugmug. Annoyingly, those choices are buried as More Options on the Share pane (likely because the interface decision was based on the technology used--implemented via an API rather than core program code--rather than where the user will look for them).

Like most current facial recognition implementations, Adobe's is only moderately accurate. For instance, in many photos it correctly identifies one person, but didn't detect others and thought inanimate objects were faces. The batch detection and labeling where you confirm different faces in groups of selected images is better, but still a little clunky.

PSE also includes a version of Photoshop CS4's Content Aware Scaling, Adobe's implementation of seam-carving technology, called Recompose. Recompose sort of lets you selectively drop objects from a photo as you scale it down, preserving those elements that you designate as worth keeping.

Now that Adobe includes the Organizer with both products, it's been updated to handle video and audio files rather than just stills, which is nice, especially for Premiere Elements users. There's some more "Smarts" in the latest version of Premiere: SmartFix, which makes adjustments to perceived flaws detected by the Auto Analyzer (a feature introduced in the last version that parses and tags files for problems with shake, exposure, focus, and so on); Smart Trim, which extracts clips based on similarly derived information; and SmartMix, which automatically fades voice and background audio tracks in and out depending upon your prioritization.

If you want to take some creative risks, you can use the Motion Tracking, which lets you sync effects, text, or graphics to objects in a scene, or Effects Masking, which applies effects only to specific rectangular selections. (Unfortunately, I ran into technical difficulties with mix 'n' match betas on my system that prevented several features from working when I tried to create the walkthrough for Premiere.)

I'm reserving judgment on performance, stability, and quality of results (especially on Photoshop Elements' tricky Recompose tool) until I have final versions of the software. Since it's shipping now, that should be soon.