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Adobe gently improves Photoshop Elements 13 (hands-on)

If you're looking for gee-whiz features, you won't find them here. But there are still some nice enhancements.

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Photoshop Elements 13 offers templates and automation for creating Facebook cover and profile photo combinations. The text is part of the template. Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Although this isn't a Wow-ser update to Adobe's veteran consumer photo-editing software, Adobe Photoshop Elements 13 retains the robust tools of its predecessors, and adds some nice enhancements that will probably make it worth your while to upgrade. At the very least, the update to 64-bit OS and Retina/high dots per inch (aka HiDPI) support should deliver a faster, better experience for long-time users. Its price remains the same as the previous version: $100, £78, AU$130 for the full version. Various upgrade and bundle prices are available as well.

The most obvious change you'll see when you launch the application is the new eLive (Elements Live) section, a curated selection of Elements how-tos, news and more from around the Web. In theory you won't have to search the Web for help anymore to compensate for that fact that finding information in Adobe's help system is generally...difficult.

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The new Elements Live newsfeed pulls in curated content from the Web. Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

It's also designed to engage you and spur creativity when you boot up the software. It is pretty effective at giving you an overview of new features and techniques to try, but it really needs a way to pin or bookmark specific items so you can come back when you actually need to know about that feature.

I think the most crowd-pleasing new feature is likely the ability to semiautomatically generate Facebook cover photos with matching profile photos. You can generate one from a single photo or collage multiple photos. Using a single photo is pretty tricky, unless you have a lot of photos in which something interesting is happening in the lower left corner, or if you shoot one specifically to use for the photo. You can resize, but I still couldn't make many photos fit gracefully.

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Although there are no new effects, Adobe added four variations for each of the 10 previous offerings. Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

PSE 13 also includes some new automation features in Quick Mode, including Crop Suggestions and three new Guided Edits. Crop suggestions can be quite useful: just select the crop tool and you can cycle through different variations of crop box locations and aspect ratios. You can also constrain it to only suggest crop with a specific aspect ratio, for example.

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Crop Suggestions lets you preview the different options by mousing over the thumbnails. Lori Grunin/CNET

Adobe adds to the program's Photomerge repertoire with Photomerge Compose, which is quite similar to the implementation in the Photoshop Mix app. Basically, it walks you through cutting an object out of one photo and pasting it into another, with some fine-tuning along the way.

It's a pretty straightforward process as it leads you through using the selection tools and refining the edges, then automatically pasting it into the background image. At this point you resize and move the pasted object, paint over the edges to Hide or Reveal areas that might have been improperly selected initially.

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Given the available tools, matching the look of the background image is difficult (if not impossible) without going into Expert mode. Lori Grunin/CNET

I admit to some disappointment with the last step, in which it tries to match the look of the two combined images. Auto never delivers decent results. The control sliders -- Luminance, Contrast, Temperature and Saturation -- not only don't match the parameters you want to adjust, but don't really strike me as the appropriate tools for the Quick editor in this program. For instance, one problem you run into frequently is that the light sources usually are coming from different directions, or one photo was shot with flash and the other wasn't. So I'd expect a preset called Flash, and/or a way to control directional luminance (call it "light source," for example) rather than just generic brightness.

The new Guided Edits are all for black and white effects: B&W Color Pop, B&W Selection and Black and White. The last is a simple black and white conversion in which you can select four intensities, two lighter and two darker, plus a contrast control.

B&W Color Pop is similar to the selective color filter available on digital cameras in which you select a color while the rest of the image gets desaturated. You can select from preset color ranges -- red, yellow, blue or green -- or select colors within the image and refine the range.

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The new B&W Color Pop Guided Edit works pretty well and is easy to use. Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Finally, B&W Selection is the reverse: you brush over the areas that you want to convert to grayscale and it automatically converts and creates a selection area with the quick mask tool. There's also a B&W detail brush, which lets you paint pixels in or out.

Adobe has also beefed up the slideshow options in Organizer, introducing more complex, multiphoto templates that generate movies that you can either upload directly to Facebook or save to your hard disk as 720p or 1080p movies.

As always, all of these operations are nondestructive; that is, you can step backward through everything and it never touches the original. And you can still fine-tune edits with the full Expert mode.

The editor still seems to take a little too long to load, at least initially, and switching modes between Quick, Guided and Expert also seems a bit sluggish. The Organizer is likewise slow on first load. Once both have been loaded, subsequent launches are reasonably fast.

There are some annoyances as well. When it couldn't find the files for an old catalog, I selected Reconnect thinking it would let give me a chance to tell it where to find them. (My drive mappings had changed since I last accessed the catalog.) But instead it proceeded to run a "preparation" which seemed to commence searching through all my unlinked files, with no way to cancel out of it.

Overall, the Photoshop Elements 13 update is solid, if unexciting. It's probably worth it just for the 64-bit and HiDPI/Retina support, though. And if you already have a favorite image editor, there probably isn't a lot to lure you away.

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