Monday, April 13, 2015

Corel PaintShop Pro X7...still not worth using

I am in the process of finishing up a reinstall of Windows on shiny new hardware. During my adventure, one of the pieces of software I've been needing to upgrade or replace for some time has been Photoshop. I've got CS3 Extended (picked it up for about $300 as an upgrade from 6.0) and, while it serves its purpose, the bugs on newer versions of Windows are incredibly frustrating (even for someone like me who rarely uses it). Adobe Creative Cloud is a non-starter for me for a wide variety of reasons that have already been beaten to death elsewhere on the Internets. I fire up Photoshop about once every 3-4 months, so $120/year is pretty absurd. $1,500+ for CS6 is completely bonkers. Photoshop Elements also doesn't have the feature set I need.

Here is what I depend on in order of most-used:

  1. The color picker in Photoshop. The active response while dragging sliders around and the ability to select specific hue, saturation, and brightness values. The ability to copy and paste hex codes as well. I also need the full dialog (especially the alerts), not the cut-down version of Elements (which lacks alerts).
  2. The vector toolset.
  3. The text toolset.
  4. The style box. Mostly for drop shadows.
  5. Layers.
  6. Layer groups.
  7. Polygon selection tool.
  8. Unlimited undo/redo.
Everything else is almost useless to me. I realize my needs are in the minority, which is why my #2 need is going to have most people who use Photoshop to be all like, "Wait? People actually use that? Why not Illustrator? Or Inkscape?" It's the blend of vector and raster that is needed for web development (e.g. icons) and Photoshop still does that best (IMO). I operate on a fixed-size canvas of these things called pixels. Maybe you've heard of them and this thing called the web before (and possibly print). Yeah, welcome to 2015.

But enough about Photoshop. I was looking for "alternatives to Photoshop" and an article came up with a list of alternates. The typical #1 on the list was GIMP [sigh] - the ONLY graphics editing software that still lives up to its name. (It's 2015 and GIMP still doesn't have real vector layer support?) Now that that's out of the way, a few other non-starters showed up as well. Then PaintShop Pro showed up near the end of the list and I went, "Wait...why does that name sound familiar?" I searched for it and then had a nostalgic flashback from the past. I had used PaintShop Pro 3 WAAAAY back in the day when I couldn't afford much of anything, so I just ran the non-expiring shareware version forever. I remember reading that Corel picked them up and then I never heard about the product again.

Until two days ago. PaintShop Pro is apparently "frequently" compared to Photoshop Elements. Finding useful information on the product is scant (at best) but, for some reason, is covered by PC Magazine - one of the most coveted magazines that software publishers want to get into that also somehow still exists. Unfortunately, the current version of the product (X7 - aka version 14) is severely lacking in the core tools I use and is clearly targeted at the consumer market and still failing to miss the mark - maybe find a different target audience? Like me. Target me. Corel, stick me on your beta testing program.

  1. The color picker is woefully useless and inconsistent everywhere for my needs. There's just something basically perfect about the Photoshop color picker. Select the hue first, then saturation and brightness. Get the right color and intensity in a fraction of the time. Now, PaintShop Pro X7 does have some really interesting things going for their picker such as the complementary selection interface, but the online Adobe color wheel is just as good, if not better, and is free. I am actually a bit surprised to see that fairly advanced feature in PaintShop Pro because it targets people who understand color combinations...a topic that only a very specific group of people understand and had to specifically be trained on. Which makes the next failure utterly confounding.
  2. The vector toolset is broken in a critical way. I use the pen/point vector tool in Photoshop, which is essentially a mashup of PaintShop Pro's freeform and bezier curve tool. (The GIMP pathing tool does it right except there is no way to make a vector layer in GIMP, which makes it a completely useless piece of software.) With Photoshop, I make polygons that sometimes have bezier curves in them. PaintShop Pro's bezier curve tool terminates drawing once a point is placed after a curve is placed - it's really weird and I really did try for several hours to make it work but it is broken. Photoshop and GIMP allow "mixing" the two operations together. The PaintShop Pro vector toolset is not terribly responsive to common keyboard usage either. At this point, my hopes were crushed in finding a reasonable, up-to-date, affordable piece of software (anything under $100 is pretty affordable). On the plus side, text is able to follow an existing vector path, similar to later versions of Photoshop that I don't have access to. So there's that going for it.
  3. Photoshop seems to have better font rendering and adjustment options than PaintShop Pro. Selecting a font in PaintShop Pro X7 is about on par with Photoshop CS3. That said, selecting a single font out of hundreds of fonts for a specific purpose is a time consuming and annoying task that no tool, to date, solves with ANY elegance. And with THAT said, TrueType Fonts (TTF) are a disaster because there aren't any actual Standards for creating fonts that I can see. When I say size "20" in a program like PaintShop Pro or Photoshop, I expect all fonts to fit in the same box on the screen and follow the same rules as all other fonts. Whatever 20 actually means, no one agrees on it, so the end result is that every program renders the same font differently and font authors seem to get to choose what it means to them. And don't get me started on spacing - spacing between letters is so random in most fonts, it makes me wonder if font authors actually test the fonts they make. This is stupid. We should scrap the clearly broken TTF format and start over.
  4. PaintShop Pro's drop shadow dialog leaves a LOT to be desired. Big, heavy, ugly drop shadows. The dialog itself looks like they bolted it onto the side of the product to copy Photoshop back in the late 1990's and never touched it again. Also, the layer styles are buried under a tab. The other styles are limited and need work too.
  5. PaintShop Pro's layers aren't actually that bad. I'm not sure why they have so many types of layers. Maybe for performance reasons? I would only end up using vector and some raster layers, so I guess "hooray" for the extra layer types. I really like the expandable option of vector layers into the individual vector drawings. That's a nice-to-have feature but not absolutely necessary. The thumbnail images seem to be nearest neighbor instead of bicubic scaled.
  6. For some reason I was unable to create a layer group until a few seconds before writing this because the option was previously grayed out (not sure why that was the case). Now that I see them, I'm on the fence because layer groups look just like a regular layer and there could be confusion - but I suspect it would just take time to get used to. Dragging a layer onto a layer group to add it to the group is a bit finicky. However, Photoshop groups are equally finicky. No one, to date, seems to have figured out drag-n-drop support for layer groups which seems odd because groups are very useful and drag-n-drop, from a programming perspective, has existed since Windows 95.
  7. There is no raster polygon selection tool in PaintShop Pro X7. Uh...okay. That makes it much more difficult for me to cut a unicorn out of a picture and slap it on a different background while it holds a heart-shaped spatula in front of a BBQ grill which I, in turn, print onto a custom Home Depot gift card to give to someone. (Yes, that's a thing. That I do. Don't judge it until you've tried it and seen the expression on the recipient's face. Classic.) Freeform and automated selections are "nice" but polygon selection is MUCH better as it is significantly more refined/accurate while, at the same time, requires fewer mouse actions and thus saves my wrist and eyes from cutout tedium. UPDATE: Apparently I missed this functionality. It's hidden in a dropdown box called "Selection type" and called "point to point"...because that's apparently intuitive to Photoshop users. Video of some guy using the point-to-point tool after he basically admits that most of the other tools in the dropdown selection box are not particularly useful.
  8. I didn't test how much undo/redo there is in PaintShop Pro, but thank goodness multiple Ctrl+Z presses means a real undo operation. This is the only area where PaintShop Pro beats Photoshop, which requires doing the finger dance of Ctrl+Alt+Z (aka absolute bologna) to do undo to multiple levels. In Photoshop, Ctrl+Z does a single undo and then another Ctrl+Z undoes the undo - dude, that's what Ctrl+Y is for. The only thing better would be fully rebindable keys so that people could map their keyboard to do whatever is most convenient for them.
The one thing I really love in PaintShop Pro is how files are displayed as a series of tabs instead of the archaic MDI method of display (multiple windows in a window, which is what Photoshop does). I'm a huge fan of tabbed editing in my text editors, so to me it makes sense for image editing too. IMO, Crimson Editor does tabbed editing correctly (among countless other things that it does right). You can keep IntelliJ, Notepad++, Eclipse, Sublime, Emerald Editor (Crimson's failed successor), and the rest of those disasters of text editors. MDI interfaces like those in Photoshop serve little to no purpose. On the tabbed UI front, PaintShop Pro beats Photoshop hands-down. If you need to see two images side-by-side, it is easy to turn off the tabbed interface (Windows -> Tabbed checkbox). Maybe a newer version of Photoshop does the same thing, but the Elements 13 screenshots and videos I've seen don't indicate that anything has changed there.

Anyway...as I said earlier, PaintShop Pro X7 doesn't have a sufficient vector toolset to do serious work in. Their target audience seems to be the consumer crowd. That's a shame because the (rather large) target audience that isn't being catered to by either Corel or Adobe is the web designer. I make do in Photoshop, but with the vector toolset near the bottom of the list of tools and the way it feels when using it, it is clear that Adobe doesn't care about it. Same with PaintShop Pro X7. Vectors seem to take an unfortunate backseat in raster graphics packages. Partly because people don't understand what to do with them (education issue) and partly because the tools are rather weak to manipulate them in what are largely raster programs (a problem which feeds back into the education issue). When you marry vectors with powerful post-processed raster styles (drop shadows, borders, etc.), you get something rather unique: Mostly scalable raster objects that generally look really good at any size. That sort of thing resonates with the web designer and application developer in me.