Ulead PhotoImpact XL

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Not an exciting release or upgrade but still plenty for new users to get to grips with.

Ulead PhotoImpact has almost as long a history as Photoshop itself, beginning back in 1988 when three Taiwanese developers formed Ulead to produce imaging software, most notably PhotoStyler which it developed for Aldus. With the acquisition of Aldus by Adobe and the arrival of Windows 95, Ulead decided to launch its own application, PhotoImpact. What distinguished the program was its emphasis on eye-catching end results and a willingness to break new ground such as its pioneering introduction of advanced web features and 2D, and even pseudo-3D, vector shape handling. And now to celebrate the company's 15th year and the program's ninth release, Ulead has clambered on board the suffix bandwagon with the launch of PhotoImpact XL.

So what's new? Ease of use is one of the few areas where it's possible to outscore Photoshop/Elements and, with features such as its central thumbnail-based EasyPalette for instantly applying effects, PhotoImpact has always emphasized a visual approach to producing fast results. Taking up this theme is the new ExpressFix feature, a large, step-by-step dialog which presents automatically generated thumbnails of your image with varying degrees of contrast, brightness, focus, extra cyan, magenta and so on. All you have to do is sequentially select the ones that catch your eye and which you feel improve your image. Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of this take-what-you're-given approach to image enhancement, but you can at least customize the level of variation for each effect and the large Before and After previews should stop you from going far wrong.

PhotoImpact XL emphasizes its visual and experimental approach to photo editing.

PhotoImpact isn't only aimed at the entry-level and occasional user and this latest release provides some surprisingly advanced colour control. Using the new Colour Cast command you can select what should be a neutral colour from the source image and this is highlighted on the dialog's colour wheel. You can then drag towards the centre of the colour wheel to correct the cast. Even more advanced is the new High Dynamic Range feature which combines different shots taken using different exposure levels to produce a final image with higher "perceivable tonal range" closer to what the eye actually sees. I can't see this feature being used by many PhotoImpact users (you really need a tripod and professional digital camera to get the best results), but when a similar capability is added to Photoshop I'm sure it will be hailed as a major breakthrough.

PhotoImpact XL is on surer ground with its range of new filters. PhotoImpact has always majored on eye-catching special effects and this latest release adds some valuable new capabilities. The Sunlight filter very effectively brings dull photos to life by controlling features such as overall warmth while applying additional filters to, for example, increase the blueness of the sky. Other photographic effects include Diffraction Filter, which creates subtle rainbow effects around highlights and Multivision Filter which creates semi-transparent reproductions arrayed around the original. And to add real impact to night images there's the Moon effect which lets you set the moon's phase and angle and then control the surrounding lighting.

Sadly that's just about it for new photo-editing power which is seriously disappointing - in particular, existing users are unlikely to benefit regularly from the new features so there's little reason to upgrade. However, new users get an amazing amount of power for their money especially when you remember that PhotoImpact itself is only part of the equation. Alongside the main photo-editing module you also get separate utilities for on-the-fly visual image management, GIF animation, immersive panorama creation and a comprehensive cataloguing program, Album, designed to bring your digital camera images under control. You also get an in-built screen capture utility which ensures that PhotoImpact is one of the applications that I turn to on a daily basis.

Crucially all these utilities and extras address areas in which Photoshop (and Photoshop Elements) provides limited functionality at best so it's possible to see PhotoImpact and its associated modules as a complementary partner to Photoshop as well as a viable alternative to Photoshop Elements.

Features
4
Ease of Use
3
Value for Money
6
Overall
4

ratings out of 6

PhotoImpact
Software / Upgrade
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System requirements: Pentium II, 128MB of RAM, 450MB of hard disk space, Windows 98SE, 2000, NT 4 (SP6) or XP, 800x600 display, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

March 2004


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