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Photo Editing Made Too Simple?

Taking pictures with a digital camera may be a snapˇXliterallyˇXbut editing, improving, and printing your photos and photo projects can be daunting at times. Photo Explosion Deluxe ($50 street, minus $20 mail-in rebate) attempts to provide a strongˇXand welcomeˇXdose of simplicity. Unfortunately, the software is a bit too simple and lacks the polish and ease of use we've come to expect in photo-editing software.

Installation wasn't as painless as we would have liked. The software often tells you to insert a disc in the CD drive but neglects to tell you which disc it wants. In addition to the program, the discs hold 7,500 projects and photos. The lite version, Photo Explosion ($29 direct), has 4,000 projects and photos. To install all of Deluxe, you'll need about 900MB. You can tuck the basic version of Deluxe into 400MB, but installing the full package is a good idea; with just the basic program, you'll have to keep the discs handy for many of your projects.

The program operates in three partsˇXBrowse, Photos, and ProjectsˇXand that's typically the order you work in: locating photos, enhancing them, and creating picture projects. Unlike with Microsoft Picture It!, which has versions priced roughly on a par with Photo Explosion and Photo Explosion Deluxe, you typically won't find wizards or step-by-step instructions to help you perform smaller tasks, such as removing red eye. And when you hit F1 for help, you often get generic or barely on-topic assistance. Deluxe gives you the most common editing tools, including an automatic image-correction facility called SmartEnhance. But you don't get a fill flash capability, which is used to lighten faces when they're in shadow, or backlighting controlsˇXtwo very useful tools found in Microsoft Picture It! and the pricier tool Adobe Photoshop Elements.

When you're editing photos or applying special effects, you can typically preview ten thumbnails and drag the one that looks best into the workspace. The concept is good, but the thumbnails are a bit small for their intended purpose. Of course, you can undo the action and try again.

Enforced and possibly excessive simplicity rears up in a number of ways. Adjusting gamma (the way a monitor displays midtones) involves eyeballing two color patches and adjusting the second until it matches the first. This is better than nothing, and it is simple, but Adobe's more costly Photoshop Elements provides a standalone utility of greater precision and complexity. When you go to save a file, size matters: Big files provide higher quality, but they take more time to upload. A 500K file (what you'd get saving a photo from a 3-megapixel camera with minimal compression) takes about 3 minutes with a 28.8-Kbps modem. For some formats, Deluxe lets you save it only as Good, Better, or Best picture quality. Other formats allow you to choose a compression level, but this isn't clear out of the box. Other programs, such as Photoshop Elements, let you choose ten quality levels, tell you how big the resulting file will be, and at least try to estimate how long transferring the file via modem will take at each of the three most common speeds.

Photo Explosion Deluxe's strongest feature is its extensive library of frames, special effects, clip art, props (such as text balloons), and project ideas. You'll like the results you get from making a photo scrapbook or calendar or from posting images on the Web.

Features everyone will find useful include the ability to burn self-running photo slide shows onto CDs you can then play on PCs and on many DVD players, a tool that lets you easily e-mail individual photos from the program, and a facility that creates wide-angle panoramas from multiple images. You can also use Deluxe to capture images from scanners and digital cameras and put them on fun gift objectsˇXmouse pads, mugs, and so on.

The company has focused so much on simplicity, however, that it hampers usability. When it comes to image editing, having your photos printed on a chocolate pop or a sticky note may not be reason enough to put this program at the top of your consideration list.

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