Review: PhotoLab


Let down by stability issues galore on anything less than a 2GB RAM flagship, PhotoLab is nevertheless an interesting application that goes beyond the usual image filtering to provide combinations and controls that will genuinely fire the imagination. Now if only the developer had programmed in a 'save' function before any final export... Gah!

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There are, of course, a lot of utiltiies on every platform that claim to add filters to photos and then share or otherwise save the results - but there are often catches, usually to do with low output resolutions, poor algorithms or intrusive ads - or all three, in some cases. PhotoLab manages to avoid all these traps, though gets caught in another, plus there's at least one fundamental flaw in the workflow.

Starting with a new photo from a basic camera instance embedded in the app or from one that you've previously taken, it's straight into the filters. Now, shunning limitations, right up front it's apparent that the aim here is not only to handle the full original image resolutions - in this case working at 8MP on the Lumia 830 and 5MP on the 930 - but also to allow the layering/blending of multiple filters. And, of course, half the fun here is in seeing what wild and wacky creative effects turn up in the process.

PhotoLab screenshotPhotoLab screenshot

The 'this is so empty' is a stock phrase, of course, but rather galling to see on a nicely composed photo regardless! Still, it shows a sense of fun from the developer. The interface is based around the three toolbar buttons shown - one to switch between filtered and the original image, one to add another filter, and one to move on (to save or share).

The smartphone screen suddenly looks rather small once you start adding filters, with those added listed along the bottom, those available for adding in the left/right/up/down carousel system on the right, the filtered image in the main window and then an advert at the top (and no way to get rid of this through an in-app purchase, sadly). That's a lot to fit in - I should have used a 6"-screened Lumia 1520!

The side-scrolling between batches of filters is the fiddliest part of all this, but it does all work with care.

PhotoLab screenshotPhotoLab screenshot

As shown above right, here's the basic camera instance built into the application - it'll do though 99% of the time you'll be starting with something you captured a while ago and want to do something with now.

The image filters and effects here can be stunning, not least because everything is at the full resolution. In fact, you have to be careful not to go over the top with the filters, since what looks good at screen resolution here may well be overwhelmingly 'artificial' when you look more closely at the final JPG, e.g. on a desktop or by cropping in. The ability to layer/combine filters is very handy indeed, with a setting tool to adjust the parameters being used - so you don't have to have 'all or nothing' with each filter.

You can have as many filters active as you like, with the confirmation thumbnails along the bottom on yet another carousel, this time scrolling sideways if needed.

PhotoLab screenshotPhotoLab screenshot

Being able to adjust the parameters of each filter is a lovely touch and something not found in many other similar applications - the adjustment pane is scrollable too, this time vertically - PhotoLab's almost behaving like it's a 'universal' application and half designed for tablets and laptops - yet I don't think this is the case? At least, not yet.

PhotoLab screenshotPhotoLab screenshot

Results are really rather good though, even I was getting a little drastic with the HDR and Vibrance in the example above!

What's the catch then? Certainly not a few typos in the interface (e.g. 'Distorsion' below) - but you will need a powerful Windows Phone. With as much RAM as possible and as fast a processor as possible. Manipulating 8 or 10MP images is very RAM and processor-intensive, as you can imagine. Yes, the OS does place limits on how much RAM any one application can access, but on a 2GB device the limit will be higher than on a 512MB device, for example.

In practical terms, some filters can take ages (many seconds) to apply on anything less than a Snapdragon 800 (so everything except the 1520 and 930, plus the HTC One), see the greyed out right panel below, right, with my test Lumia 830 stuck processing a combination of effects for well over 10 seconds at a time.

PhotoLab screenshotPhotoLab screenshot

In addition the RAM requirements do lead to instability, whatever the current PhotoLab changelog says in the Store entry. On my test (1GB) Lumia 830, I experienced numerous crashes (after applying multiple filters), with the application simply disappearing and being returned to my Start screen. Although an OS is supposed to stop applications exceeding their bounds - and you have to fault PhotoLab as much as Windows Phone here, it's also entirely reasonable that manipulating large images is going to cause a big spike in RAM requirements and that something might indeed break.

I tested this by running the same images and filters on the Lumia 930, with 2GB of RAM, and PhotoLab never crashed once. Definitely work to do here, probably on behalf of the developer. If there's not enough RAM then the application should ask for more, check if it gets allocated and if not, put up an error message rather than trying to grab it anyway and crashing.

There's also a problem here in terms of workflow - in order to get images out of PhotoLab you have to progress to the next stage, marked 'save' and 'share'. But what if you want to go back to apply more tweaks? Or to tweak something else you were working on earlier? In either case you're stuck - PhotoLab requires you to pick the photo from a line-up and start from scratch every single time. Given the amount of customisation offered and the number of filters, this is all a bit frustrating - there's a serious tool here struggling to break out from its wizard-like interface.

PhotoLab screenshotPhotoLab screenshot

Given the price (free) though, there's enough here to be worth downloading and keeping loaded. Give me a $1 purchase to zap the ads (and gain an extra 10% screen real estate), improve the stability and provide a way to save editing projects, and PhotoLab will be much higher up my list of Windows Phone recommendations.

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