Adobe Carousel (Revel) Review (UPDATE: 1/12/12)



Memorophilia: the love of memories



Every once in a while a bit of ones and zeros come together to make a piece of software that strikes an unforgettable chord with a user.  Sometimes it makes a lasting impression that a person will look back on for the rest of his or her life.  One of those moments for me was the first time I played Super Mario Bros. I was at my cousin’s house, and everyone else remembers how I was so into the game that I would actually lift my arms spastically whenever I wanted Mario to jump.  I just remember the empowering experience of holding a plastic controller in my hand and causing the image of a man on a screen to do whatever I told him to do.  While Adobe Carousel doesn’t quite meetup to the high standard set by good ol’ Mario, it certainly has made a lasting impression and brings up quite a few questions as to what the future of photo storage and sharing will look like. Tech bloggers have long been heralding the demise of everything from the mouse to the desktop computer, but few have dared to become the literary harbinger of the death of the physical photo album.  Carousel may just be the shot heard ‘round the world in that story.

First off, a little background.  If you are not familiar with Carousel, let me summarize it for you.  Carousel is an app currently available for iOS and Mac OSX Lion.  It allows a subscriber to store an unlimited number of photos on Adobe’s cloud for in-app access on any of these platforms.  Users can create different Carousels(which are like albums),that allow them to share those photo groups with other Carousel users.  The length and breadth of Carousel’s feature set has already been documented here, so take a few minutes to review that article before continuing. Now for a small disclaimer - the first hands-on time that I got with Carousel was on the iPad 2. Coincidentally, this was the first time I’ve used any iPad or iOS device for that matter.  I tried to look beyond that to give an objective view of how the app stands alone, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between what is a plus or minus because of the app or the OS.  That being said, my review of Carousel is an attempt to look only at the app’s performance and is not meant to reflect in any way on the performance of iOS.  Since Carousel is also a desktop app, I ran it on my 15” Core i7 MacBook Pro.

You're first presented with this screen when you run Carousel on the iPad or OSX.

Carousel for all current platforms (Windows and Android support are on the slate for early 2012) is available only in the Apple App Stores for iOS and OSX. Installation is simple and painless, removing the extra step of saving aDMG file and running the installer. If you have an Adobe ID like you would use for Photoshop.com or Photoshop Elements, you simply sign in with those credentials to get started.  Setting up a new account is as easy as getting a Gmail account.  You can choose to either start a 30 day trial or go ahead and pay for a subscription upfront.

iOS

Starting with the iPad, I activated my Carousel account 30-day trial with my existing Adobe ID. Aside from a few screenshots with basic instructions, there isn’t any detailed “getting started” guide offered. There isn’t a need for one. You are automatically setup with one Carousel.  From there, just start adding images.  I installed Dropbox on the iPad and starting bringing some photos that I had stored there into the iPad’s photo library.  After that, Carousel could import them in bulk.  At the bottom left corner, there’s a indicator light telling you if Carousel is online or offline and in sync or synchronizing. You can tap a “view status” button to see details on the activity currently in progress.

Getting the images uploaded is almost imperceptible.  The pictures are either there or not.  There’s no waiting for spinning icons or staring at fuzzy lo-res thumbnails telling you that the image isn’t actually there yet.  If you can see it in Carousel, it’s there, and you can start manipulating it.

Image Editing

Looking at "looks" on the iPad.

While Carousel is no Photoshop, it does share some similarities while still distinguishing itself from its older, more feature-rich brother.  Image modification is broken down into three basic categories: Looks, Adjustments,and Crop & Rotate.  “Looks”gives you a variety of predetermined filters and effects to choose from.  Selecting one gives your entire photo a quick overhaul.  Vignettes, color balance, and sharpness are a few of many different parameters shuffled around when you browse through the various buttons.

“Adjustments” is where the real magic happens, but here is where I find my first beef with Carousel. Under the adjustments panel, you’re presented with white balance,exposure, and contrast.  Unless you know to click the double arrows on each, you won’t realize that each of these three sliders also has three more adjustments underlying.  The icon should probably be traded out for something more familiar like a drop-down arrow.

In the style of consumer-oriented photo editors, there are obvious “auto” buttons that will allow the algorithms take the place of your eyes to try and figure out the best tweaks for your photograph.  Adjusting the sliders manually gives a very fast preview of how your image is affected.  With the iPad 2’s dual core chip, it was difficult to notice even the slightest lag in response. There’s also a handy “compare” button always available north of the adjustments,which allows you to quickly A/B between your original and the new version.  Once you’re happy with the results,click “apply” to save the changes and be sent back to your Carousel.



The "adjustments" screen on the Mac.



Sharing with Lion

After I was comfortable with the iOS version of Carousel, I installed the application on my laptop to compare.  Signing in with my Adobe ID on Lion immediately displayed my Carousel images.  Adobe has some sort of pixie dust working behind the scenes, because once you’re logged in, there is virtually no delay until you can start viewing and editing your images.  It seems that the images are fully stored in the cloud, but they can, almost like video, be immediately streamed to the device once an image is requested. It’s hard to explain, but it works really well in practice.

My wife and I then sat side-by-side on the same wi-fi connection.  I wielded the iPad while she handled the MacBook.  The first thing that we noticed was that all of my edits were visible on her interface, including photos I had starred as favorites.  She opened an image that I had modified and found that the adjustment sliders were in the same positions that I had set them to.  She could then manipulate the image further and save those changes. The updated image showed up on my side within seconds.  The beauty of always remembering the slider positions is that you never have to choose between saving a new version or overwriting your original.  You can simply reset the sliders to zero and undo any other changes very easily.  A button allowing all changes to be reset to zero would be very handy.  If you do want to keep different versions of a photo, you can choose to duplicate your image and try another look.  My wife and I went back and forth for awhile in a game of photo manipulation pinball until we finally caused Carousel to blink.
Sample of my Carousels on the Mac.




I made a cropping adjustment to a particular photo, and it would not refresh on her end.  I even tried cropping it again with no result.  Then I tried editing other images and they refreshed as expected.  That one image stubbornly refused to update.  Finally, she opened it and made her own cropping change.  Then it updated my iPad version to look like hers.  We then pushed it even further by trying to edit the same image at once.  I was told in a pre-release briefing by Adobe that if this happened, the users would be presented with a choice.  They would be shown both edited images and be asked to choose which one they wanted to go with.  We couldn’t get this feature to work,so it seems that whoever hits the  “apply” button last wins.  This could be a real thorn in the side for large groups that are working within the same Carousel at once.

Unification

For the most part, the iOS version and OSX version are very similar.  There were only two significant differences I noticed. One was that some buttons are arranged a little differently between the two versions.  The other was the icon for entering the adjustment mode. The iOS version says “develop,” while the OSX version has an“adjustment” icon similar to Adobe’s other products: a plus and minus with a triangle on it.  Still, I’ll give them an A for keeping the two versions extremely similar in look, feel, and function.

While the Lion version of Carousel is supposed to support it’s all-important multi-touch gestures, I could get none of them to work in my testing.  The iOS version supports pinch-to-zoom as well as any other program, but the desktop version simply would not respond.  It seems that three-finger rotation is not supported in either version.


The future’s gonna cost

With Adobe being first to market with software that accomplishes all of these features, they have the advantage of getting first crack at trying to set a trend for how the business model will work.  A 30-day trial is offered to anyone who wants to give Carousel a spin before committing.  However, after January 31, 2012, those same users and any new arrivals will be forking over $99.99 for each year that they want their photos stored on Carousel’s servers. Perspective compels us to remember that the cost doesn’t just pay for cloud storage of a photo library. It’s also including the software used to edit and share the images.  Plus, each Carousel can be shared with up to five others.  In reality,that $100 per year can get you a lot of functionality and allows you to even consider sharing the financial load with other family members that may want to participate in your Carousels. While $8.25 per month isn’t a bank-breaker for most, it’s also not an amount that would fall within many people’s “mad money” expenditure.  The challenge will be whether Adobe can get consumers to see this convenience as a necessity and not just a luxury.

Conclusion

During pre-release screenings and hands-on testing, Carousel has left an indelible impact on me several times.  The speed and invisibility of the sync process evoked some audible “wows” from me.  Adobe has combined their powerful algorithm arsenal with their ability to simplify image editing, creating another piece of technology that can entice a broad audience of consumers.  The warning signs that stand out to me have to do mostly with dilution of their brand.  Adobe was wise to leave the name“Photoshop” out of Carousel completely. With multiple versions of Photoshop already available for desktops,mobile phones, and tablets, another namesake would probably have caused overload for people looking for the right software solution.  The question remains, though, how people that already use Photoshop.com for cloud storage in Elements will accept to this new and familiar challenger.

My prediction is that by this time next year, we’ll see Adobe clearly favoring one of these solutions or the other based on the successor failure of Carousel.  I love the idea of having my entire photo library accessible anywhere at anytime, provided have my device of choice with me, but it may be worth the wait to see who challenges Adobe’s pole position and starts the pricing war.

UPDATE

Adobe announced yesterday that they are renaming Carousel to Adobe Revel.  I'm still a bit on the fence with the new name, but to me it describes the product even less than the original name.  Either way, Revel is here to stay.
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