Adobe's AI-powered Photoshop update is a time-saver

It is hit or miss depending on the background, though.

Adobe has unveiled Photoshop 19.1 with a much-anticipated AI-based feature for photo retouchers and a fix for longstanding Windows display issues. The first feature is called "select subject," and uses Adobe's Sensei deep-learning algorithms to make it much easier to isolate subjects from backgrounds. Adobe sent Engadget a preview copy of Photoshop to test, and I found that it's a big time-saver that doesn't always work, especially if your subject and what's behind it are too similar.

The tool is certainly simple to use. You load up your photo and choose either the "quick selection," "magic wand", or "select and mask" tools to bring up the "select subject" option at the top of the screen. Once you choose that, the AI does the rest, attempting to find the subject in the shot, whether an animal, human or prominent inanimate object.

To be clear, Adobe does not tout this as a feature that can automatically and perfectly select things for you, in the same way as dedicated apps like Fluid Mask. Rather, it aims to do a decent job of getting you started, making the rest of the manual process much simpler.

For instance, photo retouching specialists often separate models from their backgrounds in order to do things like change their skin tone or blur the background more. The first step of that is often to use a magic wand or manually outline the person, both of which are hit and miss and time-consuming. The select subject feature does the entire first step in one shot, freeing your time to fine tune the selection in areas like hair or clothing.

I tried it myself on a bunch of scenes of people, cameras, dogs and cats, and as you'd expect, how well it worked depended completely on the photo (see the gallery, above). If the subjects are well-separated from their backgrounds in terms of colors, shape and depth of field, the system works well. On the other hand, if the background is similar or overly complex, then the feature failed to varying degrees. (To be fair, a subject not well-separated from its background means you probably took a bad photo.)

Even if the selection was poor, the system still saved me a bit of time. Sometimes, however, it was easier to just punt and select things manually from scratch. Overall, it's a nice addition, but hopefully Adobe will improve it to the point that it makes everything more automatic.

The other primary improvement in Photoshop 19.1 is high-resolution monitor support for Windows 10 Creator's Edition. Up until today, users with high-resolution QHD or 4K laptop or desktop monitors could end up with tiny text, making the app nearly unusable without a lot of fiddling. That sucks considering that many folks probably bought their high-res screens to do Photoshop better.

With the new release, Photoshop "now offers a full range of choices for UI scale factors from 100 percent to 400 percent, in 25 percent increments ... so that the Photoshop user interface will look crisp, beautiful, and the right size no matter the density of your monitor," Adobe said. The app will automatically adjust itself based on your Windows settings.

What's more, Photoshop also works better for those of us who use dual monitor setups with multiple resolutions (I have a 3,200 x 1,800 pixel laptop, and 4K primary display, for instance). "One monitor can have a scale factor of 175 percent and another a scale factor of 400 percent," Adobe said. "This allows Windows users to choose either the highest-end 13-inch laptops with 4k screens, the more affordable 1080p models, or tap into the new 8k desktop monitors, each with an uncompromised experience."

Speaking of Microsoft, Adobe also improved support for the Dial controller. The feature is no longer a technical preview, and you can now change brush settings on the fly while you paint, rather than between strokes as before. Photoshop 19.1 rolls out today with other Adobe CC products and should be available in your neck of the woods soon.