Two years ago, Microsoft shipped Windows XP with an enhanced and more integrated My Pictures folder, the aim of which was to make organizing digital photos and other images easier than ever before. Microsoft's excellent new Scanner and Camera Wizard--which appears whenever you attach a scanner, digital camera, or image-filled storage device to your PC--uses the My Pictures by default, giving users of that system a central location for their photos and other digital images. Also, XP's Image Preview application simplifies viewing images and making minor edits.

However, XP isn't perfect, and the My Pictures folder, as part of the file system, can be a bit abstract and technical for many users--especially beginners. Recognizing the growing number of digital-camera users, many third-party application developers have recently begun working on ways for users to easily manage and edit their digital photos. Photo-editing applications such as Adobe Systems' Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Picture It! have been around for years, but a more recent development is a new generation of photo-management applications that often work in concert with their editing siblings. This time, I start a two-part look at three recently updated products and see how they compare to one another.

First, note that Mac OS X users already have an excellent photo-management application on their systems. In many ways, Apple Computer's iPhoto--which comes free with every new Macintosh--is the prototypical photo-management software. iPhoto offers management functionality and basic editing (e.g., red-eye removal, brightness and contrast adjustment), along with printing and Internet-based photo-book creation. It's an attractive application, although it doesn't perform well with large image libraries.

Until recently, we haven't had a decent iPhoto equivalent on the PC. However, the situation improved with the release of Adobe Photoshop Album earlier this year. Since Adobe first released this application, the company has upgraded it significantly in version 2.0, which is now available. Like any good photo-management application, PhotoShop Album 2.0 lets you use standard folder views to organize your photos. But Adobe also introduces a unique "tagging" system that lets you apply topic tags such as people, places, and events. By tagging your photos, you can organize them in various ways. For example, if you want to view only photos of your family's vacations, you might create tags called Family and Vacations, then choose to view just those photos. The feature works well, but of course it requires that you actually tag the photos as you import them into your photo library. And, yes, you can apply multiple tags to each photo, if necessary.

Photoshop Album also offers a cool Calendar View that lets you use a monthly calendar to search for photos by date. On each day of the month for which you have pictures, a thumbnail of one of the photos appears. The effect is fun and visually stimulating, and this view lets you easily find photos for particular events. Complementing the Calendar View is a time line that runs across the top of the Photoshop Album window, divided horizontally into years and months. Each month that contains photos displays a small bar graph, the height of which depends on the number of photos you've taken for that month. These views make Photoshop Album a versatile tool for quickly finding pictures.

For editing purposes, Photoshop Album features a Fix Photo tool that lets you fix lighting, adjust color, sharpen, crop, reduce red eye, and apply filters such as black-and-white and sepia. The graphically challenged can use the handy Auto Fix tool. For more complicated needs, Adobe integrates Photoshop Album with Photoshop Elements 2.0, which is excellent, if overpowered, for most consumers. (You can purchase both products together in the creatively titled bundle Photoshop Elements 2.0 Plus Photoshop Album 2.0 at a special low price.)

I highly recommend Photoshop Album. The only missing feature I'd like to see included is image batching. Photoshop Album doesn't, for example, offer a way to easily resize a folder full of photos. For this functionality, I still use Photoshop Elements 2.0.

Microsoft doesn't sell a standalone photo-management tool, but the company does sell Digital Image Suite 9.0, which bundles a new product called Digital Image Library 9.0 with a new image-editing application, Digital Image Pro 9.0. You can buy Digital Image Pro 9.0 separately, but the only way to get Digital Image Library is in the bundle.

The bundle is worth your consideration, particularly if you're comfortable with the folder-based approach Microsoft started with My Pictures. By default, Digital Image Library uses Folder View navigation, although you can also sort by date or keyword--the latter of which is similar to, if less graphical than, Adobe's tagging feature. Microsoft's product seems more powerful, however, and as a result is more technical in nature. Within any view style, for example, you can sort photos by a number of criteria, such as Date Taken, Event, and File Size, giving the application a database-like feel. The software also lets you rate pictures, much like Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 Series lets you rate songs, another database-like feature.

I'm out of space. Next time, I'll finish my photo-management software roundup and declare a winner.