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I have not used Photoshop Elements since version 2.0. In that version it was very similar to Photoshop as far as how the interface was designed. There were a few key elements that were missing such as the Curve adjustment. It is my understanding that there is a free download available from a third party source that will provide that capability.
As far as Camera Raw is concerned, you only have the adjustments that are on the basic panel and the details panel. That means you don't have all of the hue/saturation/luminance adjustments, or lens correction, or the capability to create presets, or to calibrate ACR specifically for your camera. As I understand it, it is not possible to load multiple images into ACR so that you can apply changes to all of them at once. And I don't believe you have the option of working in ACR in 16-bit mode.
With Photoshop Elements it is not possible to record actions to enable you to do batch processing of your images. What you have is a good quality basic single image photo editor.
I cannot tell you which to purchase. I don't know what you are accustomed to, nor do I fully understand your expectations. There are trial versions of both programs that you can download and try for 30 days to see what you think. They are fully functioning programs for that trial period, which should be ample time for you to determine which program will give you the most value.
Based on what your needs are, I would go w/ Elements and save your $$. I use both V6 & CS3, and will go eventually to Lightroom but thats another story. Elements is a surprsingly good low cost photo editor in my opinon. It has the latest Ver. Camera Raw which is where you'll do all your global processing. And remember w/ PS your paying for all that graphics dev capability that most photog's dont use... One really great feature you will not get w/ Elements is Curves adj., however, you have Levels and for local adj -- dodge & burn i.e. , just use a mask w/ levels -- and that works great ...
ACR is substantially crippled in Elements, even though it's the same plug-in used by CS3.
Substantially crippled is precisely the type of vague response the OP was
aimed at clarifying.
I think this is a good question.
I think the best solution is to download the free trial version and just compare the two editors. Doing so you can apply it for your specific needs.
I'm also saying this 'cause I'm convinced most people use only one editor and aren't able to compare these two versions.
Furthermore I used to work with elements or a lite version whatever..
and I must say I never regretted having bought the full version.
I agree it is a lot of money.
I use Elements 3 with "The Hidden Power of Elements" which adds many "tools" that CS* has. Not the perfect answer but much cheaper:-
Note there is not a Hidden Power for PSE 6, yet.
Do download a trial of PSE 6 before purchase and see if you can get on with the interface; some monitors struggle with dark grey on dark grey!
Also note that there are more threads like these in the Elements forum:-
ACR 4.4.1 in PSE 6
Tools: Zoom, Hand, White Balance eye dropper, crop, straighten, Red eye remove, Camera RAW preferences, Rotate and Preview
Three channel Histogram with shadow and highlight clipping warning toggles.
RGB values under cursor and basic file info: F no., Shutter speed, ISO and Lens info. e.g. 24-85@85 mm
Drop down menu:-
Camera RAW defaults
Clear Imported settings
Save new camera RAW defaults
Reset camera RAW defaults
White Balance: Temperature and Tint plus drop down menu:-
Other sliders/input boxes:-
Detail Tab sliders/input boxes:-
Sharpening: Amount, Radius, Detail, Masking
Noise reduction: Luminance, Color
Choice of 8 or 16 bits output.
Differences between PSCS3 and PSE6