Oh man, you really need to get Lightroom the next time it goes on sale (it's $300 full price, but I've seen it at 50% off, less with a student discount). It's sooooo much better than picasa (which I think is ugly and hard to use). It actually has a good UI and is coherent, quick and easy to use, unlike Photoshop.
WRT looking like HDR - Yeah, it does - in fact, that was Thom's point in his post (that you don't need to do HDR). I like it better though since it looks a little less crazy and you can dial it back quite a bit. I just started trying to do HDR and it tends to not be very hard with one of the plugins or programs designed for doing it, since they usually have a lot of presets but I do think actually having an image that looks good is hard. With a raw shot that you export with +2, 0 and -2 you also don't need to set up a tripod, but I think that it generally works better if you do.