Photoshop Alternatives IV

Acorn's biggest improvement is a really beautiful new icon. Photoline and Pixelmator have actually improved in a lot of actually useful ways... although sadly not in the icon department.
It's baaaaaack!

Acorn 2 is out and it’s getting very positive press. Unfortunately, much of it is from the usual suspects — i.e. folks who use their image editor for cropping and adding captions — so the question is, really is it any good?

Acorn 2 features direct RAW import (disabled in the free version)
Acorn 2 features direct RAW import (disabled in the free version)

First of all, Gus Mueller is doing something good, devious, and very very bad for his competitors. If you install Acorn 2, after the free trial it continues to work, providing about 80% of its functionality — which is plenty for most folks who use their image editor for cropping and adding captions. The most notable omissions from my point of view would be RAW image editing (Acorn 2’s single biggest added feature) and a bunch of tools for Photo retouching. (Note that iPhoto’s built-in retouching tools are pretty ridiculously good though, so anyone who doesn’t need advanced Photo retouching tools probably has what they need already.)

Acorn 2 also has a nice Web Export function (also disabled in the free version)
Acorn 2 also has a nice Web Export function (also disabled in the free version)

Acorn remains the cheapest of the credible Photoshop replacements at $50. (Upgrades from 1.x are $20. I just paid for mine.) And with Acorn’s free version, competing products that don’t offer significant levels of usability and functionality are pretty much screwed. Here’s an updated version of my giant table comparing the three main contenders. Significant changes are in bold.

Category Pixelmator 1.5 Acorn 2.1 Photoline 15.5
Simple Painting Tools Basic but servicable Strong support for brushes, cloning tools, dodge and burn. You name it, it’s there
Text Cocoa text with nice drop shadows Cocoa text with nice drop shadows and decent typographic controls (and a very slick, modeless interface) Fully styled and formatted text with both character and paragraph stylesheets and layer effects like emboss and drop shadow
Layer Support Blend Mode and Opacity, Text Layers Blend Mode and Opacity, Text Layers, Simple Vector Layers, Layers can be grouped hierarchically Blend Mode, Opacity, Layer Effects, Filter Layers, Vector Layers, Text Layers, Layers can be different modes (e.g. you can have 16-bit color, 8-bit color, Layer Masks, and monochome layers in a single document), Layer Styles, Layers can be grouped hierarchically (these are not new but deserves mention)
Filters Excellent Core Image support Excellent Core Image support and some additional useful filters, such as Clouds. Comprehensive set of filters (including some marked improvements over Photoshop) but no Core Image support. Stuff that Core Image doesn’t give you like comprehensive noise reduction tools, and fractal clouds. Oh and you can create and reuse named presets for almost everything.
Vector Layers None Basic (improved from “rudimentary” because a lot of bugs have been fixed) Full vector support with strong bezier tools and SVG import/export
Non-destructive editing Not supported You can composite filters interactively in interesting (non-destructive) ways, but ultimately the operation is destructive Non-destructive effects layers for most image adjustments (e.g. curves, levels, hue/saturation)
Image Format Support 8-bits per channel RGBA 8-bits per channel RGBA 16-bits per channel support, Greyscale, Monochrome, Lab color, CMYK
Digital Photography Support You can import photos in 24-bit color Direct RAW import Direct RAW import to 24-bit or 48-bit (16 bits per channel)
Architecture Some clever optimizations (e.g. filter previews appear to be at screen resolution) but chokes on large files. Chokes on large images and slower filters. Clever and flexible preview system allows you to keep the program responsive when working with huge files, 64-bit support, heterogeneous layer support
Workflow and Automation Some Automator actions (but no AppleScript dictionary) Python, AppleScript, and JavaScript scripting and plugin support Recordable macros and batch conversion, Save named presets for almost anything, enter expressions for numerical inputs
Web Export Support Slicing support. Photoshop-style (but far simpler) web export dialog with file-size preview etc. Some random subset of Fireworks is implemented (slicing, button states, etc.). Not really sure how good or extensive it is (much more extensive than Pixelmator or Acorn) since I have no use for such stuff.
Plugin Support You can probably build your own using the Quartz Compositor tools from Apple. You can build your own using the Quartz Compositor tools from Apple, and there’s extensive support for creating extensions using Python, Objective-C, AppleScript, and JavaScript Supports Photoshop plugins.
File Format Support Pixelmator, Photoshop, PNG, GIF, JPEG, JPEG2000, TIFF, BMP, SGI, TGA, PICT, PDF, and a dizzying number of export options Acorn, PNG, GIF, JPEG, JPEG2000, TIFF, BMP, RAW import Pixelmator, Photoshop, PNG, TIFF, JPEG, JPEG2000, BMP, PCX, TGA, Mac Icon, Windows Icon, Windows Cursor, and a bunch more, and can import and export to an even larger number of options, notably including export to SWF and import RAW
Cute Stuff Live gradients, the “dangling rope” that joins position widgets to filter control floaters Gorgeous Icon, Filter Compositor, Elegant Minimalist UI Amazing gradient tool, full-featured yet it still launches amazingly fast, 64-bit support
Ugly Stuff Poor performance when previewing filters or working with high resolution images. Vector layers are still half-assed. Poor performance when previewing filters or working with high resolution images. OMG the icon … it burns! (Sadly, Pixelmator 15 introduced a new icon that’s just as ugly as the old one), half-assed web export and page layout features clutter UI without being useful
If I could add one thing from Photoshop Vector support, Layer Styles Proper bezier support (the big change here is this used to say “pretty much everything”), Layer Styles
Being able to use one layer as a mask for layers adjacent to it.
Online Community Active Forum, Excellent Video Tutorials None Active Forum, Some (Lame) Tutorials
System Requirements 10.5 10.6 10.4
Price $59.00 $49.95 €59.00


It’s probably worth mentioning that all three of these programs have a lot of rough edges. Of the three, I’d have to say Photoline’s bugs get addressed the most quickly, while Pixelmator’s get addressed the most slowly. While writing this blog entry I encountered a half-dozen bugs in Acorn 2.1 and if I did not think they would be addressed in a reasonably timely manner I would not recommend Acorn to anyone (or pay for the upgrade).


It’s a bit unfair to compare a major new version of Acorn with a couple of “bump” releases from its rivals. Acorn 2 has definitely moved from being an over-hyped toy to a genuinely useful piece of software which still launches in under a second. Meanwhile, Acorn’s free version is going to be painful for anyone else writing a thin wrapper around Core Image. The bottom line is that Pixelmator retains its edge as the best “painting” program, but Acorn has the edge for more professional use (e.g. all kinds of scripting and workflow animation options), while Photoline wins the “ugly but really powerful” prize.