GraphicConverter 7

Out with the old, in with the new
Out with the old, in with the new

GraphicConverter is one of the great shareware apps on the Mac. I’ve been using it since 1.4 or so (I actually paid for a disk when I registered, so I have a floppy disk with a home-made printed label on it somewhere). I remember way back in the days of 8-bit color you had a choice between DeBabelizer and GraphicConverter for converting images from 24-bit color to display on 8-bit video cards with an optimized palette and high quality dithering. For a short time DeBabelizer had an edge because it supported some exotic dithering algorithms, but GraphicConverter was simply better in every significant respect, including costing $35 when DeBabelizer sold for $700.

All that said, GraphicConverter always had a horrible user interface (note that DeBabelizer’s was even worse), and despite being ported to OSX very early has been Carbon until now. The main problem for GraphicConverter though has been the standardization of image formats (almost any program can deal with PSD, TIFF, JPEG, and PNG files, in large part thanks to OS-level support in OSX, but in no small part thanks to the appearance of cross-platform open-source graphics libraries such as ImageMagick and GraphicsMagick), the death of animated GIFs (for which GraphicConverter was an excellent tool), and the disappearance of indexed color displays. So, what does GraphicConverter offer in an era when a solid bitmap editor like Pixelmator or Photoline supports scores of different bitmap file formats (and really, who cares any more?), Acorn supports Python scripting (and offers a pretty capable free version), and all three allow batch processing in one form or another?

The Ugly

Everyone's got a welcome screen these days
Everyone’s got a welcome screen these days

Unlike most of the revisions GraphicConverter has offered over the years (and it seems to get updated every week or two), this is a paid upgrade. In fact the upgrade to version 7 costs almost as much as a whole new program.

While the new icon is, at long last, not a hideous embarrassment (leaving Photoshop CS5 and Photoline 16 in the running for “worst icon for a serious graphics app ever” title), the transition from Cocoa to Carbon weighs in at just under 140MB (226 vs 78 MB for the previous version). I guess we get 512×512 icons for every file format, or something. (Actually I just checked and nope, that’s not it.)

The Good

When I got the email notifying me that GraphicConverter 7 was out, my immediate reaction was to check to see if it was a paid upgrade. There haven’t been many but every previous paid upgrade has been a no-brainer. GC was simply indispensable. But today, when I saw that it was not only a paid upgrade but, relative to its “new” cost, an expensive one, I was ready to dispense with it. After all, last time I checked Photoline actually supported more file formats!

The new image window looks good, works well, and lets you "walk" a directory
The new image window looks good, works well, and lets you “walk” a directory

First of all, the new user interface isn’t merely “not bad”, it’s spectacularly good. GraphicConverter has never even been average-looking, but now it’s ahead of Pixelmator (equally attractive icons, fewer gimmicks, better HIG adherence) or Acorn. Bear in mind, GC isn’t trying to compete with Photoshop or Pixelmator — e.g. it has no layer support. It always has been and remains a product focused on workflow. As such, it’s more of an iPhoto or Aperture replacement.

Core Image filters are very well implemented (not as clever as Acorn but quicker to work with)
Core Image filters are very well implemented (not as clever as Acorn but quicker to work with)

With workflow in mind, Acorn’s tools are focused on the kinds of things you’re likely to need to do in a hurry, like magic wand select things and delete them, or setting a transparent background color. GC does a good job of supporting shortcuts from other applications where it makes sense, so M for marquee select or Command-L for Levels (from Photoshop) or Command-1 thru 5 for image ratings (from iPhoto) work as expected.
One of the first things I check when I first use any image editor is the precision of its selection and drawing tools.

Ever since I first used MacPaint (which was pixel perfect in every way even in version 1.0) I’ve been stunned at how many programs make bonehead mistakes in simple things like marquee selection. GraphicConverter has, until now, always been an offender in this respect, but at least based on quick testing finally seems to be able to consistently selected what you expect.

The Bad

As stated above, GC still has no layer support.

The new Batch dialog is lovely (and well-integrated with the Browser window), and the new tool for building batch scripts looks good and is a marked improvement on the old dialog, but the main annoyance of the old dialog (it’s not easy to navigate to your desired source and destination directories) is actually worse because you can no longer drag a folder from Finder into the dialog to set the source or destination (and the Browser doesn’t support this either). The basic interface is better, it certainly looks better, but it’s probably less convenient to use. And it takes ages to bring up the dialog (on an Mac Pro with 8 Cores and 8GB of RAM).

While you can browse inside iPhoto events (which is great) iPhoto’s rating and GC’s are as two. Ugh. (It’s a real shame, since GC does support iPhoto’s shortcuts, which may means it’s a bug).

Image export dialogs show incorrect previews of translucent images
Image export dialogs show incorrect previews of translucent images

Global adjustments are handed via a slick interface which makes it much clearer than many rival programs when you’re committing a change, but the controls are unresponsive when making global adjustments to large images (a common failing in apps when they first adopt Core Image support and don’t do any real UI optimization).

Conclusions

GraphicConverter 7 is, overall, a marked improvement on its predecessor. The core functionality is still there (and the menus are as cluttered as ever) and almost everything looks better and works at least as well as before (that I checked), but I’ve probably launched GC less than ten times in the last year when five years ago it was a program I used almost every day.

As an image manager, GraphicConverter is and remains a failure. It isn’t well-integrated with Finder (e.g. you can’t drag a folder to its batch converter to set a destination, it doesn’t offer quick access to your Desktop or Pictures folders) nor with iPhoto (e.g. ratings don’t carry across). As an image editor it’s merely adequate in a world where adequate image editors (such as Acorn’s free version) are free. It doesn’t support layers, so it can’t compete with serious layer-based image editors like Pixelmator, and it doesn’t do redeye reduction or healing, so it can’t compete with iPhoto, Aperture, or Lightroom. It’s really not in the running any more.

If GraphicConverter’s batch conversion capabilities are something you need (and you know who you are) then it’s possibly GC7 will be a compelling upgrade (personally, the long launch time for this dialog and having to navigate its dialog to set a destination folder are each deal breakers for me right now, but both may get fixed).

My initial reaction to seeing that GraphicConverter had received a major (non-free) upgrade was that it was time, at long last, to give up on it. After using it for ten minutes I was greatly impressed at the attractive and well-thought-out user interface improvements and long overdue micro-usability enhancements. After another half hour I was back to my first impression. GC has seen its day.

Farewell old friend.

Affordable CS5 Alternatives

The best affordable Adobe CS5 alternative is the academic version — e.g. CS5 Web Premium costs $1799 retail, $599 to upgrade from CS4 (more from earlier versions), and $549 brand new at Academic prices. Design Standard is $1499 vs $449. (There are even cheaper “Student & Teacher” options, but they can’t be upgraded and shouldn’t be used for commercial work.)

To understand how good a deal this is — Web Premium includes Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Photoshop Extended, Illustrator, and Flash. Coda, Photoline, and Intaglio would cost $280, and this doesn’t give you a Fireworks or Flash replacement. And to say that Photoline and Intaglio aren’t full replacements for Photoshop and Illustrator is a huge understatement.

If you aren’t eligible for an academic discoun, then things get more complicated.

The core components of Adobe CS5 are:

Photoshop: there’s no real alternative to Photoshop if you use Photoshop’s high-end capabilities. If you don’t use any of them then you can get away with a much cheaper program, such as Photoshop Elements, Photoline, Paintshop Pro, Acorn, Pixelmator, or even The GIMP. If you want natural media style painting abilities, Photoshop is actually not the best choice, and you should look at Painter or Art Rage (or Sketchbook Pro if you’re using a Tablet PC).

Illustrator: there’s a very good free alternative to Illustrator if you’re willing to live with an X-11 app, and that’s InkScape. Despite being X-11, it actually is very usable (more usable in some respects than Illustrator). Otherwise, there’s Intaglio, Lineform, Zeusdraw, VectorDesigner, and EasyDraw among others. (Sorry, but I’m not familiar with Windows alternatives, and Googling didn’t really help — ah Macs, so starved for software.)

Flash: while there are third-party Flash development tools (SWF is a pretty well-documented format), most are jokes or one-trick ponies. If you want to do serious work with SWF, you’ll need Flash, and you’ll probably need Photoshop and Illustrator since no other graphics tools are well-integrated with Flash.

After Effects: there are lots of alternatives to After Effects, but they’re all in the same price ballpark. If you’re a Final Cut Studio user, Final Cut Pro and Motion pretty much match After Effects’s feature set and are well-integrated. Similarly, if you’re an Autodesk/Avid user then why are you reading this paragraph?

Premiere: there are no good free video editing packages that I know of, although if you don’t need Premiere’s capabilities there’s iMovie and Final Cut Express (on the Mac).

Soundbooth: many, many alternatives, including the free and quite good Audacity.

On Location: there was a really awesome program called On Location, way back, that was essentially like Spotlight only over ten years earlier. This isn’t it. This is essentially a utility for capturing, adding metadata to, and otherwise managing digital footage when on a shoot, and I don’t know of any obvious alternatives (certainly no cheap ones).

Dreamweaver: if you’re not a hardcore Dreamweaver user (or, for example, a Cold Fusion developer), chances are you don’t need it at all. There are plenty of free and cheap web development tools out there. I’d recommend Coda for technically-savvy Dreamweaver users who are looking for an alternative and would like to give up their training wheels.

Contribute: I haven’t used Contribute, but from what I understand it’s a simplified web content editor aimed at people who essentially want to populate templates created by someone else. I don’t really like any of the desktop web development tools aimed at non-technical types, but if forced to pick one I’d probably pick Rapidweaver. Personally, I think this kind of thing is best handled using web-based content management tools such as WordPress.

Fireworks: Fireworks is a strange product. On the one hand most of its functionality is superfluous and it has a truly terrible user interface. On the other hand it has a number of — for UI designers — almost indispensable functions, notably pixel-centric vector drawing tools. If you need it, you need it.

InDesign: the only real alternative to InDesign is XPress (which, if anything, is more expensive and comes from a far more obnoxious vendor), unless you’re not using InDesign’s higher end capabilities, in which case your word processor (notably Pages) is a great alternative that you already know how to use.

Acrobat: again, if you need it you need it. Otherwise, not. Personally, I can’t stand Acrobat and don’t even want Acrobat Reader on my computers; for Mac users there’s Preview and the Print-to-PDF function both of which are far more pleasant to use than Acrobat (until you get technical). There are many better alternatives to Acrobat Reader, until you need to do something complicated, like fill in forms.

iPad: Netflix App, Musings, & Wishes

I read that Netflix is coming to the iPad. Given that Adobe already has a widget for turning Flash applets into iPhone apps, there’s no reason not to expect Hulu et al to be able to provide iPad apps for their content as well.

So, given that we’ll almost certainly have Netflix, and most likely Hulu working on the iPad, and that many newspaper sites will simply switch to HTML5 / H264 — what’s missing? Nothing of note, it seems.

The interesting thing is that by allowing Adobe Flash apps in via the App Store but not via the web, Apple makes it easier for developers — of casual games for example — to monetize their products while improving the user experience. Unless you like being deluged with butt ugly ads while playing online games.

It looks like the iPad may be a very complete media consumption device pretty much on day one. What I’d really like to see for the iPad are:

  1. A clamshell case that effectively turns the iPad into a laptop with keyboard. The ideal design would probably have a pass-through dock connector, stereo speakers, USB slot, SD slot, and extra battery power.
  2. A paint program — I know Brushes was demoed on stage at the launch (I own the iPhone version), but despite its high-profile user, I find it pretty poorly designed and would love to see major improvements in its UI or some real competition.
  3. A image editor (i.e. Photoshop-like program). The obvious candidate here would be a port of Acorn since the program is already 100% cocoa, and the UI is almost iPad ready. (Then again, the Pixelmator team has been really quiet for a long time, notwithstanding vacations.)
  4. A 3d sketch modeler (like Teddy or Curvy). The iPad would be perfect for this kind of 3d “sketching”. (I’m actually tempted to have a shot at writing such a tool.)
  5. Coda or something similar — i.e. a combination programmers’ editor and FTP client (ideally with some kind of simple image editing functionality so you don’t need to perform acrobatics to crop or scale images, etc.) — but then projects like Bespin would allow you to integrate basic editing tools into your websites.

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

Bugs

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).

Conclusions

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.

Photoshop Alternatives III

I’ve been looking for credible Photoshop alternatives for several years now. The sad thing for the wannabes is that, if anything, Photoshop is pulling further ahead. While its rivals still struggle with things like consistently stroking paths and providing selection tools that work as expected, Photoshop CS5 is looking like it will offer some seriously impressive new functionality.

So, what’s been happening?

Photoshop Elements 8 Box Art
Photoshop Elements 8 Box Art

Photoshop Elements is rumored to be getting updated on October 23rd. It promises to fix the obvious issues with Elements 6 on the Mac and 7 under Windows and offer some of CS4’s tricks it will probably crush every alternative except Photoline — in terms of functionality — like a bug. Of course Photoline is a true 64-bit application and launches as fast as any of the others, making it still very hard to beat.

Photoline is at version 15.5 and now appears to be stroking paths and calculating masks from outlines (i.e. stroking paths) in a manner consistent with Photoshop — i.e. its effects layers look pretty much as good as Photoshop’s now. It still features the same bizarrely “organized” menus and mistranslated menu item names. (The most galling problem for me is the random use of the terms “lasso”, “selection”, and “mask” to mean “lasso”, “selection”, or “mask”. Sorry, these are not the same freaking thing.

Acorn is at 2.0, only runs on Snow Leopard, and essentially offers very little new functionality. E.g. its shape layers are still half-assed and buggy.

Pixelmator is at 1.5 and — as a pure bitmap editor — is starting to look quite useful. But with lame typography, no vector support, and no effects layers, you’re going to find doing any serious work in it pretty annoying.

GIMP is still free, still powerful, and still ugly and hard to use. But it’s getting better — I only get three windows now — a document window with menus, and two palette windows (well they would be palettes in a decent windows system). I do wonder whether in the end I’ll just give up and learn to love it the way I have with Blender. (It’s not going to replace Photoshop, but it may replace the lightweight alternatives. Ugh, I just realized that it weighs in at 255MB. So, nope, not going to happen. It also fails on launch silently if you run it from disk image.)

Pixel is still at 1.0b6 and still hasn’t been updated since 2006.

Naked Light is at Preview 5.2 (what is that? 0.52 alpha?)

Iris appears to be dead, still.

Seashore is a promising but understaffed attempt to do for GIMP what Camino and Firefox did for Mozilla. Unlike GIMP it’s Mac OS X native and pretty usable. Unfortunately, I think building on the GIMP codebase is actually a mistake — they’d be better off using ImageMagick (which is how Pixelmator was built).

Chocoflop is an odd case of quasi freeware product (it has a free option but given (a) the bizarre lack of real ImageMagick integration and (b) the references to the “free version”, I assume that a commercial version is planned). It seems to be the “holy grail” of a Cocoa-wrapped Imagemagick-based kitchen-sink graphics application, but I can’t even figure out how to paint a white line in it. I think putting the word “flop” in your program’s name is probably a good sign that you’re not going to be a good UI designer.

Conclusion

Photoline is still the best alternative to Photoshop, but really, there is no actual alternative to Photoshop (even with CS4’s messed up UI). If CS5 fixes the more egregious problems in the CS4 interface and has a fraction of the rumored new functionality, I’ll be lining up to upgrade.

A Side Note

While researching this update I stumbled upon this lovely example of stupidity and plagiarism. The “reviewer’s” Photoline summary uses an image stolen from my Photoline review for MacApper and dismisses Photoline with “who wants to use a numerical input UI while designing?”. Photoline’s UI is certainly not beautiful (but neither is Photoshop’s), but it’s no more numerical than any of its competitors. Well, I guess based on his need to steal screenshots he probably didn’t even install it.