Pixelmator Revisited


Pixelmator's text tool is now fairly useful
Pixelmator's text tool is now fairly useful

I’ve just played around with the latest version (1.3.2) of Pixelmator, a $59 Photoshop-for-the-rest-of-us-wannabe that I’ve greatly maligned in the past. I’m very happy to say that it has reached the tipping point and is now a seriously useful application.

First of all, the text tool is now actually useful. It supports a rectangular region, drop shadows, and you don’t need to use the system Font floater for the most common operations. A huge improvement which doesn’t come close to Photoshop’s or Photolines styling capabilities, but is plenty useful for adding captions to images or simple user interface elements.

Next, the annoying selection issues appear to be addressed. Rectangular (“marquee”) selections work as you’d expect if you’re a MacPaint veteran, and simple things (like command-J converting a selection into a new layer, as in Photoshop) now work.

Simple usability issues, such as not easily being able to tell what the currently selected tool is have been fixed.

With these improvements, Pixelmator is leaving the previously superior Acorn in the dust (thanks in large part to Acorn receiving little love from its developer) and is now the cream of the crop of Photoshop-for-the-rest-of-us-wannabes, if you ignore Photoline for being too ugly and not Mac only. It’s certainly the nicest half-assed-Photoshop-clone-with-core-image-filters. I’m happy with Photoline as my Photoshop backup, but Pixelmator is at least a credible option now.

Pixelmator Revisited: It’s Good To Go

 Stylized camera image.

My reacquaintance with Pixelmator impressed me enough to give it a more thorough look, and I’m pretty impressed by how far it’s come. Here’s a brief rundown of what’s fixed and what still needs work based on a couple of hours.

The Good

  • Marquee Selection works perfectly. Zoom in and select pixels precisely and effortlessly. Perfect.
  • Polygon and Lasso selection are nice, but need more work. Zoom in for sub-pixel positioning, but there’s no way to accurately select along pixel boundaries. Good but needs work.
  • Curves. Yup, Pixelmator has Curves at last.
  • RAW image support. I can edit my beloved NEFs now. (It was incredibly lame that this wasn’t the case from day one.) That said… see the Ugly.
  • Very quick launch time! Nearly instantaneous on both my MacBook Pro and (less surprisingly) my Mac Pro. I’d say it actually launches quicker than Photoline.
  • Very nice masking tools.

The Bad

  • Some operations are still a bit slow (e.g. Undo).
  • Some of the Quartz Compositor filters seem like “dumpware”. (Others are simply amazing.)
  • I can’t believe it’s 123MB on disk! I spelunked the package to see where all that bloat was coming from, and it seems to be mainly giant icon files (Pixelmator can open a buttload of image formats and it has a 512×512 icon for every single one of them).

The Ugly

  • RAW images come straight in with no adjustment, which somewhat defeats the point of RAW images (you can’t perform the white balance, exposure, and color correction before down-sampling from RAW to 8 bits per channel).
  • The text tool is hopeless. You have no typographic controls at all, and not even text wrap. Yuck.
  • GIF export offers no useful controls.
  • JPEG export is rudimentary (you can’t compress to a size, or even find out the size in advance, or preview the results)


  • Shape Layers and Vector Tools.
  • Matting Tools
  • Various useful non-RGB image modes, such as Lab Color, Monochrome, Indexed Color, 16 bits per channel RGB, CMYK, and so forth
  • Image Slicing Tools
  • Styles and Presets

It seems like all this narrows Pixelmator’s potential audience, at least for now. Web Developers will need a tool which can optimize JPEG and GIF output, such as GraphicConverter. Some will need slicing tools, such as only Adobe’s tools and perhaps Photoline offer. Graphic Artists and Designers will need more capable selection tools, far better text capabilities, and shape layers, which again leaves you with Photoshop and Photoline. Anyone working with print needs CMYK. Which basically leaves us with Photographers who don’t want, can’t afford, or are stymied by Photoshop, and either don’t shoot RAW or don’t much care about RAW processing.

Summing Up

Pixelmator has, in a few short months, gone from being a flashy interface sitting on top of an alpha-quality image editor to a useful, usable program that would at minimum satisfy the needs of a lot of Photographers.

Pixelmator’s only real competitor in this space is Photoshop Elements. For slightly more money, Photoline is far more capable (aside from lacking Core Image filters) but it’s even more difficult to use than Photoshop. Although cheaper, Acorn is little more than a tech demo at this point. And as for the 800lb Gorilla, I’m about to install Photoshop Elements and will be back shortly…

Edit: my review of Photoshop Elements is here.

Pixelmator & Acorn, Again

Note: Google seems to prefer this rather out-of-date review to my more recent comparisons.

For the sake of completeness and intellectual honesty, I decided to try the same basic task in Pixelmator and Acorn (the two most credible Core Image-based Photoshop wannabes). I couldn’t rotate individual layers in Acorn (a pretty staggering omission), the online help was useless, and I gave up. Pixelmator actually got the job done faster than Photoshop.

Pixelmater and Acorn both offer excellent support for Apple's Core Image filters.

Both Pixelmator and Acorn feature incredibly slick support for Core Image filters which are, in general, faster than Photoshop’s, but not as flexible or useful. Above, Acorn produces the halftone effect I was after in a matter of seconds.

So, I have to say, this round goes to Pixelmator, which has improved by leaps and bounds from its beta quality (and that’s being generous) 1.0 release — it’s even launching a lot faster than it used to (instantaneous on my MacBook Pro). I was very negative about Pixelmator when it came out, but it may become my new favorite “quick and dirty” image editor. Wow.

I’m very disappointed in Acorn. It’s at version 1.2 and still lacking some really basic functionality. I also discovered some really poor user interface quirks in the course of trying to figure out how to rotate the camera. For a program that various reviewers (including myself) have lauded as having a clean, simple, minimalist interface, Acorn has some remarkably rough edges. Its one strength — Python scriptability — remains, but I wonder if anyone really cares.

Don’t Treat Potential Customers As Thieves

One final strike against Acorn is that its registration nagging is over-the-top. After you’ve been using it for a few seconds it starts deliberately screwing up your image with really intrusive watermarking crap that, I assume, is intended to prevent users from using screen dumps to avoid registering the program. Seriously, anyone willing to go to this length to avoid paying for your program is going to either pirate it or use a cracked Photoshop license. Don’t punish people who’re honestly trying to evaluate your program. (The watermark behavior is so obnoxious and weird and — in some cases — buggy, figuring out what was going on actually distracted me from what I was doing.)

Final Thoughts

This hardly represents a thorough review of the products in question. To the extent that the task I was undertaking was a simple and representative example of image compositing, Acorn fails dismally, and I will stop thinking of it as a serious contender until it gets basic features properly implemented, stops treating me like a thief, and its numerous user interface annoyances are fixed.

Pixelmator did well in this test, but is still lacking some pretty fundamental functionality. Its text functions are rudimentary (it won’t even wrap text, there’s no control over letter-spacing, forget stuff like text on a path, you can’t even transform a text layer) and its selection tools are, frankly, broken. (It’s virtually impossible to line up marquee selections precisely, and when you zoom in the selection tools seem blissfully unaware of the position of actual pixels.) Finally, while Pixelmator provides a better interface to Core Image filters than Acorn, Acorn has the ability to save presets, chain filters, and supports more filters than Pixelmator does.

What I’d really like is Photoline to support Core Image since the prospect of Pixelmator adding such a deluge of functionality any time soon is remote.

Photoline: The Usability Tipping Point

My proposed Photoline icon

There’s some point at which a program becomes sufficiently functional and usable that it becomes a “go to” application. You can have all the functionality in the world but a crummy user interface (e.g. The GIMP) and no-one will use you if they have access to anything decent. Similarly, you can have an absolutely fabulous interface, but if you don’t have some key, specific feature(s) then, again, no-one will use you (e.g. iMovie ’08).

Of course, needs and tastes vary. I’m sure some people are very happy with The GIMP (I can only assume because they are hardened open source zealots with no taste) or iMovie ’08, but I think that most people will tend to reach a frustration point with a piece of software, and then give up. I’m not sure whether being more experienced or familiar with other software has much effect beyond a certain point, either. While I may know how to use dozens of word-processors, and my demands of word-processors may be greater, I’m also likely to be able to figure out stranger user interfaces and be better at finding work-arounds.

Today on a whim I decided to redesign Photoline’s abominable icon.

Photoline's abominable icon

Photoline’s current icon. Judge for yourself.

I’ve had very nice things to say about Photoline in the past. Of the potential low-priced Photoshop replacements out there it is by far the most functional and stable. Unfortunately, compared to Photoshop CS3 it’s still a sad joke, as we shall see.

I was determined to use Photoline for all the 2d bitmap editing in creating the new icon (and I did) but I encountered enormous frustration along the way. Indeed, the 3d modeling took perhaps half an hour, while messing around trying to produce the screen image was an exercise in frustration.

First, I found an image of a Nikon D3 to use for the computer display. The idea was simply to pull the camera out of the background, stylize it a bit (exaggerate the contrast), remove branding information, rotate it, and then put it against a Mac desktop picture. Simple.

Deep etching (knocking out the background of an image) is one of those things graphic designers do constantly, and Photoline’s magic wand worked reasonably well. If I were doing this seriously (e.g. for someone paying me) I would have used a bezier path to perform the selection (I haven’t tried this in Photoline yet) but I wasn’t, so I didn’t. Photoline did OK selecting the white background, although there was an unsightly fringe, and Photoline doesn’t have Photoshop’s tools for cleaning up the edges of images (e.g. Remove White Matte), but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Note: I went back and verified that Photoline fully supports bezier selections.

Having selected what I didn’t want, I would just invert the selection in Photoshop (command-I, a command etched into any serious Photoshop user’s brain). But not only is this not command-I in Photoline, it turns out to be buried under Tool > Mask > Invert Mask. There’s no Selection menu. Oh, and a Mask and a Selection are very different things. This is just terrible, but easily fixed. There’s no question that Photoline’s menus could use some better naming and organization.

Importing the backdrop was nasty. I couldn’t just drag the document into the window I was working in or drag the layer from one document window to another (or layer palette to window) as I would in Photoshop. (Oddly enough, despite not being very Mac-like, Photoline actually looks much more polished on the Mac than on Windows.) So having opened the file and copy-and-pasted the image into my working document, I overwrote the camera layer. What? After a lot of random fiddling I got it to work, but was never sure how. Whenever you paste something into Photoshop (except for vector objects copied from elsewhere in Photoshop) you get a new layer — a wise decision, I think.

This is the halftone effect I was going for.

This is the halftone effect I had intended to go for, but sadly Photoline doesn’t have that filter.

Stylizing the image turned out to be a royal pain. First, I wanted to use a non-destructive Levels or Curves filter on the camera but I couldn’t figure out how to restrict it to just the Camera layer (and not the background). So I ended up having to use a destructive filter. Oh, how very Photoshop 6. The next thing I had planned to do was turn the camera into a halftone image with gigantic dots, but Photoline doesn’t have that filter. Indeed, Photolines filters are bizarrely organized into two menus and eight submenus. The term “Filter” and “Effect” are used interchangeably despite the fact that Effects are quite clearly intended to refer specifically to what Photoshop calls Layer Styles. Some of Photoline’s “Effects” are just filters, others aren’t. Ugh.

I eventually concluded that there was nothing stylish I could do to the D3 image that didn’t make me puke, and that the D3 is kind of butt ugly anyway, and that DSLRs, being black, don’t make for very interesting photographs.

So I decided to knock together a stylized camera manually, and to use the (to my eye) more attractive D80 as my basis. So I googled a suitable photo, imported it into Illustrator, and quickly produced the graphic image I wanted. I then saved the vector artwork as SVG and tried to import it into Photoline.

Important Note: at this point I do Photoline a grave disservice. Had I not been frustrated at this point I might have tried using Photoline’s vector tools to do what I ended up doing in Illustrator. I went back and tried to do this and found the tools pretty decent (indeed, in some ways superior to Photoshop’s vector tools, although — of course — no match for Illustrator’s).

No dice.

Photoline, which rivals GraphicConverter in terms of supported graphic file formats, and has fairly strong vector tools, apparently can’t load or save SVGs. So back to Illustrator and I saved as PDF (Acrobat 4.x). Photoline opened this, and I could see the image, but I couldn’t select it properly, or scale it (it was tiny), or rotate it. So back to Illustrator again, and I save as PNG at a suitable resolution. Now, I know Photoline can import PNGs, but when I rotate the PNG the quality of the rotated image terrible. I guess I’ve just gotten to taking Photoshop’s incredibly well-implemented bitmap rotation for granted. (And on the Mac you also get Core Image which is equally excellent, but Photoline is cross-platform and doesn’t use Core Image, I guess.)

Important Note: I went back and checked this, and it turns out that Photoline by default rotates a layer as an object (so the pixels aren’t changed, the entire layer is rotated) and uses quick and dirty rendering to show the results. You can right-click on a layer and click “Fix Layer” to burn the results into the bitmap, which produces results equal in quality to Photoshop. So Photoline’s equivalent of Photoshop’s layer transform tool is non-modal and non-destructive. So this is actually a case where Photoline exceeds Photoshop in functionality, and while it may not be obvious to a Photoshop user what’s going on, it’s not like the Photoline’s UI — in this case — is any worse than Photoshop’s, just different.

So, back once more to Illustrator where I pre-rotate the image and export as PNG. And I’m done.

Photoshop CS4? If Photoline were Photoshop, my icon would have turned out this way.

Photoshop CS4? If Photoline were Photoshop, my icon would have looked like this.

Except that all I’d managed to achieve in Photoline is to stick one alpha-channeled image in front of another. This isn’t Rocket Science. Heck, I could have done either in Pixelmator or Acorn (or heck, possibly even the Iris beta). I could probably do it in QuickTime Pro (QuickTime Player is a pretty darn good compositing tool). Still, having gone back over some of my greatest problems with Photoline in this little project, I find that two major issues turn out to Photoline’s advantage. While it may not be able to import SVG, it has excellent internal vector tools, and its apparently poor layer transform tool turns out to be better (modeless and non-destructive until you’re ready) than Photoshop’s.

Lessons Learned

Some of my problems definitely resulted from Photoline’s poorly organized (and named) menus, and some other UI nastiness (e.g. the PDF import is a disaster). Most of the problems either stemmed from unfamiliarity with Photoline’s slightly different (and sometimes better) ways of doing things, and my wanting Photoline to be Photoshop, which it’s not and it’s unfair to expect it to have, for example, a specific cool filter from Photoshop (although, darn it, Core Image provides it too). I think it’s safe to say that if I were as familiar with Photoline as I am with Photoshop I’d probably be very nearly as capable and productive as I am with Photoshop. That said, Photoshop is part of a highly integrated ecosystem and in the end it’s simply a superior tool. But Photoline’s near-instantaneous launches are pretty damn easy to like.


Nolobe (the latest incarnation of Stairways Software, best known for Interarchy, a.k.a. Anarchy, the excellent Mac FTP client) has just taken the wraps off Iris, its entry into the “cheap Core Image-based Photoshop wannabe” arena, where Acorn is currently standing with its foot on the chest of Pixelmator, gladius to its throat, waiting for the crowd to give a signal…

You can get a copy of the free beta here.

So far, color me unimpressed. I can forgive obvious missing features (e.g. Curves) and unimplemented features (e.g. Levels), especially in a beta, but the text tool is like MacPaint (it burns pixels into the current layer) … WTF? I have no clue why Iris requires Leopard.

Iris seems to me to be a graphics program written by a programmer who not only isn’t an artist, but doesn’t know any artists. Ugly tool icons are a very bad sign.

I hope I’m wrong. Competition in this space is a very good thing. Time for me to do more work on Pixel Ninja.