Pixel shows signs of life

Pixel has a spiffy new icon
Pixel has a spiffy new icon

One of the dark horse contenders among indie Photoshop alternatives is a program called Pixel (or Pixel Studio Pro). The problem is that since Beta 6 was made available in 2006 there’s been virtually no news. Well, there have been a couple of new releases recently, including a 64-bit Snow Leopard compatible release a few days ago.

The good news — well, it didn’t crash on me. It’s also pretty lightweight, and in many ways quite attractive — more attractive than, say, Photoline.

Pixel's UI includes faux Windows Vista elements, an MDI, and some truly mystifying dialog boxes.
Pixel's UI includes faux Windows Vista elements, an MDI, a horribly non-native file requester, and some truly mystifying dialog boxes.

The not-so-good news — the faux Windows Vista widgets are off-putting (especially since they’re used inconsistently), the MDI-style window is ugly (but, hey, if it’s good enough for Adobe…), but the real problem is that a lot of things just don’t work well and/or as expected, starting with a UNIX-style file browser instead of standard dialog boxes. (This is one of my … er … ten biggest gripes with Blender, too.)

Pixel has a hierarchical font menu, something almost every program needs
Pixel has a hierarchical font menu, something almost every serious graphics program needs

One thing I really like, and which I’d love to see in pretty much any program that requires users to pick fonts, is Pixel’s hierarchical font menu.

Functionality-wise, it’s somewhere in-between Pixelmator and Photoline (e.g. it has layer effects, masks, and CMYK support, but no vector layers), but not as pleasant to use as Pixelmator, and not nearly as functional as Photoline. I also wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a release quality version, but it’s nice to know it’s not completely dead.

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.

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.