The GIMP Revisited

GIMP in Single-Window Mode
GIMP in Single-Window Mode

As part of my quest to replace Adobe’s Creative Suite with less expensive alternatives, I revisited The GIMP (“The GNU Image Manipulation Program”) the best-known open-source Photoshop clone. Earlier versions of GIMP were both hard to install and required X11 (they also tended to come with non-standard fonts) as well as having a confusing multi-window interface. All of these issues have been addressed as of August 2012 (yes, I’m late to the party).

(Inkscape still requires X11, and since there are plenty of inexpensive Illustrator alternatives that do not require X11, I am ignoring it for now.)

The version of GIMP I played with is the one that emphasizes Python scriptability. I didn’t actually try scripting it, but I’ll assume that the Python stuff is there and works ( scriptability is generally the most robust feature of open source projects).

First the good:

  • It’s free and open source.
  • Supports Photoshop’s pair-kerning shortcuts (option-left/right-arrow).
  • You no longer need to install X11 or jump through hoops to get a Mac version of GIMP. You can go straight to the main download page and get a .dmg.
  • The user interface is much improved over earlier versions. In many respects just as refined as Photoshop’s (and just as cluttered).
  • Single window mode.
  • Photoshop files are reasonably well supported (layers come out pre-rendered, but that’s about as much as you get from anything other than Adobe’s applications).
  • Native fonts are supported.

There are some warts:

  • The cross-platform imaging code is clearly not nearly as performant as Apple’s Core Image stuff — filters and even simple screen redraws are quite sluggish compared with any Core Image based editor (or Photoline for that matter).
  • There’s no >32bpp color support, which means it does not replace Photoshop for HDR work. I could not open .hdr files.
  • There are no layer effects.
  • The online help did not work (I tried the “Read Online” option and got a weird error message).
  • The windows, including file pickers, while quite attractively laid out are non-native, which can make simple things (like accessing non-boot-drives) a little annoying (you need to type in paths to get to things — luckily you can shortcut them once you get there).
  • The UI has some quirks, including palettes that float above dialogs and a funky “no document is open” document window that when closed quits the application.
  • Key filters copied from Photoshop are notably less useful (e.g. the difference cloud filter doesn’t create tiling fractals).

In a nutshell, GIMP is free and very capable, but lacks the non-destructive filters / layer effects of Acorn. Compared with Photoline, it’s scriptable but lacks non-destructive filters and >32bpp support. Compared with Pixelmator, it has a less refined user interface and lacks Core Image support.

The GIMP ★★★★★ (relative to the other Photoshop alternatives) — and note that I do not consider price in my ratings.

Acorn 3: Perfect Timing

Acorn 3Acorn 3 has just been released with an introductory price of $29.99 (via the App Store or not, as you prefer). To say that it changes the “balance of power” in the Photoshop-alternative stakes is a huge understatement. With Adobe playing a new round of let’s gouge our most loyal customers, I have to say Flying Meat’s timing is immaculate. It’s been a while since I last posted an update on the state of the Photoshop alternative market, so here we are.

Layer Styles

Acorn 3 does layer styles right. To begin with, its layer styles cover pretty much all the obvious suspects (e.g. gaussian blur and motion blur) and there’s no weird distinction between adjustment layers and styles — they’re all the same thing. Want to bevel a layer? It’s a layer style. Want to blur it? Layer style. Want to give it a drop shadow? Layer style. All in one place with one good UI. Photoshop, in contrast, offers three different ways of applying non-destructive changes to a layer and they all work differently (and none of them as nicely as Acorn’s).

It’s worth noting that Adjustment Layers do serve a purpose that Layer Styles do not (i.e. performing the same operation on everything “below” them) and Photoshop has a  convenient interface for copying and pasting layer styles which Acorn conspicuously lacks, but I expect this latter will be addressed shortly. (In other words, I made a feature request and since it’s very easy to do, I expect it will happen quickly based on past experience.) The obvious way to fix this would be for layer styles to work as expected on groups, but right now this is very much not the case (I’m not sure whether the way layer styles work on groups is a non-feature or a bug).

Correction: it turns out that, in general, layer styles work correctly on layer groups (making them generally more useful than Photoshop’s adjustment layers and layer styles) but that some of the styles behave strangely and it just so happens I used those styles and jumped to the wrong conclusion.

All-in-all, layer styles represent a huge leap in functionality for Acorn and help make it a serious tool.


Acorn 3 boasts significant new vector functionality, notably the ability to convert text to bezier curves (which is extremely useful for graphic designers). Unfortunately, a lot of the ancillary functionality is not there yet (e.g. I can’t figure out how to resize a shape, which is pretty hopeless). I assume this will be quickly fixed, but it’s a huge issue right now.

Assuming the obvious things get fixed/added to Acorn 3’s vector support (transformations and booleans), Acorn will be very credible here and could easily manage to become better than Photoshop or Photoline in this respect (since both have pretty crummy vector UIs). The good news is that Acorn 3 has all the core functionality for great vector support and has implemented most of the UI well; the bad news is that its actual feature set is missing key functionality.


The gradient tool now live-updates (which is nice) but isn’t editable in place (the way Photoline’s is) making it more of a gimmick than a useful feature. It’s a little odd to me that gradients aren’t available as a layer style (they’re very useful and Photoshop certainly offers this).

Where it leads the pack

With some minor omissions (e.g. gradients) Acorn’s layer styles are better than Photoline’s and for most purposes Photoshop’s. Pixelmator doesn’t have layer styles yet, but I think we can confidently expect them in Pixelmator 2, so while this is a huge advantage for Acorn right now, Pixelmator may catch up soon.

Acorn 3 also has a very low barrier to entry for writing plugins. You can write first-class plugins for Acorn using Python or JavaScript. Acorn also features solid Automator and AppleScript support. On the other hand it has no support for slicing (see below).

The Not-So-Good

Online Help. Acorn’s help is only available via the web. I’m not a big fan of Apple’s help system (with its mysteriously terrible performance) but it’s nice to be able to look stuff up when you don’t have an internet connection. Worse, it’s pretty incomplete. E.g. there’s nothing at all on masks. (Of course I only offer online help for RiddleMeThis so I’m not one to talk.)

Gradients. Gradients should be applicable non-destructively (as layer styles) and — ideally — editable in-place (as in Photoline).

Half-assed Vector Support. It really bugs me that Acorn now implements a lot of the hard stuff but doesn’t do the easy stuff. Right now you can’t seem to change control points from smooth to corner (and when you create a custom bezier you get n-1 smooth points and a corner, which won’t make anyone happy ever), nor can you select multiple bezier points or perform transforms on vectors. This makes what could be compelling or even class-leading vector support almost useless. Add booleans and SVG import and export and we’re talking.

Layer Masks. I’m not sure how this feature is supposed to work, but right now it doesn’t. What I’d like to see is the ability to turn a selection or its inverse into a mask, the ability to mask “into” layers (the way Photoshop does it), the ability to drag a layer into a layer mask so that its alpha channel becomes the mask, and a nice UI for editing a mask manually. What we have right now is (as far as I can tell) none of the above. (The documentation for Acorn’s mask feature is here, but it doesn’t currently appear in searches.)


Slicing and dicing. A lot of web developers use Fireworks or Pixelmator to chop up a design into lots of pieces automagically. Fireworks even supports button states and animation. Acorn has no functionality of this kind whatsoever.

If you want to edit HDR images (16-bits per channel or more) or work in different color spaces (e.g. CMYK or Lab) then Acorn is useless to you. Doesn’t bother me too much but it may be a deal-breaker. Similarly, look elsewhere for a non-destructive RAW workflow (Aperture and Lightroom are probably what you’re looking for).

If you need comprehensive typographic support or the ability to import vector art from a program which does have comprehensive typographic support then you’re using Photoshop and you don’t need Acorn. But Acorn does have nicer typographic functionality than anything else in this space (Photoline has more features but produces inferior output).

Right now, if you need comprehensive vector graphic support then Acorn isn’t there yet, but watch this space — I suspect it will be there soon.

If you need Photoshop plugins then Acorn does not support them.

If you work at very high resolution (e.g. for print) then Acorn doesn’t scale well. In fact, it even trails Pixelmator in its over-reliance on Core Image. If you are working on a 16MP image from your DSLR it’s going to be pretty unresponsive.


Acorn 3 is an impressive upgrade as much for what it delivers (class-leading layer styles) as for what it promises (if the new functionality is fleshed out with a few user interface tweaks, it may well be better than Photoshop for many purposes). I should add that Acorn is currently my go-to tool for quick image edits, ahead of both Photoshop CS5 Extended and Photoline 16.5. (I don’t have a Pixelmator license because I still consider it a half-assed product.)

Anyway, here’s my big comparison table revised and updated — new stuff since last time is in bold. Where a product clearly leads its peers, I’ve marked it in green. Where it clearly trails the others I’ve marked it in red. In a nutshell, if you can’t afford Photoshop, get Photoline. If you have Photoshop but want a “lightweight” alternative, get Acorn. If you want a pretty toy, get Pixelmator. But, I’m really looking forward to Pixelmator 2.

Category Pixelmator 1.65 Acorn 3.0 Photoline 16.5
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 Decent typographic controls, elegant minimal interface, cocoa text, and full reusable layer styles. 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, Layer Groups Strong vector layers (with some obvious missing stuff that should get fixed quickly), comprehensive non-destructive layer style support, 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 (including custom Quartz Composer filters)
Excellent Core Image support (including custom Quartz Composer filters) and some additional useful filters, such as Clouds. Many useful filters are available as non-destructive layer styles. 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 Solid vector support, but some missing features (e.g. transforms). Nice UI. Non-destructive layer styles. Full vector support with strong bezier tools and SVG import/export
Non-destructive editing Not supported Layer styles allow the most common filters to be applied and composited non-destructively. 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 Direct RAW import 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, 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. Direct export to Flickr, Picasa, and Facebook. 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, Elegant and powerful non-destructive layer styles 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 Just add the obvious vector functionality and we’re in great shape. Groups should work in the obvious way (they don’t right now). 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 $29.95 (introductory price) €59.00

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 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.


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.