Pixelmator 2.0

It’s been a very long time coming, but Pixelmator 2.0 is out today in the App Store (at an introductory price of $29). Pixelmator is an indie developed Photoshop alternative (I’ve been tracking Photoshop alternatives for years, and reviewing them for almost as long).

Pixelmator’s obvious competition is Acorn (which it appears to handily outsell). When Acorn 3 came out, I said nice things about its features but pointed out that Pixelmator 2 would probably match them and was due out soon. Well, it turned out to be over six months.

I haven’t had much time to play with Pixelmator, but I took a quick look at my personal gripes with the program and found some major improvements:

  • There’s a new healing brush. It’s OK I guess, but more comparable to iPhoto’s brush (which is great on, say, pimples) than the smart delete functionality in Photoshop.
  • Filters seem to be much faster, even on high resolution images. I don’t think they’ve added a progress bar for slow filters but I wasn’t able to do anything that took more than a second to complete. (This was performing actions on 12MP and 16MP images from my DSLRs.)
  • Text layers are now usable. Not as good as Acorn’s text layers (which have half-assed kerning, for example), and nowhere near Photoshop, but a big improvement. Photoline has functionality, but lacks Cocoa goodness.
  • Shape layers with booleans are in, although I found the interface to be both fiddly and unintuitive.
  • No layer styles that I could find.

So I’ve updated my Big Table of Photoshop Wannabeness (changes are in green, bold text indicates a notable advantage over rivals, while red text represents a notable disadvantage).

tl;dr

I’m underwhelmed by Pixelmator 2.0’s new features, but it seems significantly faster. If you’re happy with Pixelmator’s feature set, this is an impressive upgrade. If you’re waiting for some new key feature to trickle down from Photoshop, keep waiting.

Category Pixelmator 2.0 Acorn 3.1 Photoline 16.5
Simple Painting Tools Solid painting tools including a new healing brush. Strong support for brushes, cloning tools, dodge and burn. You name it, it’s there
Text Text boxes with simple but serviceable formatting. 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 Decent vector layers, standard blending options, layer groups, text layers. 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). Significantly improved filter performance when dealing with large images.
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 Solid vector support with some missing features (e.g. transforms). Boolean support. No ability to convert a vector into a selection. Solid vector support, but some missing features (e.g. transforms). Nice UI. Non-destructive layer styles. No boolean support. No ability to convert a vector into a selection. Full vector support with strong bezier tools and SVG import/export. No boolean support.
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 (but it’s a work-in-progress), 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 Huge list of supported file formats (more than GraphicConverter!): 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. No layer styles and no text kerning. Still no curves. (At least there’s a useful exposure adjustment function now.) Vector layers are still half-assed. Poor performance when previewing filters or working with high resolution images. OMG the icon … it burns! (Sadly, Photoline 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 stuff from Photoshop Vector support, Layer Styles, Better Typographic Controls, Adjustment Layers Curves dammit. Just add the obvious vector functionality and we’re in great shape. Groups should work in the obvious way (they don’t right now). Oh, and masking. Offers a lot of Photoshop’s functionality. 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 10.6 10.6 10.4
Price $29 (introductory price)/$59.00 $49.99 €59.00

Edit: corrected some typos, and gave Photoline more credit for functionality over the other two. In terms of raw functionality, it crushes Pixelmator and Acorn like bugs.

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.

Vectors

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.

Gradients

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.)

Deal-breakers

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.

Conclusion

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

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.