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.

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)

Missing

  • 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.