Illustrator Replacements

While Photoshop is seeing a bit of competition from Core Image based apps, Illustrator is seeing a lot more competition thanks to Cocoa’s excellent support for typography and Quartz’s support for PostScript (i.e. PDF). The serious contenders I’ve come across so far are:

  • Intaglio — the closest thing to a lightweight Illustrator replacement
  • Lineform
  • VectorDesigner
  • DrawIt
  • EazyDraw

And then there’s Inkscape, which is free, open source, and cross-platform, and — despite being built on X11 — quite usable (unlike The GIMP, showing us that The GIMP’s UI isn’t X11’s fault).

The best discussions of Illustrator alternatives I’ve come across are this head-to-head comparison on The Unofficial Apple Weblog and this collection of interlinked reviews from MacLife. Neither review discusses all the available options.  TUAW’s article covers DrawBerry, which I don’t consider a serious option. Neither review mentions Inkscape (screenshot below):

All of these programs have free demos (or are plain free) and are worth a look. DrawIt has the most radical interface and, if it actually allowed you to import and export vector files (such as SVG and editable PDFs) it might be a lot more useful. VectorDesigner suffers from this problem and the inability to transform more than one vertex at a time. Lineform is hampered by a lack of useful primitives (such as polygons and stars) but this doesn’t affect its use for freeform illustrators.

In general, for simple stuff, most of these programs are remarkably less annoying to use than Illustrator, but remarkably less precise. Illustrator offers powerful snap and guide options that none of these programs come close to matching, and explicit control over the rendering of stroke joins, dashed lines, and so on. Ultimately, I think two of these programs (Intaglio and Inkscape) are perfectly useful for almost anything , but ultimately only Inkscape offers anything approaching Illustrator’s precision.

In this case, the best option also happens to be free. Interesting times ahead for Adobe.

Why I Hate Microsoft

I couldn’t put it better than Pierre Igot has. Microsoft’s lack of attention to detail with user interface design is so thorough it’s quite mind-boggling. (I remember methodically going through Word for Windows 2.0’s menus and finding that the commands in each menu adhered to different interface conventions. Marvellous.)

There was a great article in the New Yorker a few years back (by Louis Menand, their chief pedant) about how Microsoft Word seems to be designed to prevent anyone from adhering to any respectable style guide. (Actually it was a diatribe against Word masquerading as a review of the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.)

The first thing I do with a new installation of Word is fix the incredibly stupid autocorrect settings which prevent, for example, users from typing (c) (which is replaced by ©). I’ve never even tried to fix its idiotic, non-standard keyboard shortcuts, but command-G would definitely be top of my list.

Thanks to John Gruber at Daring Fireball for the first link.

Ubuntu vs. Vista

I started to install Ubuntu 8.04 LTS on my Vista laptop but ended up bugging out. I’m writing this blog entry in Ubuntu having not installed it, but running it off the optical drive on my Dell laptop. The reason I bugged out is that Ubuntu can’t tell me what’s on the partitions it sees during installation, and can’t resize NTFS partitions (or mount them). From what I can tell of Ubuntu, it’s very slick, but I do have a number of observations based on what little I’ve seen so far.

Screen real estate, especially vertical real estate, shouldn’t be wasted, especially in these days of wide screen displays. Ubuntu’s default Gnome setup wastes quite a bit of vertical real estate:

  • First, there’s the global Apple-like menu bar. Unlike Apple’s menu bar, it’s essentially just an app launcher, which means that 99% of the time it’s just wasted space. Not only is this a waste of vertical real estate, it’s a waste of a screen edge (very valuable — see Fitt’s Law). The Mac’s UI remains the only non retarded implementation of a menu bar in a major OS.
  • Ubuntu still wastes title bar space even for maximized applications. Windows also commits this sin, but at least it doesn’t have the pointless app launcher above it.
  • Edit: I forgot to mention Ubuntu wastes space for a “start bar” at the bottom of the screen even though that functionality is actually provided by the space wasted up top for the app launcher.

Installation

  • During installation, the time zone requester is extremely annoying. I live in Alabama and finding a “dot” corresponding to the time zone I’m in was quite fiddly.
  • During installation, touching the trackpad is treated as a click. This actually led me to accidentally click potentially fatal buttons. Bad. I’d err on the side of not treating random things as clicks in an installer.
  • Not strictly an installation issue, but getting onto my wireless network was needlessly painful. I needed to enter my 128-bit WEP password but it’s too stupid to (a) recognize the kind of password being entered automatically or (b) try all the obvious options automatically, meaning that the proverbial clueless user will have to know that it’s a 64/128-bit hex password and whether or not to use a shared key and so forth. On a Mac you just selected a network and type in a password and your computer, which is good at such things, figures it out. Vista has to be the worst of course, since it makes you confirm the password (like I really wanted to type that damn thing in TWICE).
  • The preceding issue is magnified by some pretty dumb behavior in various nooks and crannies. I have two wireless routers at home and log into them separately (but with the same 128-bit code). Ubuntu’s Mac-like keychain offered to store the settings but stored them incorrectly, so after waking from sleep I lost my network connection and couldn’t restore it without typing the long string in again, which I didn’t have handy. A Keychain tool (there are two and only one seems to work) appeared to let me copy the string, but I couldn’t paste it into the WEP login (and I had previously pasted stuff into it, so I’m guessing the copy operation silently failed in Keychain). But by then I’d deleted the erroneous keychain entries, so I was screwed. At this point I gave up on Ubuntu.

Digital Media

  • When I visited Hulu.com it told me to install Flash and sent me to Adobe’s page. Adobe asked me which of three archive formats to download (gz, rpm, or yum???). I downloaded each and none worked. Later, I tried my own video code (which simply tries to display Flash video naively), which caused Firefox to display a missing plugin graphic. Clicking that automagically installed the right stuff (and now Hulu works). Score one for Firefox/Ubuntu and zero for Adobe.
  • None of the WMV or MOV videos I tried would play. I got a weird looking player interface and a black screen. All the FLV media worked just dandy. I assume that SOME MOV or WMV video will work, but none of the codecs I use, and I tend to use pretty nice codecs.
  • Shockwave stuff doesn’t work… I thought the plugin had been ported to *NIX but apparently not.

Aesthetics

In my opinion, Ubuntu 8.04, despite lacking the GPU-fluff of Vista or even OS X’s understated elegance, is a very attractive OS. It’s tasteful, understated, and tidy in a way that even earlier releases of Ubuntu weren’t. I don’t care for the heron desktop, it seems desperately trendy (with the bezier swirls that seem so popular these days but not so well executed). Someone has gone to the trouble of trying to make all the included apps look reasonably similar.

Final Thoughts

Ubuntu is making Desktop Linux almost credible. I’ve been around long enough to have been excited by FreeBSD distributions. I remember installing a fairly early RedHat on my old PC (it took three of us to even get it vaguely working). The first Linux distribution that even vaguely tempted me was Knoppix (to which the Linux world owes a huge debt, and which should make Microsoft and even Apple pretty ashamed — if one guy can make a self-configuring Linux distro that runs on almost anything, why can’t Microsoft do the same for Windows?)

I’m definitely thinking of quickly rebooting into Vista, backing up any files I really want to keep, and then cheerfully overwriting Vista, but only because I’ve found Vista so annoying. (My major gripe with Vista right now is probably not purely Microsoft’s fault — somehow the permissions policy on my machine have been set such that I can’t install any new software or even updates. It’s a work machine which had Vista Business installed on it for me for testing purposes, but I can’t really use it and our Office is still mainly XP-based so it’s not well-supported.)

All that said, if it weren’t for Flash support, I would find Ubuntu pretty intolerable. One of the few things I find this laptop useful for (aside from testing stuff under Vista using whatever versions of stuff it has on it) is watching Bones on Hulu.com (I’m catching up having just decided I like the show, and this saves me buying the DVD box sets or paying $2/episode on iTunes). If Flash didn’t run under Ubuntu, then I’d probably be rusted on to some flavor of Windows.

That said, it annoys me that Apple doesn’t support Linux with QuickTime. I suppose that QuickTime would make Linux a better alternative platform to the Mac for digital media across the board (and Linux is already very credible in the 3d arena).

Addendum: I just realized that Ubuntu doesn’t seem to know how to put my laptop to sleep. Whoops! If this turns out to be the case, then that’s a show-stopper.

Follow-up: I found the appropriate setting, but it seems that suspend mode is not supported (as I found out later after, apparently, leaving the laptop running all night. That’s a bit of a show-stopper.

Final, Final Thoughts

With the problems I ran into, there’s no way Ubuntu will replace Vista on my laptop just yet.

I haven’t explored Ubuntu very deeply, but I’ve basically looked at three things: the web-browsing experience (fairly crucial, since I’m a web developer), wireless networking, and sleep behavior. In those three areas, respectively, I find:

  • a profound lack of polish (although, in part, this was because of Adobe’s stupidity — why not tell me which install to use with Ubuntu or automatically detect which one to give me versus giving me three options that don’t work) and serious incompatibilities with common digital media
  • usability issues and serious bugs, and
  • complete incompatibility with some pretty common hardware.

Given that free software developers tend to concentrate on the kinds of things they use, and that web browsers, wireless networking, and suspend mode are pretty central to the lives of almost any developer I can think of, it’s hard to imagine that quality and attention to detail will be better in the components of Ubuntu that are less central to a developer-centric world. So I’d rather not find out the hard way right now. Wake me up for the next major release.

Microsoft Vista Business: 1, Ubuntu 8.04 LTS “Hardy Heron”: 0.

Truly final aside: I did the final edits to this post on my Mac Pro, since my Ubuntu laptop has lost its internet connection and I don’t see the point in getting it going again.

Wannabe Photoshop Killers, Revisited

Photoshop Elements 6 for the Mac has shipped which means bad times for half-assed shareware products pretending to be cheap Photoshop replacements. It’s not that Elements is itself a Photoshop replacement, it’s just that it’s more of one than the half-assed wannabes.

If you’ve been keeping score, the candidates are Pixelmator, Acorn, Iris, and Photoline. I’ve tried them all and the short version of my opinion is that Pixelmator is a pretty but ultimately useless piece of junk, Iris is an ugly, useless piece of junk, Acorn is a tidy, scriptable little app that works well but will almost certainly be missing some feature you need, and that Photoline is actually a credible replacement for Photoshop in a pinch, although it’s a bit ugly.

Where does Photoshop Elements 6 come in? Well, it’s actually cheaper (at least in the US at the current exchange rate) than Photoline, and not much more expensive than the others ($89). For digital photographers it’s simply vastly more useful than these other programs, since it has ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) which is a professional quality RAW converter. Enough said. For anyone else it has several killer features that only Photoline can match:

  • Selection Tools that work (actually, Acorn’s don’t suck)
  • Text layers that work
  • Curves

I can’t stress enough how it fundamentally doesn’t matter what else a graphics program does, if you can’t select what you want, everything else is a waste of time. This is like trying to ship a word-processor with broken text selection*.

Eye Candy

Pixelmator and Acorn both have incredibly nice front ends for CoreImage. Just how much faster and more interactive these are than Photoshop’s filters is just breathtaking — I might be tempted to switch to Pixelmator just to use its zoom blur filter on the rare occasions I use zoom blur — but the sad thing is that Photoshop’s are good enough (as are Photoline’s) and unless you have no taste, filters are NOT the thing you spend most, or even a significant fraction, of your time in with an image editing application.

And because the guys who’ve written these applications are fundamentally just leveraging Apple’s toolbox routines, the set of filters you have is dictated by what Apple gives you for free, rather than what artists actually needs. E.g. fractal clouds and noise are two of Photoshop’s most useful filters, but there are no fractal clouds or noise filters in CoreImage so tough luck. (Photoline has a general purpose fractal generator with presets which is better in some ways than Photoshop’s noise and clouds filters, but worse in others.)

Useful in a Pinch

One of the really nice things about good freeware and shareware is availability in a pinch. If I find myself needing to edit an image on some random computer, I can download Photoline, using the license stored in my gmail account, perform my edit, and then uninstall in a matter of minutes. Most shareware apps aren’t so large that downloading them is painful (Photoline for the Mac is ~20MB) while Photoshop Elements is a 1.25 GB download and involves product activation.

Conclusion

Before Photoshop Elements came out only two of the wannabe apps could even begin to justify their existence. Acorn is scriptable, making it intrinsically useful for workflow automation in a way that Pixelmator and Iris can never be. Iris is simply a joke, while Pixelmator could be useful one day. Photoline is a useful Photoshop replacement in a pinch, and its capabilities complement Photoshop Elements’ capabilities since Photoshop Elements has features photographers will want, while Photoline fills the gaps if you don’t want or can’t afford Photoshop CS3.

* Well, Microsoft does that and seems to make money. You cannot select parts of two different words in Microsoft Word. E.g. if you accidentally typed “teh rpoblem with Word” you can’t select the hilited text to fix it. Once a selection extends beyond one word, Word forces you to select entire words, leading to endless annoyance.

Brief Adventures in 3G

During my recent hospital visit I found myself desperately in need of internet connectivity. The hospital provided wireless internet in the main “food court” area, which was a significant hike (the hospital covers multiple city blocks joined by 2nd to 6th floor crosswalks) from my wife’s bedside, so I settled for daily email checks along with my morning coffee.

But if hospital is one thing, it’s boring, and my craving for internet connectivity eventually got the better of me.

My wife and I have been planning to get 2nd Generation iPhones as soon as our Verizon account expires and assuming Apple releases a second generation iPhone we like (preferably with 3G networking and SDHC support or a lot more internal storage) but in the meantime, what to do?

It turns out that Verizon offers several wireless broadband solutions via their 3G network. The options are: PC card modem, USB modem, or 3G cellphone. Since I didn’t want to buy a modem or get locked into a plan, I decided to try the 3G cellphone option.

Now, I’ve used the iPhone to browse the web via its EDGE network both in stores (after getting an Apple person to show me how to turn off WiFi) and using friends’ iPhones in random places, notably in the stadium with 110,000 people at a Crimson Tide home game (where I would say that EDGE was uselessly slow).

Well, I’ve tried Verizon 3G both through my Motorola RAZR v3 (c? m?) with varying levels of reception (we get full bars in our house) and the best results I could squeeze out of this “3G” “wireless broadband” network was roughly comparable to what we got out of EDGE at anything other than a Crimson Tide game. That is, for about two minutes, I was able to slowly view simple web pages. Aside from that, whether using my cellphone as a modem via USB or Bluetooth, or browsing directly on the phone, I got unbearably slow throughput. At the end of all my browsing attempts, the running totals on the bandwidth meter were all still zeroes.

They tell you “5GB is effectively unlimited”. I was concerned by the 5GB limit (since they charge you a ridiculous $0.50/MB over the limit) but I don’t think even a dedicated masochist with a point to prove could bear to suck 5GB per month down this particular straw even if it were theoretically possible. From my experience having managed to upload and download a total of less than 512kB (I’m assuming more would have rounded to something beyond “0”) I’d need to completely restart my connection and my phone (the latter a painfully slow process fraught with reminders that I’m a Verizon customer who will not be extending my service plan) about ten times per MB downloaded, which means to download 5GB I’d need to restart my phone 50,000 times. By back of envelope that’s about ten solid days of watching my phone’s shutdown and startup animations.

(I should add that separate tests at home where we get “more bars” produced scarcely better results.)

I’m sure that, in theory, 3G is pretty wonderful. In practice, however, the speed of Verizon’s 3G network in downtown Birmingham is atrocious (or is it the Motorola v3 (c? m?)), and it would be faster to walk to a WiFi hotspot to download a few web pages. Assuming you have WiFi support, which the iPhone does and most of its rivals do not.

Oh and when I cancelled the 3G data “feature” on my phone account, Verizon charged me pro-rata for the fraction of a month I kept it, even though I stopped using it after the second day and clearly got nothing out of it. Thanks Verizon.