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 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.