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