The GIMP Revisited

GIMP in Single-Window Mode
GIMP in Single-Window Mode

As part of my quest to replace Adobe’s Creative Suite with less expensive alternatives, I revisited The GIMP (“The GNU Image Manipulation Program”) the best-known open-source Photoshop clone. Earlier versions of GIMP were both hard to install and required X11 (they also tended to come with non-standard fonts) as well as having a confusing multi-window interface. All of these issues have been addressed as of August 2012 (yes, I’m late to the party).

(Inkscape still requires X11, and since there are plenty of inexpensive Illustrator alternatives that do not require X11, I am ignoring it for now.)

The version of GIMP I played with is the one that emphasizes Python scriptability. I didn’t actually try scripting it, but I’ll assume that the Python stuff is there and works ( scriptability is generally the most robust feature of open source projects).

First the good:

  • It’s free and open source.
  • Supports Photoshop’s pair-kerning shortcuts (option-left/right-arrow).
  • You no longer need to install X11 or jump through hoops to get a Mac version of GIMP. You can go straight to the main download page and get a .dmg.
  • The user interface is much improved over earlier versions. In many respects just as refined as Photoshop’s (and just as cluttered).
  • Single window mode.
  • Photoshop files are reasonably well supported (layers come out pre-rendered, but that’s about as much as you get from anything other than Adobe’s applications).
  • Native fonts are supported.

There are some warts:

  • The cross-platform imaging code is clearly not nearly as performant as Apple’s Core Image stuff — filters and even simple screen redraws are quite sluggish compared with any Core Image based editor (or Photoline for that matter).
  • There’s no >32bpp color support, which means it does not replace Photoshop for HDR work. I could not open .hdr files.
  • There are no layer effects.
  • The online help did not work (I tried the “Read Online” option and got a weird error message).
  • The windows, including file pickers, while quite attractively laid out are non-native, which can make simple things (like accessing non-boot-drives) a little annoying (you need to type in paths to get to things — luckily you can shortcut them once you get there).
  • The UI has some quirks, including palettes that float above dialogs and a funky “no document is open” document window that when closed quits the application.
  • Key filters copied from Photoshop are notably less useful (e.g. the difference cloud filter doesn’t create tiling fractals).

In a nutshell, GIMP is free and very capable, but lacks the non-destructive filters / layer effects of Acorn. Compared with Photoline, it’s scriptable but lacks non-destructive filters and >32bpp support. Compared with Pixelmator, it has a less refined user interface and lacks Core Image support.

The GIMP ★★★★★ (relative to the other Photoshop alternatives) — and note that I do not consider price in my ratings.