Illustrator Replacements, Cont’d

It seems like this is a popular topic right now. In Drawing Conclusions Jon Whipple provides a very thorough comparison of Intaglio, Vector Designer, LineForm, and ZeusDraw (he dismisses some contenders for being too expensive, or having terrible websites, and InkScape for running on other platforms — which seems a bit odd since Illustrator runs on other platforms and is expensive). I do like the fact that Mr. Whipple is well aware of Illustrator’s numerous shortcomings (unlike some reviewers who simply assume it’s superior to its competition in all respects).

It’s a long article, so I’ll cut to the chase and say he picked ZeusDraw as his favorite. I’d not heard of it before and will check it out , but he found pretty crippling limitations in all the programs (as did I).

Afterword: after using ZeusDraw for five minutes, I’m pretty irked by the interface. Some things are great — it’s amazingly easy to set up custom brushes, although there aren’t a bunch of nice presets — but the user interface is unstable (it morphs into different forms based on the selected tool, and often deselects the object you’re working on for no reason) and the bezier tool is gratuitously different and worse (i.e. less interactive) than the one we’re all used to.


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.

Photoshop Elements 6.0 for Mac

I’ve had the Photoshop Elements 6.0 (PSE henceforth) trial installer sitting in my Downloads folder for a while now, and it’s high time I took a look at it. I’ve actually never used Photoshop Elements, although I have quite a bit of experience with the crippleware Photoshop 4.0 “Limited Edition”, which — thankfully — PSE doesn’t resemble in the slightest.

First of all, PSE is very much an Adobe application with all the annoyances that entails namely:

  • Adobe’s slow-as-a-wet-week, mentally challenged installer
  • Adobe’s “hey, watch us load all our plugins” splash screen
  • Adobe’s laughable updater
  • And Adobe Bridge which is good in some ways and horrible in others — more on this later

So for first impressions, installation was slow and painful. The installer won’t install anything unless all Adobe apps, web browsers, and anything else they can think of are not running. This is bad enough, but it also complains about the offending programs one at a time. Quit Safari then click Try Again. Quit Photoshop and then click Try Again. And so on. Yuck.

Once installed, Photoshop Elements weighs in at 427MB of which about 30MB is tutorials and documentation. That’s atrocious but par for the course these days.

Pixelmator, Photoline, and Acorn are all “drag this icon to your Applications folder” to install, and “drag this icon to the Trash” to uninstall. This is how Mac software should be and generally has been since 1984.

Bridge is slower than the Media Browser component that Pixelmator uses, but a lot more capable — with one glaring exception. When you try to access the iPhoto Library (which it provides a handy shortcut for) rather than behaving sensibly and letting you browse the directories within or, better yet, parse them with some knowledge as to how iPhoto structures them and conceal the garbage, it simply launches iPhoto.

I might note that, knowing where iPhoto actually stores stuff is no help. If you try to sneak up on your RAW images by finding them yourself, Bridge cleverly sees what you’re trying to do and helpfully launches iPhoto instead. So, special effort went into this little Usability Fiasco.

iPhoto in turn needs to be set to use PSE as its external editor and, to add insult to injury, when you double-click a RAW image in iPhoto, it sends PSE a processed JPEG to edit — bypassing Adobe Camera Raw which is pretty much the main selling point of PSE.

Helpful Hint: to actually use ACR on RAW images in your iPhoto Library, you need to right-click on the Photo and choose “Show in Finder”, and then drag the document into PSE manually. Good grief. I hope Adobe fixes this idiocy in an update.

OK, so we’re in PSE and we’ve managed to load a RAW image.

First of all, PSE has a pretty nice looking interface. Very much inspired by Apple’s “Pro” apps (not as polished, but not bad) with dark grey panels and a lack of clutter. Sadly, not all of PSE’s interface matches this look, so you’re occasionally brought into jarring contact with vanilla Aqua dialogs (much like the way the Type and Color Picker floaters stick out like a sore thumb in Pixelmator, but worse). And, unlike Apple’s Pro apps, it doesn’t really know what to do with a second monitor.

Next, PSE has some great stuff for novice users. The interface is divided into three “stages”: Edit (process and retouch images), Create (assemble albums, etc.), and Share (distribute content). For the Edit stage there is a “full” interface (with every tool available), a “quick” interface with just the most common stuff, and a “Guided” interface which is very simple to use, and useful even for experienced users who want to make sure they haven’t forgotten something obvious.

The Guided interface also reveals some of PSE’s most brilliant tools, such as its Correct Skin Tone tool which is one of the fastest and most effective color correction tools I’ve ever seen.

Above, PSE has HUD-style confirmation dialogs, which I find to be an improvement over Photoshop’s interface.

In the Full interface it took me a little while to map what I saw on to Photoshop’s toolset. At first I thought Curves was missing, but not only is it present, it comes with useful presets (e.g. correct for backlighting) whichallow novice users to see how Curves works without being thrown in the deep end. I didn’t really use the Quick interface at all, and I’m not sure it’s really all that useful since the Full interface isn’t terribly cluttered.

PSE’s magnetic lasso tool tries to trace the edges of objects automagically, and does a pretty good job (this Photo was taken in appalling lighting conditions).

PSE has Photoshop’s excellent tools for correcting for lens distortion, the quirky magnetic lasso, and a bewildering variety of color correction and finessing tools. It also seems to have all of Photoshop’s filters. So, what does Photoshop do that PSE doesn’t? Aside from obvious high-end and print-related features such as support for HDR images and CMYK:

  • PSE doesn’t have editable bezier curves
  • Text layers are limited (but not crippled)
  • Layers can’t be nested
  • No editable masks (but you can mask with shapes from a library)
  • Blending options are hidden behind “Layer Styles” which allow most of the things most people would want to do (such as emboss and stick drop shadows under things) but which are far less powerful and flexible than Photoshop’s
  • No matting tools

This isn’t a huge list. I could certainly live with PSE (instead of Photoshop) in a pinch, although I’d certainly miss its bezier tools, masking, and layer organization functions.

One area where PSE really pales in comparison with the Core Image-based editors is filters.  On the whole, Adobe’s suite of Filters (which is starting to get a bit dated) is still probably more useful, overall, than Core Image’s basic set, but Core Image — especially as implemented in Pixelmator, but also in Acorn — has some really nice filters wrapped in a far better, more interactive interface that Adobe can’t match. While bread-and-butter filters (Gaussian Blur, Unsharp Mask) are simply quicker and more pleasant in Core Image, in some more obscure cases, such as Zoom Blur (Radial Blur in Zoom mode for Photoshop users), Core Image simply makes Adobe’s filters look amateurish.

PSE’s Zoom Blur filter (which is straight out of Photoshop) hasn’t been updated since 1995 or so, and has no preview, and produces mediocre results. You place the center of the blur by clicking in the black and white square thingy, and then undo when you get it wrong.

Pixelmator’s Core Image based Zoom Blur is completely interactive. You place the center of the blur effect directly on the image, dragging the intensity results in a live, full-screen preview near instantaneously (at least on my Mac Pro, editing a full resolution image).


Given my recent comments on Pixelmator, how does PSE compare? Well, it’s about $20 more expensive ($79 from Amazon versus $59) although the Windows version is cheaper. The installation process is annoying, Adobe’s Updater is a joke, and Bridge offers atrocious iPhoto integration. (I can’t speak for Aperture but can only assume it works better with PSE than iPhoto does.) Once installed, in terms of features PSE runs circles around Pixelmator everywhere except in Filters. In terms of user interface, Pixelmator is definitely prettier and has a more consistent look and feel, but Adobe has done a great deal to make quite complex features (many of which Pixelmator flat out doesn’t have, such as Skin Tone Color Correction and Correct Lens Distortion) approachable to novices.

Pixelmator feels a lot less ponderous than PSE, which might be a whole bunch cheaper than Photoshop but — launch times aside — feels considerably more sluggish. Pixelmator is also more Mac-like, and — this is a taste thing — I find it more fun to use. That said, I have Photoshop, so for me PSE is just a dumbed down version of Photoshop with some very clunky and crippled features, and a bunch of stuff I use constantly (beziers!) missing altogether. If you don’t have Photoshop and you’re a Photographer, I’d have to recommend PSE over Pixelmator. PSE has tools for photographers that Pixelmator simply can’t match, not least of which is Adobe Camera Raw (Pixelmator simply imports RAWs without allowing you to correct anything on the way in). For me, PSE has been crippled in just the right way to make it intolerable, while Pixelmator seems to me to have pretty close to the right set of features for what it does, and it’s just more pleasant to use.

So, unsurprisingly, PSE offers nothing to those of us with Photoshop, but it’s pretty compelling for Photographers, if annoying to install and a bit torpid and old fashioned in places.

Director 11

After some doubts as to whether Director would ever see a new version, Adobe announced Director 11 (making it another non CS product, among other things). This is mainly a compatibility upgrade (new Flash functionality, support for Intel Macs, switch to Aegia physics from Havok, etc.) with the next version rumored to be a major upgrade.

Good news for Director developers, and it’s also interesting to consider what might be in store if Adobe manages to unify its rather too many IDEs, languages, and target platforms without making the Flash plugin too bloated.

Why I hate Adobe. Expensive Upgrades & Software that Phones Home

I’m in a quandary. I have Adobe CS3 Web Premium through work, but I don’t have my own license. I have Adobe Creative Suite (the original version) which comprised Photoshop 7, Illustrator 10, and InDesign 1, which were the first OS X native versions of each product, and I have After Effects 5 (for Windows).

Assuming I can convince Adobe I own a “CS” license, I can upgrade to Adobe CS3 Design Standard for $599, and upgrade After Effects for $299. If I want Flash and Dreamweaver that’s another $699 and $399. Total cost of upgrading: $2000. The Master Suite (licenses for absolutely everything) costs $2499.

This is (one reason) why I hate Adobe.

This is the way Adobe used to price products. If you wanted one product, it cost you $700. If you wanted most of them, it cost you $1000-$1300. If you wanted the super duper version of After Effects it cost you $2000.

If you owned Adobe Photoshop N, and wanted N+1 (or N+2) it cost you $300, but for $500 you ould get the “most of them” package, etc.

This is how I, who basically use Photoshop every day and Illustrator once a week, and the other stuff occasionally, ended up with licenses for pretty much all their software. (I have licenses for all Macromedia’s stuff too — I’m trying not to get too complex.) It makes sense too: software is free to give away once written, so it makes sense to sell bundles of “all our stuff” for a bit extra if we can get a solid chunk of change for one item.

But now Adobe has created a mind-boggling byzantine upgrade system (so complex their online tool to tell you which upgrade path to use is down for maintenance) which basically makes it almost as expensive to buy everything again as to upgrade it, even though I only really want one thing.

Here are my alternatives:
1) Upgrade Photoshop ($199). I don’t get the “extended edition” … but I’ll live. It irks me that Adobe has created two (or is it three, if you add Elements, or four if you add Lightroom?) tiers of Photoshop, but then it’s really their one indispensable product, so I wouldn’t be surprised if CS4 brings us Photoshop Elements, Photoshop LightRoom, Photoshop Professional, Photoshop Production Professional, and Photoshop Production Professional for After Effects.

I considered buying Photoline (~$90, see previous blog entry)… but I really like Photoshop, and I know it really well. Also the one thing about Photoshop that really irks me (launch time) isn’t really solved by Photoline. So saving $110 may not be worth it. Photoline upgrades are roughly $45, but it’s at version 14, so I guess it revs more often than Photoshop.

2) Get Intaglio ($89). It’s not as good as Illustrator, but it will do the job, and launches instantly without phoning home. (Illustrator 10 would often fail to launch or hang on launch because Adobe’s servers were offline.)

This is (another reason) why I hate Adobe.

Adobe recently got into some hot water over its software “phoning home” to a suspiciously named server that turned out (according to Adobe) to be some kind of left over Macromedia initiative they didn’t know about. This ignores the fact Adobe’s stuff has been phoning home for at least seven years.

3) Give up on After Effects. After Effects is great. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to use than the heavyweight tools, and does a very good job. But now there’s Shake, whatever replaces Shake, and for simple stuff there’s Final Cut Express/Pro and Motion. So … buh-bye.

4) Give up on InDesign. I never really got to love InDesign. I really did love Framemaker, but Adobe’s clever strategy of (a) never updating it, and (b) dropping Mac OS support (even though it runs on UNIX variants) forced me to give up on it (I tried using it under Classic but eeew). I don’t know much DTP these days, so Pages (flawed as it is) will serve me.

The Macromedia side of things, which I’ve ignored thus far, is much easier to deal with.

Flash — well I use it for work but I don’t need to think about it any other time. If I have to, I’ll upgrade one of my licenses. (Again, Adobe is selling multiple SWF development tools…) Oh, and I might just wait to see what happens to ActionScript, since AS3 did not become ECMAScript and is utterly incompatible with AS2 … so will there be an AS4, and will it be similar/different to AS3 or AS2. I mean, WTF?

Dreamweaver — always kind of sucked, and now there are far nicer, cheaper alternatives. (Coda!)

Director — hasn’t received a worthwhile update since 8.5 (although they did make an OS X native version and charged through the nose for it). Probably dead. That’s OK, there’s Unity.