Image Editing Mini-Shootout


Pixelmator has just closed their beta program and are preparing for launch next week, so I can finally write something regarding it (despite the hoopla on some sites, one of the terms of being a beta tester was that you couldn’t write about it, and I stuck to the deal).

But since I’ve been using Acorn as well, and given that I can’t possibly compete with the veritable deluge of reviews and comparisons that is sure to clog all our RSS feeds next week, I thought the least I could do was skip the (rather pointless) taking of screenshots and nit-picking and simply put up a little table covering a few things that I1 find relevant:

Item Acorn Pixelmator
GUI single palette, own menu layout – usable, but confusing pretty much standard menu layout and separate palettes, very easy to get into, very responsive
File Formats a documented file format, plus BMP, PNG, JPEG, GIF and TIFF Support for PSD (essential for serious usage) besides a bazillion other formats
Shape editing2 Yes (inc. rounded corners) No (ouch!)
Text-only layers Yes3 Yes
Canvas cropping Yes5 Yes
Filters Yes4 Yes
Live contrast & exposure editing Yes Yes
Levels No Yes
Tone curve No No
Plugins a documented mechanism No
Strong suit simplicity and extensibility UI and features

Now, my needs for an image editor are quite simple in some aspects – I am quite used to using command-line tools like ImageMagick and sips for doing basic resizing (and even cropping) – but utterly non-trivial in others.

For instance, a fundamental activity for me is annotating images (which absolutely requires vector and text tools), for which my ancient copy of Fireworks is eminently suited. In fact, Fireworks (which was one of the first tools to merge vector and bitmap editing in a way that felt right) does nearly all I need except decent color editing (for which I would love to have something like the Photoshop and Lightroom tone curve).

So anything that comes my way has to measure up to Fireworks in some regards, and (mostly) get out of the way and just let me do things without too much guessing.

All in all, and from my experimenting so far, I’d say that Pixelmator has the upper hand in nearly everything, most notably:

  • A fast, responsive, nearly standard GUI that works (mostly) the way I expect it to6.
  • Support for pretty much all formats I need (except the Fireworks enhanced PNGs) and Photoshop (which provides some assurance that you don’t get locked in)

But…

  • It doesn’t do vectors or shapes, period – which is a pain.
  • It stops short of doing the sort of color manipulation I expected from such a sophisticated program (i.e., no tone curve, although it had a working levels panel and basic color tuning features).

And – something to keep in mind – Acorn let me do pretty much all I needed, once I got to grips with the UI.

I was able to annotate images, move rounded rectangles around, add text, crop images, integrate it with iPhoto, etc. – in short, doing pretty much all you really need for day-to-day stuff.

But… The workflow was awkward for me, since I had to keep checking where things were.

Without doing Gus the awful injustice of comparing7 Acorn with the GIMP, there is a reason why graphics applications replicate the Photoshop layout – and it’s not due to force of habit: it’s because the set of metaphors for dealing with images that it makes available has been shown throughout the years to make sense when arranged in that particular fashion (which is an entirely different thing).

In short, the Photoshop menu and tool layout would have come about whether or not it was created by Adobe. It is because it works like it is.

I can see myself getting used to Acorn (and buying it instead of Pixelmator), but it’s not because of its UI – it’s because of the utterly wonderful and brilliant way in which filters are displayed as a visual pipeline, which makes it very, very easy to do complex image filtering and tune the results on the fly (I recommend watching the filters video, which sadly stops short of changing filter sort order and other niceties).

That, coupled with Acorn’s extensibility by allowing you to code your own filters, may very well make the difference for people who need to do “open-ended” image handling – i.e., hard-core image processing or creation based on external data.

As to what I’m going to pick, well… I honestly don’t know yet. I do know I’ll definitely spring for the first thing that does “proper” color editing (yes, my eternal quest for the tone curve, again), and I still have a few days in which I can get Pixelmator at beta-tester pricing.

But I do know one thing – If I do buy either, I won’t write about it anytime soon – In this like in many other things, I think people should make up their own minds.

1 i.e., you may not find some of these interesting or relevant at all, but I do. Don’t bug me regarding your pet pluses or minuses.

2 Essential for basic image annotation.

3 Allows for explicitly rasterizing a text or vector layer to a bitmap, which sometimes comes in handy.

4 The filter pipeline is, in my opinion, Acorn’s killer app for most people.

5 Not very intuitive, since you need to do “resize image” and then unpick “scale image”

6 Although I wish it had an option to use normal Aqua palettes, since sometimes the “cool” look plays havoc with readability – it is not unusual for me to try to fill in a numeric parameter and find that the field becomes light blue with white text, or squint at some of the icons against the black gloss…

7 For the record, the GIMP is a prickly ball of thorns tearing through a mess of an UI wrapped around it, and Acorn is a smooth, polished wrapper around a tasty kernel of clean functionality.