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The Chipper

Posted by Tom at 09.26.07

Yesterday, brothers Saulius and Aidas Dailide released Pixelmator 1.0 for public consumption. Lucky for us, they were nice enough to provide a downloadable trial demo (which can be unlocked with a serial for more permanent use). It has been said that image editors are likely to become the new FTP client within the mac dev community, so I figured I'd give Pixelmator a try and see how it weighs in against the heaviest hitter, Photoshop.

First Impressions
The first thing that struck me is that at about 30MB, Pixelmator is pretty compact. A lot more compact than that torrent of CS3 you're waited three days for... I'm sure this is due in large part to the fact that brothers Dailide relied heavily on OS X's Core Image technology to handle the grunt work. Upon opening Pixelmator, you are confronted with a splash dialog box similar to that you would see in CS3, but with pretty animations of cascading text that become menu options. I jumped right in and used it to open the latest comp of my upcoming site redesign.

Pixelmator sells itself heavily on the concept of HUD-based palette systems. Unfortunately, as Gruber points out, this extends to the document window itself. This is fine on my macbook, but on both my iMac and a separate 23" Dell Monitor, this is rather annoying. Full screen mode eliminates background distractions, but I can't always work in full screen. An option to change the opacity of the document window might make a good 1.5 or 2.0 release addition.

The next thing I noticed was that all my masks were intact. Immediately this made me quite ecstatic, as I am a huge proponent of non-destructive image editing. Admittedly, I'm a geek — I nearly threw a keg party when Adobe added adjustable filters to CS3... Alas, my joy did not last long when I took notice that my comp hardly looked like the Photoshop version of itself. All. My. Textures. Gone. That's right, the application of layer effects of any kind in PS is rendered null and void when imported to Pixelmator. Effects are not even rasterized, just ignored. Vector and Smart objects are also changed in the conversion process, but to rasterized layers. I rely solely on vector and smart objects in my Photoshop work — out of the need to be able to re-edit everything I do, with personal and professional work. To do anything else would be senseless and a waste of time.

The Downside & The Upside, In That Order
On the above points alone, I could not use Pixelmator professionally and I feel that these will need to be resolved before Pixelmator can move beyond anything but amateur status. Same goes for Adjustment layers — non-destructive editing is non-negotiable for me. Pixelmator also lacks rulers, guides, and what I would consider some really basic functions that make Photoshop extremely usable, like toggling layers on and off with a continuous swipe down the line of visibility buttons.

Pixelmator eschews a lot of basic functions for prettier ones, like the splash screen animation and the jumbo icon for the active tool in the toolbar. It's worth noting that many Photoshop image-editing functions are available, including adjustments, image and canvas sizing, and filters. Pixelmator's halftone filter was a fun filter to play with and in my opinion, better executed than Photoshop's. Filters are visually "chained" to the objects they effect within the document window. It's a cool but superfluous effect, and I could see it getting annoying after a while with large, complex comps.

Pixelmator's toolbar is quite similar to Photoshop's, so much so, one has to wonder if it's really an improvement. I've heard more enthusiastic reviews about Acorn's single tool palette. Familiarity extends to many menu options and hotkeys, and this could certainly enable an easy transition from Pixelmator to Photoshop or vice versa. Pixelmator also supports most if not all major file formats. The Pixelmator team was also nice enough to provide some pretty useful documentation for the beginners out there wanting to try it as an alternative to the daunting beast that is Photoshop.

Wrapping Up
In summary, I feel that Pixelmator is a well-executed entry-level photomanipulation app — I would consider it great training wheels for beginners who can't afford photoshop. It lacks some essential middle-of-the-road features that makes switching from Photoshop a total deal breaker, not to mention the high-end features like Smart Objects. Should they show up later, though, I could probably get away with making my websites in just Pixelmator and Coda. Maybe. Any plans to make an Illustrator-killer, fellas?

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I am also awaiting the future developments of Pixelmator. It seems so promising, it would be nice to have it at least be a good competition to Photoshop Elements.

Thanks, Gerard, for pointing out that Pixelmator really can't go head-to-head with Photoshop. I'm not directly familiar with Elements as my design/photomanipulation needs easily outpace what it offers. However, for mac users, Pixelmator could possibly be a sufficient alternative to Elements. Depending on Pixelmator's future offerings could push Adobe to offer different options in Elements or even rethink how they package Photoshop to make it more affordable to intermediate users.