Pixelmator 2: You’re Going to Be Impressed

As a web designer, I spend a significant amount of time creating graphics and interfaces in Photoshop. Like other designers and artists, I love the power and limitless possibilities it offers, while at the same time, I grow increasingly frustrated with high prices, feature bloat, and the myriad little quirks that seem designed to drive us insane.

Photoshop’s lack of competition is partly due to the large scope and flexibility of the application – it is used by web, graphic, and interface designers, digital artists, photographers, and more. I doubt Photoshop’s reign as the king of multi-purpose graphics software will end any time soon, but developers have been chipping away at its supremacy in individual fields.

In the more artistic fields, Pixelmator has long been a popular Photoshop alternative, loved for its speed and simplicity. Despite these advantages, Pixelmator could never quite match Photoshop in terms of sheer power – until now. Pixelmator 2 was recently release with an impressive list of new features, find out if it can really compete after the jump!

What’s New

For a rundown of Pixelmator’s basic functionality, you might want to take a look at David Appleyard’s review of Pixelmator 1, in this article, I’m going to dive right in to what I think are Pixelmator 2’s most exciting new features.

Interface & Lion Features

Pixelmator 2 features a readjusted interface that is both refreshing and familiar – it’s the same basic dark, slick look, with some added polish. It has some great little touches that make Pixelmator a pleasure to use: an unobtrusive pop-up that tells you what you’re undoing, subtle animations, and large icons to highlight active tools. One gripe is the lack of foreground/background color display, you’re pretty much left to guess what color you have selected if you don’t have the color panel open. I’m also a bit disappointed that Pixelmator doesn’t use tabbed windows, which are key when working with a small display.

This new release comes with the welcome integration of some of the more useful Lion features, including full-screen view and versions. I’m a huge fan of versions/autosave in my writing applications, but I honestly never thought I’d see it in a graphics application. I wasn’t expecting my MacBook Pro to be able to handle versions in Pixelmator, but I was pleasantly surprised by its speed and reliability.

Behold – it's a thing of beauty

Behold – it's a thing of beauty

The interface now also features a contextual tool options bar at the top of each window, which changes depending on the tool you’re using. The downside of having this at the top of each window is that some options are hidden on narrower images, so remember to stretch out your window if you’re missing options.

Vector Graphics

A lack of vector graphic tools was likely a deal breaker for a lot of potential Pixelmator 1 users, so this version introduces a rudimentary vector toolkit, including a pen tool, a freehand drawing tool, and a vector shapes tool. Vector shapes are handled similarly to in Photoshop, with each shape getting its own layer. You can adjust fill and stroke for your vector objects, and even add a drop shadow.

What my eyeball would look like close up if I were a hastily-drawn vector graphic.

What my eyeball would look like close up if I were a hastily-drawn vector graphic.

I’m no pro in vector graphics, but I found Pixelmator’s implementation a bit unintuitive. I miss Photoshop/Illustrator options like “convert point” and “direct select,” and I might have missed something, but it seems like the bezier handles are not individually editable. I’m hoping this feature will be more fleshed out in future updates.

Healing tool & Content-Aware Fill

A lot of people were excited when Photoshop introduced its new Content-Aware fill feature in CS5, and for good reason: it promises to be able to seamlessly erase elements from an image without spending time clone-stamping. Though the technology can’t be applied in all situations (and rarely works as smoothly as in the demos), it’s still a time-saving tool, and now available in Pixelmator.

Erasing a window using the Healing Brush. Why? Because I can!

Erasing a window using the Healing Brush. Why? Because I can!

There isn’t a specific Content-Aware fill tool, rather it’s a technology used by the healing brush tool (and an option when you select a region). Unlike Photoshop’s healing brush, the Pixelmator healing brush ‘erases’ objects from an image, replacing them with an interpolated background. It works quite impressively, I don’t have CS5 at home for a comparison, but it seems to work just as well.

Dodge & Burn Tools

Dodge and burn are easily two of my most-used features when I’m working with photographs, and they’re a very welcome addition to Pixelmator. Dodge and burn work just as you’d expect, with a full range of options allowing you to select shadows, midtones and highlights, select brushes, and vary exposure.

A dodged-and-burned apple

A dodged-and-burned apple, zoomed in too closely.

You can use the same trick for non-destructive dodging and burning as in Photoshop: create a new layer, set the blending mode to overlay, and fill it with 50% grey.

Pixel Tool

If you’re creating icons or other graphics with pixel-level detail, you need to be able to edit pixels individually. I’ve never been really happy with Photoshop’s pencil tool, but the Pixelmator pixel tool works just the way I want it to (except that it’s not in the toolbox – you have to hit P).

I'm no pixel artist

Pixel level precision

What Else?

There are more new features than I can go over in detail, but here’s a quick overview of some other handy additions:

  • Smudge Tool: works pretty much as you’d expect it to.
  • Sponge Tool: this is pretty handy, it lets you spot-saturate or desaturate colors using any brush.
  • Eyedropper Tool: new magnifying eyedropper tool lets you zoom in on colors you want to use.
  • Info Bar: shows you RGB values for any spot in your document, as well as X and Y coordinates.
  • Type Tool: improved type tool features more advanced typographic features.

What’s Missing?

Inevitably when discussing a graphics editor, there are going to be comparisons and complaints of missing features. It’s important in this situation to determine the intended scope of the application, and not complain that we’re missing things we shouldn’t expect to have. That being said, there are a couple features that I’d really like to see.

If Pixelmator wants to compete as powerful graphics manipulation software, it should really have something similar to the warp tool: anyone used to using this feature in Photoshop will really miss it.

Pixelmator also doesn’t feature the same kind of non-destructive editing workflow people might be used to. Adjustments are applied permanently, though they are applied to individual layers.


Despite these few limitations, Pixelmator 2 is a very powerful image editor that makes impressive advancements over the previous version. When I first started learning Photoshop, I did a lot of graphics and photo manipulation, and I think Pixelmator 2 would have definitely been powerful enough for my needs. Most of the everyday tasks I do at work, tasks which would generally fall under the category of “Photoshopping” (“remove the garbage cans from this photo,” “get rid of her nose ring,” “put that woman in front of some trees,” etc.) could now easily be done in Pixelmator.

It’s not going to displace Photoshop for large-scale professional uses (though I’m not ruling that out after future updates), but it’s not just for beginners or casual hobbyists any more.

One of the most appealing features of Pixelmator is the price, but that’s still up in the air as I write this. Right now, it’s a steal at the introductory price of $29.99, but there’s no confirmation on a final price. Whatever it is, I’m certain it will be a lot more palatable than $700 for Photoshop, and there is a free trial available from the website.

It’s hard to switch to a new application after putting so much time into learning another, but I recommend you give it a shot if the features suit your needs. Pros will definitely notice the faster performance, and beginners will find it much less intimidating than other software. What are your thoughts on the topic? Will Photoshop always be ubiquitous? Have you made the switch?


Pixelmator 2 adds powerful new features, including content-aware fill, vector tools, and dodge & burn, while maintaining its reputation for speediness and ease of use.