Clash of the Image Editors: Acorn vs. Pixelmator

In May, Adobe announced that it would be discontinuing the Creative Suite line and focus solely on Creative Cloud. While this decision left the creative professionals somewhat frustrated, it doesn’t really affect the average consumer since Photoshop was already priced out of reach.

However, May also ushered in two bits of news with particular interest to the everyday user — both Acorn and Pixelmator received major updates. While not the powerhouse that Photoshop is, don’t be too quick to dismiss them, since they’re very capable and affordable apps.

I decided to pit the two against one another to see which would fare best and was somewhat surprised by what I found.

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Setting the Scene

Comparing two apps of similar ilk is always a delicate matter. Although they may serve the same purpose, seldom are they on par in terms of features and pricing. Therefore, rather than ticking off a feature checklist for each, I decided to use both in tandem in my normal everyday workflow. I’ll focus on a few aspects that I feel are relevant and important to most causal users and myself.

Acorn4-Logo

Acorn

Acorn, developed by Gus Mueller (the man behind the ever popular VoodooPad), was recently updated to version 4. This update brought a slew of new features and enhancements. For quite some time now, it’s been the standard in terms of image editing for the everyday users and is heralded as “The image editor for Humans.”

Price: $49.99
Requires: OS X 10.8 or later, 64-bit processor
Developer: Flying Meat

Pixelmator-Logo

Pixelmator

Pixelmator is the creation of two brothers, Saulius Dailide and Aidas Dailide. It first hit the scene in late 2007, making quite the splash, and has been improving by leaps and bounds ever since. If you had read my previous piece, you’d know I’m a big fan of Pixelmator and I’ve come to rely on it for my everyday graphic needs.

Price: $14.99
Requires: OS X 10.6.8 or later
Developer: Pixelmator Team Ltd,

The User Interface

Both Acorn and Pixelmator have separate windows for the image, tools palette and the various other available palettes (layers, colours, brushes, filters, etc.). The similarities however, end there.

Acorn feels as though it’s a part of OS X.

Acorn feels as though it’s a part of OS X.

With native UI elements and pale, almost monochrome icons, Acorn feels as though it was bundled with OS X. Pixelmator, on the other hand, makes a stark departure from native UI, with sleek dark chrome and colourful icons creating a pleasing contrast.

Pixelmator has a sleek dark look and subtle animations.

Pixelmator has a sleek dark look and subtle animations.

While aesthetics is highly subjective, I prefer Pixelmators look. Given the fact that Pixelmator’s tool palette is customisable and it offers a wider array of useful palettes, I have to declare it the victor in this round.

Speed

In terms of speed, both apps performed admirably well. Even on my humble Macbook Air, Acorn and Pixelmator opened a series of medium sized files in a mere couple of seconds (Acorn was marginally faster). Applying layer styles and effects was quick, as was adjusting them on the fly.

Pixelmator forces the user to use export to obtain other formats since it defaults to saving in .pxmPixelmator forces the user to use export to obtain other formats since it defaults to saving in .pxm

Pixelmator forces the user to use export to obtain other formats since it defaults to saving in .pxm

However, when it comes to speed, what most really care about is how fast they can get work done, and in that respect Acorn trumps Pixelmator for a myriad of reasons:

  • Save vs. Export – In order to take full advantage of what each app has to offer (filters, layers, versions, etc.), images need to be saved in the apps’ respective format (.acorn or .pxm). There are times, however, when all I need is a quick fix (crop an image or do some minor colour adjustments). These times, I’ll usually open a PNG or JPEG, fix what needs fixing and then save. Acorn allows me to do this with ease, whereas Pixelmator will always default to saving in .pxm format, forcing me to export the image to PNG or JPEG once again. This can quickly become tedious and time consuming.
  • Automation – Although both have support for a few Automator Actions, Acorn also offers scripting via AppleScipt, Python and JSTalk, allowing for greater automation possibilities.
  • Experimentation – Thanks to its non-destructive filters, I found it far easier and therefore quicker to experiment with Acorn until I achieved the desired result. With Pixelmator, I had to resort to a lot of undo/redo, saving and version browsing when things didn’t pan out as I wanted.

Supported Image Formats

On a feature checklist, both apps would score about the same on support for file formats, yet upon closer inspection, Pixelmator wins this bout. While each app supports a wide array of formats, including (much to my surprise) support for PDF, Pixelmator renders better results consistently.

When opening a PDF, Acorn produces a very pixelated and reduced image, whereas Pixelmator fairs far better. The same can be said for PSDs. Pixelmator manages to remain truest to the original image (no layer styles, though). Acorn, on the other hand, had mixed results. At times it managed to retain most of the detail of the original image, while other times the results were frighteningly wrong.

Acorn (left half) offers worse and inconsistent support for PSDs when compared to Pixelmator

Acorn (left half) offers worse and inconsistent support for PSDs when compared to Pixelmator

Getting images into the apps is, as you’d expect, pretty standard and straightforward. Each app offers however something unique that the other doesn’t and therefore has me bouncing back and forth on occasion.

  • Acorn – Allows creating a new image from a layered screenshot. While this is a little buggy in dual monitor setups, it has proven to be a valuable feature.
  • Pixelmator – Has support for importing images directly from an attached camera or scanner. Network attached scanners are also supported.

Layer Filters and Effects

Acorn and Pixelmator take a very different approach to layer filters and effects. While both have their merits and niceties, Acorn emerges champion with features that – dare I say – equal Photoshop.

  • Pixelmator  – Has a large selection of logically grouped, interesting and useful effects. They can be searched and added to favourites for quick access. When mousing over each effect, there is a subtle animation showing exactly what the effect will do. While it’s possible to apply multiple effects, they’re somewhat final (not counting versions and undo of course) and can’t be easily toggled on/off.
Some effects in Pixelmator offer further tweaking, and this is done in a beautiful popup.

Some effects in Pixelmator offer further tweaking, done in a beautiful popup.

  • Acorn – Has an equally large selection of categorized, searchable filters. Clicking on any one filter will apply it immediately to your image allowing you to quickly preview the effect. Double clicking will effectively apply the filter, after which you can tweak settings. Acorn takes things one step further, though, and uses a philosophy similar to that of layers. Filters can be stacked, rearranged, toggled on/off, and deleted. Each of these actions produces a varying effect on the image, and experimenting with them is not only effortless but fun.
Acorn filters can be stacked, reordered and deleted. You can also toggle visibility for individual filters.

Acorn filters can be stacked, reordered and deleted. You can also toggle visibility for individual filters.

Both apps offer the ability to tweak filters and effects via an on-screen HUD, so there’s no difference there.

Working With Shapes

  • Pixelmator – The developers went the extra mile implementing vector shapes in this latest release. The addition of new smart shapes, custom shapes that can be exported and shared and the ability to vectorize text attest to this. Boolean operations can be performed on shapes on the same layer while retaining the ability to later change these shapes. The shape style palette allows for quick and easy adjustments to each shape. There is also an interesting easter egg called Vectormator (hit cmd-shift-V to toggle, and you’ll be presented with an optimized layout for vector work).
Pixelmators new powerful custom shapes palett. Shapes can be exported and shared.

Pixelmator’s new powerful custom shapes palette. Shapes can be exported and shared.

  • Acorn – Shapes in Acorn seem a little like an afterthought. Some smart shapes (namely the arrow and star) offer little in terms of customizability. Boolean operations are tucked away in a pop-up and are somewhat final, meaning that once applied you can no longer change the original shapes. Instead, you’ll have to undo, change the shapes and then redo the operation. On the other hand, Acorn offers great tools to arrange and align shapes (Pixelmator falls short in this respect).
Acorns smart shapes aren’t as powerful and therefore, as with other things, it takes more steps to achieve similar results.

Acorns smart shapes aren’t as powerful and therefore, as with other things, it takes more steps to achieve similar results.

Both apps are capable of working with vector shapes; however, it clearly isn’t their strong suit. Despite the fact the boolean operations can only be performed on shapes that reside on the same layer, Pixelmator offers no easy way of arranging these shapes (say, moving them forward/back). Even with these little quirks, it’s the better app for working with shapes.

Whenever I need to do some serious work with vector shapes, I’ll inevitably reach for Sketch, the indie vector drawing app for the Mac.

Selections, Corrections & Masking

With regard to selection, both contenders are pretty much on par offering a similar array of tools. Each app lets you to load a selection from a layer (ex. complex shape), reload a previous selection, and edit the selection in quick mask mode.

However, Pixelmator takes things one step further, allowing you to transform and refine a selection as well as introducing a new selection tool (Paint Selection Tool) — a score for Pixelmator.

Pixelmator offers more options for manipulating your selection and the Paint Selection Tool makes quick work of selecting similar colors.

Pixelmator offers more options for manipulating your selection and the Paint Selection Tool makes quick work of selecting similar colors.

The clone stamp tool, indispensable for removing unwanted objects or blemishes, is present in both apps. However, Acorns implementation leaves much to be desired. It’s not possible to use a soft brush, thus creating harsh edges that need additional steps to be smoothed out. Furthermore, Pixelmator has the Healing tool and although it’s not perfect, I’ve found it performs rather well the vast majority of times — another point for Pixelmator.

Pixelmators Healing Tool works rather well the vast majority of times, making this antenna dissapear.

Pixelmators Healing Tool works rather well the vast majority of times, making this antenna disappear.

Masking is another relevant feature available in both apps and implemented in pretty much the same manner, but Pixelmator has once again bested Acorn by allowing you to use vector shapes in clipping layers (Acorn doesn’t have clipping layers).

Saving & Export

When it comes to exporting the end result, there is in no clear victor in my mind since each app has benefits and drawbacks.

  • While Pixelmator relies on the tried and tested slices tool, ideal for exporting individual image of your latest web site mockup, Acorn introduces a new and ingenious feature called Smart Layer Export, perfect for creating retina ready @2x images;
  • Also present in both apps is a web export option. Pixelmator has more formats and updates the image live with your adjustments while Acorn allows you to see the original and final version, but oddly enough it won’t let you zoom out, showing you the image at its actual size;
  • Although both apps can export to a plethora of formats, only Acorn allows you to “save as”, whereas Pixelmator forces you to export.

Acorn’s native format produces smaller file than Pixelmators native format (very relevant in an age of small SSD disks).

Final Thoughts

After using both apps for an extensive period I can honestly say that I’m divided. I was expecting a clear victor from this clash but alas, that was not the case. There is much more to both apps that I either glossed over or simply didn’t mention; to do so would make for long and tedious reading. But this is the basics of each app, and it should be apparent that each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Acorn is a very powerful app. Stellar automation features, files actions, and an intuitive brush designer are just a few of the many things still left to discover. So, if speed is essential and outstanding layer filters a must, then Acorn is without doubt the way to go.

Pixelmator is an app that has surprised me time and time again. It’s stock full of useful and time saving features such as the healing tool or red eye removal. Its vector tools are superior in every aspect, and some of its effects are utterly gorgeous (especially the vintage effect and light streaks). If you don’t need the flexibility of Acorn’s layer filters or its extensive automation support, then Pixelmator is the app to get. At a fraction of the price it’s a remarkably capable app that is a sheer joy to use.

Having said that, you can’t go wrong with either app! So, download a trial of Acorn and Pixelmator (you’ll find the download links on their respective homepages), and let us know your favorite of the two. We’d love to hear why you use Acorn or Pixelmator, and how they’ve helped out your creative work.


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