I feel it’s safe to say that most of us are accustomed to using an application such as Photoshop for image editing. I’ve been using it for years, but have recently started to find that – for tasks such as editing images for the web – it’s far too feature packed and resource consuming for my needs.
I was intruiged to hear about Pixelmator, an OS X only image editing tool designed with speed, simplicity and a great user interface in mind. It lacks the raw power of Photoshop, but provides a great, flexible tool for graphics editing and photo manipulation. It’s a fairly recently launched app, but has already undergone several updates, adding widely requested functionality.
This review will take a look at the features offered by Pixelmator and let you know whether I think it’s a tool worthy of being branded a Photoshop competitor.
It’s great to see that Pixelmator has taken a mild departure from what you’d expect from a standard graphics application. Whilst keeping enough similarity to make you feel immediately at home, window styling and content is vastly simplified and the interface feels uncluttered.
It’s a decent achievement for a graphics application, a software area commonly criticized for bloat and unnecessarily complicated interfaces. Animation effects are used in places, but thankfully not to a distracting degree. I’m generally not a huge fan of applications which use a dark window appearance, but in this case I do find it useful for differentiating the app from whatever you have running in the background – important for an interface with many different palettes scattered around the screen.
I particularly like that when undoing an operation, Pixelmator flashes a quick tooltip-style interface to let you know which action has just been reversed – great when you aren’t quite sure what you just un-did! It should also be noted at this stage that Pixelmator can open and save to a huge variety of formats, even supporting layered PSD files.
A wide range of selection tools are available, and it’s possible to save a selection for later use. They take the form of Rectangular Marquee, Elliptical Marquee, Lasso and Magic Wand.
Most tools have three options, allowing you to draw a new selection, add to the border of an existing selection, or subtract from the border of an existing selection. In addition, holding a key down whilst making a selection can alter the tool’s operation – to draw a perfect square with the Rectangular Marquee tool, for instance, you hold down shift.
The Magic Wand tool has a great interface, visually showing you which parts of the image you’re selecting as you drag. It seems perfectly natural after using it once or twice, and is a good representation of the fresh thinking that has gone into the app throughout.
Painting & Retouching
The main painting tools encompass the Pencil, Brush, Eraser, Paint Bucket and Gradient – a fairly well established set of different mechanisms. You can adjust the blending mode and opacity for every tool used, with an extensive range of blending modes available. You can use one of the default brushes, or modify a range of settings to dynamically create your own.
I particularly like the way in which Gradients work, dynamically displaying how the effect will look as you click and drag the cursor – it allows you to fine tune the end result before releasing the mouse button to apply.
Three retouching tools dominate; Clone Stamp, Blur and Sharp. Each provides a slightly different way to modify a photograph or image to remove and adjust certain elements. These seemed to work as well as their Photoshop counterparts.
Managing layers works as expected, with re-ordering and adjusting opacity made simple. The functionality provided goes far beyond the scope of a short review, but there are a few notable features. Firstly is the ability to add a layer from your iSight Camera, Photo Browser or Finder. This makes it easy to integrate media from your iPhoto library or webcam if desired.
Layer masks and clipping masks are supported, and as with other tools there are a variety of different blending modes available. One area slightly lacking is the range of options available for Type layers, not offering the same functionality as Photoshop for adjusting both layout and blending options.
Filters & Correction
A bunch of different filters are available, including Distortion, Blur, Sharpen, Stylize, Halftone, Tile, Colour and other Quartz Composer filters. Third-party additions are supported through the use of Core Image units and Quartz Composer 3.0 compositions.
I’ve been really impressed with the performance of Pixelmator – when compared to my fairly bloated and sluggish copy of Photoshop, it’s like taking in a breath of fresh air. Opening the application is snappy, loading and saving images takes a few seconds, and performing fairly complex filter operations is a speedy process.
For speed increases alone, I’ll be using Pixelmator for all my minor graphics editing work. The advance in this area is due to the app being based on Core Image technology that uses your Mac’s video card for image processing. This frees the CPU for other tasks. The latest Apple notebooks offer blisteringly fast performance in Pixelmator.
Pixelmator comes with various actions in Automator to automate your workflow, which can allow you to perform batch operations and save you a great deal of time. These are also available for Photoshop, but you’re often required to download additional ‘action packs’ – with Pixelmator, it’s all built in.
They’re split down into four areas: Add Effects To Images, Change Type of Images, Enhance Images, and Resize Images. Different actions allow you to add effects to images, change and convert the type of image you’re editing, perform enhance operations (Levels, Curves, Color Balance, Brightness & Contrast, Hue/Saturation etc) and resize or crop images.
It covers most of the bases you need, and is actually far superior to any Automator support for Photoshop I’ve found in the past. In particular, the options for automatically cropping images are really useful. Obviously, this comes at the expense of any in-built ‘Actions’ or recording support as found in Photoshop.
Areas of Improvement
Pixelmator isn’t perfect, and does lack in a few areas which may deter you from switching. One feature I immediately missed from Photoshop is ‘auto-snap’ when dragging. In addition, there’s no ‘Free Transform’ availability, and (as mentioned above), support for dealing with typography is very limited. However, at the current development rate, I really hope to see some of these issues resolved in the near future.
It’s easy to point out the gaps between an independently developed application and the 18 year old Photoshop behemoth. The simple fact is that Pixelmator has come a long way in the past 12 months, to the point where it completely surpasses the industry standard in terms of speed. The range of functionality may be a little limited, but it provides a fantastic illustration of how powerful the core functionality built-in to OS X can be for developers to utilize.
Pixelmator is priced at $59, a great deal less than comparable graphics editing applications. It requires Leopard for all the fancy Core Image effects it uses, and a trial version is available.
After using it for a few weeks, I have decided to make the switch for most of my graphic editing work. It’s quick, simple and – whilst it will take a while to adjust from the Photoshop interface – definitely worth trying out. I’m sure I’ll find myself returning to the industry standard for more powerful typography tools now and again, but hope to conduct most of my day-to-day image editing in Pixelmator.
Do give it a go and let me know what you think – it certainly isn’t for Photoshop power-users, but could save you a great deal of time.