Pixelmator: Blazingly Fast Image Editing

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.

The Interface

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.

The Pixelmator Interface

The Pixelmator Interface

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.

picture-10The 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

picture-5The 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.

picture-6Three 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.

Managing Layers in Pixelmator

Managing Layers in Pixelmator

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.

Adjusting Images

Adjusting Images


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.

Adding Automator Actions

Adding Automator Actions

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.


Add Yours
  • I use it as a sidekick app (to Photoshop) whenever I need to do small, simple adjustments that doesn’t require Photoshop’s raw editing power. It’s fast and it’s good for a lot of smaller image editing tasks. A ‘save for web’ feature as well as more typographic options would greatly enhance it’s usefulness for bloggers/hobby web designers and other web monkeys with limited pixel pushing needs.

  • Yeah, I love Pixelmator. I’ve been doing the same as btorbo…whenever I need to do something quick I always default to Pixelmator. I now only use Photoshop for heavy lifting. The thing is that I’m more and more moving to Pixelmator first and hardly opening PS anymore. This is a great app, and the price for it’s power is definitely worth it.

  • I’ve actually been using Pixelmator even more than Photoshop lately. While the lack of Free Transform is a little irritating, the feature I’m missing most is the Pen tool. Once the pm crew can get that working, I’ll have very little use for PS anymore.

    • Free Transform is under Edit > Free Transform (Command + F), works with Move tool too, just check in Tool Options palette “Show Transform Controls”

  • I like the idea of using Pixelmator and would love to use it full time; however, it’s missing some rather important features. Namely, its missing layer groups, slicing and a save for web sort of feature. Once they get those things in there, I’ll be able to use it.

    • Slicing and save for web are both in the current release :-)

  • I’m moving from Photoshop to Pixelmator entirely. It’s definitely not perfect and there are quite a few features I want, but the ease of use and speed make me want to make it my one and only graphics editor.

  • I’ve only played with it since I read this blog, but the ‘save for web’ feature is what would hold me back. File compression is pretty important … so a Fireworks style export would be awesome (Yes – I know – for $59 – its a pretty amazing tool already) :)

    thanks for the great tip!

  • It’s okay. The much-touted HUD look gets a tad annoying. Pixelmator also doesn’t play very well with Tiger. It crashes a lot, and all those neat filters are absent.

    P.S., Pixelmator lacks any form of noise creation, a strangely necessary part of graphic design.

  • I, too, own Pixelmator and find it impressive. I haven’t had the time to play around with it and really get to know it, so I still resort to using Photoshop for now. But I plan to ditch Photoshop eventually. I’m not a fan of Adobe.

    I did notice that Pixelmator is superior to Photoshop in at least one feature: blending modes. I tried the same blending mode in both apps and Pixelmator gave much better results.

    I also love that the Pixelmator team is constantly improving and updating, far more often, it seems, than Adobe.

  • I haven’t tried pixelmator yet, but I definitely will soon.
    A few questions first…

    1- What is it best for? Graphic Design, photo editing, website design, etc.
    2- Is there support for tablets with brush size, shape, etc?
    3- Does it support animation at all? ie. animated GIFs?

    Thanks and I’ll be sure to get the trial asap

  • Don’t forget the Pixelmator Tutorials video podcast!

    They are available on http://pixelmatorpodcast.com

    and on iTunes: http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=284768359

  • Loving Pixelmator myself, and this is from a Photoshop college teacher :)

    And yeah, there are some strange omissions (noise, wave, filter on filter deformation, true free transform tool (scale is the only variable in the ft tool, skew/perspective etc are only accessible separately), CMYK and a few odd and ends more…)

    But it is fun to play with and compulsive. Powerful in places, streamlined in others, speedy and pretty. The new brush manipulator is (scroll bars on the brush pallette notwithstanding) awesome and it’s definitely taken over from Photoshop in my affections in a big way and I’m hoping that by the time we get to v2 or so I’ll be able to free up some disc space and uninstall the monster :)

    Adobe must be moderately worried, I’d’ve thought.

    @sebastian: 1: best for photo manip and illustration I’d think. Website wise the save for web feature is a big omission, not that I need it but people keep asking for it so I assume it’s important :) 2: very nice support for tablets and brushes, certainly in the latest iteration 3: no animation that I’ve noticed, must admit, which is a shame. That said for what it is good for it’s awesome fun.

  • Pixelmator is a great application, really lighter than the big PS… and they also make great screencast to teach you how to achieve great results

  • Until Pixelmator gets save for web, you can use this free app called ImageOptim. It optimizes and saves the files. It works as a stop gap and keeps me from opening Big Brother.


  • I used this app before I could afford Photoshop. It was easy to use, fast, and gorgeous. It took some time to part with it – the thing I miss most are those dynamic display gradients.

  • Still not ready for day to day use in webdesign. No vectorshapes, no adjustment layers, no unobstrusive filters and last but not least no slicing tool and no save-for-the-web… Still a long way to go.

    Might be great for artists and people who do alot with brushes and masking… but no much of use in webdesign. I like the idea and the speed of this tool… but so far can’t use it.

  • If you don’t already own Photoshop, Pixelmator is simply the best option out there (goofball open-source freaks with their Gimp comments, please take a seat in the “kiss the donkey’s @ss” line and be patient).

    I agree with everyone with the appearance of the app – it looks fantastic. But I gotta say that I find working with the HUD interface for extended periods of time quite unpleasant. It’s hard to see things. Maybe I just have old eyes.

    UNLIKE everyone, on my computers anyway, Photoshop CS4 actually launches and performs just as fast if not faster than Pixelmator. This is on a MacPro w/3 GB RAM and a MacBook Pro with 2GB RAM.

    Still, Pixelmator is a fantastic, and much needed “image editor for the rest of us” type of app. I did a review for Macworld of Pixelmator when it was first released and fell in love with the app: http://www.macworld.com/article/60542/2007/10/pixelmator.html

    I hope Pixelmator keeps improving, and gaining more loyal users. While it isn’t for me, I believe this is exactly the type of app that the Mac NEEDS to be available to keep the platform healthy. I just hope Apple doesn’t end up buying the brothers out and turning it into iMagEditor (or some other stupid name). The payout to the brothers would be nice, but much like iWork, the development of the app would be put on the back burner.

  • Wondering why this is being compared to PS, and not instead PS Elements. In both features and price, PSE seems the natural competitor, no?

  • I have an older version of Photoshop on my PC, but didn’t really want to shell out the $$$ for a mac version of it. I use Pixelmator most of the time now (love the price), though there are certainly features I miss (such as adding shadows to layers) that would make my job easier. For the most part though, I think Pixelmator is great and will only get better.

  • I see Pixelmator as a matte on my creative process in a unique way that i couldn’t find it on photoshop before, it’s soooo simple, fast and intuitive to use that i only need to think on a result, grab the correct tools and the work its done without having much work as i would have with photoshop.

  • I really think this app has great potential to be the perfect design tool for web designers (especially now that it can slice). That said it still needs vector tools, layer groups, layer effects and some way to manage pallets. Calling the Pixelmator UI uncluttered is being awfully generous. It’s a mess of pallets in various shapes and sizes. It’s literally impossible to organize your workspace.

  • @dtonate folks

  • I am picking up a new macbook tomorrow & I am thinking about picking this up too, especially since CS5 is rumored to be released spring ’10. The only thing I understand that is missing from this that I really would like to see is more advanced typography tools. But everyone who has picked this up is very happy with it.

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