Preview: The Best App for Simple Image Edits and Annotations, Period.

I’m always somewhat amused at the attention screenshot tools get on the Mac. Back when I used a PC every day, a 3rd party screenshot and quick image editing tool was quite the necessity. Saying Prnt Scrn and Paint didn’t quite cut it is the understatement of the decade. But on the Mac, there’s an embarrassment of riches for screenshots and quick editing built into your Mac, for free.

Frustrated about Realmac’s new replacement for LittleSnapper, Ember? Think Skitch 2 isn’t as good as it used to be? Here’s why Preview is the best built-in app on the Mac, and why you shouldn’t even worry about finding a replacement for either of them.

The Best Simple Image Editor You Can Get for Free

The simple edits app that's built into your Mac.

The simple edits app that’s built into your Mac.

You’ve surely used Preview before, if for nothing else than to view PDFs and other files that you don’t have an app to open. It’s absolutely great for viewing files, since it can display so many different filetypes — everything from images, icons, and even Photoshop files to most standard iWork and Office files like Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. Anything you can open, you can export in another format, giving you a simple, built-in way to turn a Word document into a PDF, or an icon file into a .png image.

That’s nice — but Quick Look can show you all of these files by just pressing your space bar, so aside from reading a full PDF, you wouldn’t ever need to open Preview viewing. The annotations and tweaking tools, though, are what makes Preview such an important app. There’s everything you could think of from standard apps like Skitch: square, circle, text box, speech bubble, line, and arrow tools, complete with one-click color change and thickness settings. Want to change the text? Just

You want to tweak color and sharpness and more? Sure, no problem.

You want to tweak color and sharpness and more? Sure, no problem.

You won’t find a blur tool to knock out sensitive info, but you can select an area and “delete” it to your default background color. And for selection, there’s all the tools you could want, including an instant Alpha and a magic lasso tool that works very well. Then, you’ll even find options to tweak the exposure, contrast, saturation, and the color levels of your photos, so Preview even works as an easy way to make your vacation pictures pop.

Resize and scale, with better results than in other apps.

Resize and scale, with better results than in other apps.

But perhaps you don’t want to edit the photos. Perhaps you just want to take a screenshot, and crop or scale it, then save it in the format you want. Preview’s still the tool for you. You can quickly select the area you want to crop and crop it, or scale the image to the resolution you want — just enter one side’s dimensions, and Preview will automatically keep the other side proportional if you have the lock on. You can even tweak the resolution of the image and see how the changes will affect the filesize. And, if you want to speed things up even more, you can add keyboard shortcuts for any of the tools that don’t have a keyboard shortcut from your Mac keyboard preferences.

As a quick refresher: you can take screenshots of your full screen in OS X by pressing CMD+shift+3, or of an area you want by pressing CMD+Shift+4, or of a specific window by pressing CMD+Shift+4, then the space bar, and then clicking on the window you want. Your screenshots will be saved to the desktop, ready for you to edit with Preview.

All the great Mac features you'd expect

All the great Mac features you’d expect

Throw in all the other default OS X features that other apps may or may not support — file versions, iCloud sync between your Macs, Automator and Applescript support, quick sharing options, and more — and you’ve got the perfect quick image editor that you’ll likely use for everything from quick resizes to annotations once you’re used to using it. Like Skitch’s option to drag the file from the bottom of the window to the folder where you want to save it? You can do the same from the file icon in the top of Preview, and could even drag it straight to Droplr or Cloudapp to share it — or use those app’s shortcuts to auto-upload directly from Preview.

It’s Not Just for Images

Preview's great for viewing and marking up other files, too.

Preview’s great for viewing and marking up other files, too.

Remember the other filetypes that Preview supports beyond images? Even after all the great image editing features, you can still view PDFs in an app that works much better that Adobe Reader, and can annotate them as well. You can’t edit existing text, but you can highlight and markout text, add in extra text, draw shapes and callouts and notes on your PDF, and even merge multiple PDFs or rearrange their pages. You can even sign PDFs by signing a piece of paper and holding it up to your Mac’s camera. It’s great, and will keep you from needing to spend money on a PDF editor.

The Competition

Skitch 2 for Mac

Skitch 2 for Mac

So, Preview’s not the only game in town. There’s Snagit for Mac and the new Ember on the paid side, among other apps, and Evernote’s Skitch for free. But honestly, Preview and OS X’ default screenshot tools are equally as good as the competition, if not better, and they’re free. They’re built-into your Mac. And they work great.

It’s great that there’s tons of other apps trying to improve screenshot editing and visual idea storage, but for normal screenshots and annotations, your Mac’s already got the best tools.

They’re good enough for our team, anyhow, and I’m rather pleased with it.