Thursday, April 24, 2008

Wannabe Photoshop Killers, Revisited

Photoshop Elements 6 for the Mac has shipped which means bad times for half-assed shareware products pretending to be cheap Photoshop replacements. It's not that Elements is itself a Photoshop replacement, it's just that it's more of one than the half-assed wannabes.

If you've been keeping score, the candidates are Pixelmator, Acorn, Iris, and Photoline. I've tried them all and the short version of my opinion is that Pixelmator is a pretty but ultimately useless piece of junk, Iris is an ugly, useless piece of junk, Acorn is a tidy, scriptable little app that works well but will almost certainly be missing some feature you need, and that Photoline is actually a credible replacement for Photoshop in a pinch, although it's a bit ugly.

Where does Photoshop Elements 6 come in? Well, it's actually cheaper (at least in the US at the current exchange rate) than Photoline, and not much more expensive than the others ($89). For digital photographers it's simply vastly more useful than these other programs, since it has ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) which is a professional quality RAW converter. Enough said. For anyone else it has several killer features that only Photoline can match:

  • Selection Tools that work (actually, Acorn's don't suck)

  • Text layers that work

  • Curves

I can't stress enough how it fundamentally doesn't matter what else a graphics program does, if you can't select what you want, everything else is a waste of time. This is like trying to ship a word-processor with broken text selection*.

Eye Candy

Pixelmator and Acorn both have incredibly nice front ends for CoreImage. Just how much faster and more interactive these are than Photoshop's filters is just breathtaking -- I might be tempted to switch to Pixelmator just to use its zoom blur filter on the rare occasions I use zoom blur -- but the sad thing is that Photoshop's are good enough (as are Photoline's) and unless you have no taste, filters are NOT the thing you spend most, or even a significant fraction, of your time in with an image editing application.

And because the guys who've written these applications are fundamentally just leveraging Apple's toolbox routines, the set of filters you have is dictated by what Apple gives you for free, rather than what artists actually needs. E.g. fractal clouds and noise are two of Photoshop's most useful filters, but there are no fractal clouds or noise filters in CoreImage so tough luck. (Photoline has a general purpose fractal generator with presets which is better in some ways than Photoshop's noise and clouds filters, but worse in others.)

Useful in a Pinch

One of the really nice things about good freeware and shareware is availability in a pinch. If I find myself needing to edit an image on some random computer, I can download Photoline, using the license stored in my gmail account, perform my edit, and then uninstall in a matter of minutes. Most shareware apps aren't so large that downloading them is painful (Photoline for the Mac is ~20MB) while Photoshop Elements is a 1.25 GB download and involves product activation.


Before Photoshop Elements came out only two of the wannabe apps could even begin to justify their existence. Acorn is scriptable, making it intrinsically useful for workflow automation in a way that Pixelmator and Iris can never be. Iris is simply a joke, while Pixelmator could be useful one day. Photoline is a useful Photoshop replacement in a pinch, and its capabilities complement Photoshop Elements' capabilities since Photoshop Elements has features photographers will want, while Photoline fills the gaps if you don't want or can't afford Photoshop CS3.

* Well, Microsoft does that and seems to make money. You cannot select parts of two different words in Microsoft Word. E.g. if you accidentally typed "teh rpoblem with Word" you can't select the hilited text to fix it. Once a selection extends beyond one word, Word forces you to select entire words, leading to endless annoyance.