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Appletell reviews Pixelmator for Mac OS X [updated]

Sections: Discontinued Products, Graphics / Design, Mac Software, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Reviews, Software

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Pixelmator LogoFormat: Download
Developer: Pixelmator
System Requirements: Intel or PowerPC, Mac OS X 10.5.7 or later, Core Image supported graphics card
Review Computer: 2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook, 4GB DDR2 RAM
Processor Compatibility: Intel or Power PC
Price: $59.00 single user
Availability: Out now
Demo: Download

Update 2/11/10 – Pixelmator 1.5.1 has been released. Among other minor bug fixes/interface improvements, the Pixelmator team has included the ability to save files directly back into the iPhoto Library.

Despite the vast array of cloud-based apps and free software, many users still have a cadre of tried-and-true desktop programs they consider a must. It is rare for these users to experience a Eureka! moment and want to convert to a competing app. Pixelmator, billed as the the world’s only GPU-powered, Mac OS X-only image editor, is one of those programs. Other reviewers have thrown out the idea that Pixelmator can go head-to-head with Photoshop…I would go so far as to say you could have a toss up between Photoshop Elements/Lightroom and Pixelmator, but I doubt most users of the full Creative Suite version would feel satisfied with Pixelmator’s feature set. If Adobe’s products keep adding features you never use, however, Pixelmator may just be a (much cheaper) alternative. Serious Photoshop users take note; if you are doing extensive photo retouching or basic layer-based image composition, Pixelmator blazes by Adobe’s products. In the time it takes Photoshop to start up, Pixelmator can veni, vidi, vici before the PS splash screen is gone.

The Good

Pixelmator is FAST. In testing on both a late 2006 MacBook and a summer 2009 MacBook Pro, the program was fast to start, quick to respond, and snappy in applying filters. Pixelmator leverages Apple’s Core Image framework, which offloads graphical tasks to your Mac’s graphics card. This means the speed of the program is based on your GPU and graphics memory. The late 2006 MacBook did perform rather sluggishly, especially when applying filters to an entire image (back in the day when the PowerPC chip was first introduced, designers used to benchmark systems based on the speed of a Gaussian blur filter). This result is hardly surprising given the MacBook’s Intel GMA 950 graphics chip. On the ’09 MacBook Pro, many of the filters felt real time, especially the Quartz Composer filters (many of them are applied real time to iChat/Photo Booth images as effects). Filters in Pixelmator render in real-time much like Apple’s Instant Alpha feature in iWork. This familiar feeling is one of Pixelmator’s many standout features.

Overall, the program just feels a Mac application (Apple should take note and start making some UI updates to Aperture). All windows use the HUD interface theme, and thoughtful touches throughout—like the fact that the currently selected tool pops from the menu bar—make the program much more visually appealing than its Adobe competitors. There are even some nifty custom UI elements, such as filter windows that are literally attached to the image being edited, or how the Brush engine, which is one of the shining stars in the program, uses an image well much like OS X to allow drag-and-drop creation of new brushes. You can even use the crayon box color picker if you want (I know serious artists scoff, but it is a user friendly way to present color choices—better than Microsoft’s little honeycomb color chooser).

Filters Attach to their Edit Layer

Pixelmator Brush Engine

I used the brush engine to create a new snowflake brush using a snowflake clip art and then made my holiday card for next year. Hey, it is never too early to start!

My Christmas Cards 2010

The Great

As if speed were not enough, Pixelmator really is an incredibly powerful image editor. The speed can be attributed to the program’s use of Apple’s pre-built image capabilities, but the program’s power and elegance lend it a feeling of composure that make working on an image feel less like work and more like creation. The interface literally gets out of the way when needed (via the “Hide unnecessary palettes” preference option). Invoking the Curves adjustment pane causes the other palettes to fade so you can see the changes being made applied to the whole image:

Image with Palettes

Image with Hidden Palettes

Overall, this feels much better than Adobe’s 2 step process of invoking an adjustment pane, making changes and seeing a preview of them (which is ridiculously small), then waiting for your changes to render on the whole image. Pixelmator shines in both basic image editing and layer-based image composition. Using the Appletell logo from the top of the site, I was able to compose a new image on 10 layers, adding a sunburst and diamond checkerboard pattern, blending these using full layer blending tools and opacity, then adding several layers of filters/effects. Most of the abilities are nothing new or revolutionary, but the program’s speed and ease of use made the process feel less cumbersome. For such a low price point, the program is exceptionally well designed, includes support for my Wacom tablet, and offers a full set of keyboard shortcuts that made sense to both a longtime Photoshop and Mac user.

Appletell logo reworked

The Amazing

Pixelmator shines as an image editor. It really does. But the most amazing feature you get with the package is the Pixelmator Learn website. True to the program’s slogan, “Image editing for the rest of us,” these are a series of well-written, gorgeously illustrated examples that step you through various image composition/creation tasks; in layman’s terms, too, not in advanced Photoshop jargon. One of the biggest issues with the Adobe Creative Suite is the fact that the price of admission is a degree from art school (forgive the hyperbole, but it is not really the most accessible for the self-taught).

Photoshop has always felt a bit like a clique…and Pixelmator feels like that underdog, overlooked but just as capable and more than ready to compete. Adobe has segmented its market into über-serious pros (CS4 users) and scrapbooking hobbyists (PS Elements). Lightroom is giving us a bit of a bridge, but its editing tools are insufficient for all but the most basic image enhancement tasks. Pixelmator gives this proverbial “rest of us” not only the tools, but also the training to unlock our own hidden creative talents.

But then…

It seemed that there was no end to the amazement in store as I explored Pixelmator. Every feature was delightful, every menu held new joy as I realized I was no longer chained to Adobe’s hot-and-then-cold Mac upgrade cycle or unwavering $80 Photoshop Elements price tag. As an amateur photographer, I use iPhoto as my organization tool, and Photoshop Elements for all but the most advanced photo editing tasks (especially when mobile). Until now I’d been comfortable with the setup.

But now…now, at last, the possibility of change. An all around better editing tool, and 20 bucks cheaper than my old one! This dream, unfortunately, vanished when I clicked “Save”. My usual process is: Organize in iPhoto->Open in External Editor->Save back to iPhoto. Pixelmator lacks this capability. Update 2/11/10: The File->Save command will now appropriately place the image back inside the iPhoto library. Unless I need to open a PSD file and save formatting, I officially have no need for Photoshop! It is possible to send an image to iPhoto, but this acts as an import rather than saving changes to the original file. Whether this is Apple’s fault for saving the iPhoto library as an OS X package rather than a folder, or Pixelmator’s fault for being unable to work with the package file is unclear. What is certain, however, is that it kills me to have such an outstanding program and still be stuck with PS Elements (which can save files back to their original destination inside my iPhoto library). A feature request will be submitted to the Pixelmator team, in the hopes that this could be a point release feature enhancement. Until then I remain, regretfully, tethered to my iPhoto+PS Elements combination. It is still possible to send an original composition into your iPhoto library, but my photo editing workflow is now supported by Pixelmator!

Pixelmator truly is an astonishing program, and a glimpse into the future of Mac OS X applications. Core Image and Grand Central Dispatch are Apple’s roadmap for extracting more performance out of existing Mac hardware, and it is incredible to see the power, speed, and simplicity available to programs using these frameworks!

Appletell Rating:

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  • Annalea

    Love. This. Thanks so much for the in-depth review. Well-written and clearly organized, this gave me the info I needed, in a length that was (as my high school English teacher taught) like a skirt: long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting. ;o)

    Thanks!