Archive Reviews

Review: Pixelmator and Acorn - Two New Image Editors

Update April 13, 2008: I finally managed to get this review back up on the web after's sudden crash. The original date of publication was October 19, 2007.

Sure, people think the Mac is better than Windows. Are they right? Are they wrong? I don't know. But what I do know is this: Adobe has Mac users under their grasp. Adobe Systems, developer of the popular Photoshop image editing program, has Mac users under their control. Why, and how? I mean, really, don't you think US$999 for the standard version of Photoshop is expensive? The problem is, there aren't too many image editors for Mac OS X out there, meaning you're stuck with Photoshop, right?


Two companies recently released two separate image editors. Pixelmator, made by the founders of Jumsoft and is priced at US$59, is more of a Photoshop clone with a nicer interface attached. The latter, Acorn, by Flying Meat Software, the maker of VoodooPad, is more of a casual user's image editor: only the features necessary for a good image editor, and costs only US$39.

So Let's Start with Pixelmator

Pixelmator. which comes with a sleek black user interface and support for over 100 file formats (and starting with version 1.0.1, all RAW file formats supported by OS X), looks something like this:


I'm editing a frame from the Get a Mac ad called 'Genius'. I used the Magic Wand to select Justin's shirt, then I used the Paint Bucket to recolor it.

Well, I got as much of Justin's shirt as possible using the Magic Wand tool, then I used the Paint Bucket to change it. Normal image editing job, right?

ToolboxSo up front, it looks like a nice little Photoshop clone, complete with a variety of tools, right? You have the standard tools: Move, Select, Circle, Lasso, Pencil, Paint Bucket, Gradient, Eraser, Burn, Sharpen, even the Magic Wand. And the current tool is magnified so you know what you're getting yourself into. There is also the color picker (but no "Revert to Black on White" or "Flip Colors" buttons), mode buttons (Standard and Quick Mask; I discuss masks when I talk about palettes later), and something nice: a Full Screen button. Here's what that toolbox picture would look like if edited in full screen mode:

Full Screen Mode in Pixelmator

It wouldn't be a Photoshop clone without filters, right? Well, Pixelmator has them - and a lot of them - and with that nicer interface. Here are a few of them, applied to the icon for the blog editor MarsEdit:

Glass effect
Glass (under Distortion)
Motion Blur effect
Motion Blur (under Blur)
Crystalize effect
Crystalize (under Stylize)
Dot Screen effect
Dot Screen (under Halftone)

Color Map effect
Color Map (under Color) - the color map is the standard Abstract 4 background, in /Library/Desktop Pictures/Abstract


Page Curl effect
Page Curl (under Transitions)

What about layers? Pixelmator seems to support just about every feature of Layers that most users need: simple actions like adding and duplicating and renaming and what not, linked layers, different blend styles and opacities, even the ability to rasterize text! One nice feature: New Layer from iSight - so you don't have to run multiple programs to get yourself in a picture if you have one. So you have a good editing experience. Transformations are separate actions per type (Scale, Rotate, etc.). And what about image properties? You have the standard Image and Canvas Size, Levels, Auto Levels, Auto Color, Invert Colors, Equalize, Threshold, Posterize, the whole nine yards.

The Layers paletteWith Pixelmator, there is no "too many palettes is driving me crazy" problem. When you are in the Gradient tool, the Brushes palette changes to the Gradient palette. If you work with layer masks, you can use the Mask palette not to work with Layer Masks (which are available), but rather to save the selection area for later use (note that only the selection area is saved, not the selection itself). The Swatches and Scratch palettes provide ways to quickly change colors. We all know the (nice and clean) Layers palette (at right). Finally, the Tool Options palette is nice and small, since Pixelmator is easy to use.

As far as documentation goes, Pixelmator is full of it. The help file is nice and big, so you can always find your way. Plus, the Pixelmator website, in the Support section, offers both a free PDF of the manual and a US$24 printed version. Both are nearly 100 pages.

Now it is time for the problems. Pixelmator lacks some of the more important tools of Photoshop: two are Magic Lasso and Red-Eye Removal. There are also no shape-drawing tools, like the Rectangle tool - you just have Pencil and Brush. Options for tools, levels, and effects are limited. You're stuck with Mac OS X's built-in color and font dialogs, which is good for fonts, but not for colors (you don't access all the colors you'd like to). The just-arrived 1.0.1 update did not address these, although has fixed a ton of bugs.

But otherwise, Pixelmator is a great tool for anyone looking for a bit of Photoshop in their expensive and deprived life.

Advantages: Support for a variety of image formats. Most of the features you'd expect in Photoshop. Nice, uncluttered interface. Focus on simple means very easy to learn and use (especially some more complex tools). Effects rock. A ton of documentation.

Disadvantages: Many useful tools missing. No shape-drawing tools. No preset swatches. For colors, RGB/CMYK (1.0.1) exclusive, even for swatches. Apple-provided color dialog not fulfilling.

Verdict: Photoshoppers: drop everything you're doing, go to, download the trial, and give it a try.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Product: Pixelmator
Company: Pixelmator Team Ltd
Price: US$59.00

Changing Gears: Acorn

To all you VoodooPadders out there, try this: Acorn, also with an elegant but unorthodox interface, is nice for those who want to start easy, but with it all.

The first screenshot. Hold on, I didn't do anything yet!

And I mean it by "it all." Acorn beat my expectations. This program has a lot of the basic tools, but in a different manner. It avoids palettes altogether by keeping the Toolbox, Tool Options, and Layers in one window. That's right, one window. And that's not the best part: the tools are categorized so you won't get lost easily in Icon Land. This program, unlike Pixelmator, has the "revert to black-on-white" and "flip current colors" buttons, plus an eyedropper, which not a tool, and not restricted to the content of the image: literally take a color from the screen. Sweet.

Now something I don't like about Acorn's unorthodox manner is its manner of showing what is selected with the Select tools (the usual, with Magic Wand, and no Magnetic Lasso). Without what laymen call the "marching ants," it's kind of hard to see whether or not all of Justin's blue shirt gets selected with the Magic Wand. But let's get back to features.

Let's cover the PC with fatal error messages, X out the other two PCs, cross out John completely, and choose Justin.Lucky for you, this program does have shape tools! Okay, you only get circle, square, and line. And there aren't that many modifications. But there is shadow (click the triangle next to the shape icons), and stroke (it's the background color; foreground is fill). But it's good to know it has shapes.

Adding some effects.Not only does Acorn have a lot more filters than Pixelmator, you can work just like you do in Automator! You can add a filter atop another one by using the green + arrow, drag them to rearrange, and remove them. These filters have a ton of options compared to Pixelmator. A note: I found is that the Y-coordinate is inverted. Apparently, the origin is the bottom-left corner of the image. This isn't a problem, though; it is possible to get used to it.

The result. The effects were the Star Shine and Radial Gradient effects.

Acorn also has some other nice features. It has support for tablet devices, and if you have one that supports pressure, Acorn can use it (I don't, sorry). Acorn can take and edit screenshots, even if it isn't the active application. Acorn automagically turns badly drawn lines into nice smooth lines and curves.

Although some of the problems that plague Pixelmator also plague Acorn, there are its own problems. Acorn's documentation is sparse: it is more of a tutorial than a manual. There are only linear and radial gradients and only with your foreground and background color. The selection system is a pain to see with, especially with dark colors. And layers don't have as many options as other programs. But overall, Acorn is a great US$40 tool for anyone who wants image editing without many bells and whistles.

Advantages: Nice interface, with categorized tools. Tablet ready. Tons of effects, with great customization options, and an Automator-like interface. Shapes, with various customization options. Built-in screenshots and full-screen eyedropper.

Disadvantages: Sparse documentation. Few options for layers. Selection system hard to see (but good).

Verdict: Go ahead and try it. If it's exactly what you need, get it. Otherwise, well at least it is good, isn't it?

Rating: 4 out of 5

Product: Acorn
Company: Flying Meat Software
Price: US$39.95

So What's The Difference?

I bet you'd like to know which one is better. Let's start by saying neither Pixelmator nor Acorn has Magic Lasso and several other useful tools. Acorn has a ton of effects and shape tools, beating Pixelmator there. It also has tablet support, while Pixelmator's help file returns a blank when searching for the term "tablet." However, Pixelmator has a more familiar interface, supports a ton of image formats, and that capture from iSight feature is a great tool. Acorn has the screenshot and the grab color from anywhere on the screen; nice for developers. Pixelmator also has better documentation. So I'll say it's a draw for both of them: the improvements necessary can easily be made with both companies' programming geniuses, and we may have a fight pretty soon.

Will the Real Adobe Photoshop Please Stand Up?

Of course there is no replacement for the real thing. But enthusiastic software developers get close to the real thing. There is an abundance of image editors for Windows; but now that the Mac is getting more attention, I think Adobe should start sweating now. There's replacements for all their software: RapidWeaver or Sandvox instead of Dreamweaver or GoLive; Intaglio instead of Illustrator; Printfolio instead of InDesign; ad infinitum. These are good tools used in the real world, even by professionals (Adobe's main target). So, digital photographer extraordinaire, before you go out and spend that US$1,000 you saved since you were 3 years old, turn the other direction and look at the "others." You might fall in love.