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 thinkmac.net'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?

Wrong.

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 http://www.pixelmator.com/, 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.

Review: Speed Download - Mac OS X Download Manager

One of the current trends in software development seems to be making universal desktop applications. What I mean is this- small applications that will handle a few particular functions that work with all the programs on your desktop (or around all your programs). These programs are designed to do their tasks very well, efficiently and with much detail. Mac OS users are accustomed to this kind of program, since Mac OS is designed this way.

Still, there are 3rd party developers that design stronger, more specific software than the standard Mac OS versions. Speed Download is just such an application. It is a universal download manager, that will handle as much of your downloads (and uploads or transfers) as you let it. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I would make use of Speed Download, since most of my downloading is iTunes involved and is handled there. Plus any other browser downloading is handled deftly by my browser of choice, Firefox. Speed Download is designed for large and heavy traffic. You can add servers and make a schedule. It’s nice to have a history of all your activity as well. After the initial perusal, I started looking for things to do with Speed Download to try it out.

The Basics

It’s a very OS X-like program; giving you a main window with a line of cool looking icons, along the top of the window that are the different functions of Speed Download. Included icons are: add, start, stop, edit, reveal, remove, queue, hold, clear inactive, schedule, upload, add from URL. Then on the left side of the window are your different folders and lists. You’ll see: Downloads, Uploads, Received, Servers, History and a set of Smart folders. I have to say at first glance the slick icons, style of the program and self explanatory ease of use of Speed Download looks like something Apple put into OS X Tiger. It’s almost hard to believe that this is a 3rd party application. That just shows Yazsoft knows the Mac.

speed download

There seem to be several ways to get SD to start working. One- you can enter an URL. Two- use drag and drop to the dock icon. Three- Leave SD open and then go about your business. SD will automatically pick up most downloads you start, although iTunes still handles it’s own. SD works very quickly, I was surprised when after spending a few days trying to get the Cocktail update, that I got it lightning fast through SD with no delay. Add to that feature, the ability to upload, fully customize FTP and HTTP settings and scheduling to automate downloads. In the Add Files from URL you can also specify account names, passwords, file types and how to handle links. You can direct your computer what to do upon finishing. (Sleep, Shut down, etc.)

speed download

A Bit More

Another use for SD would be to upload your photos and data to multiple sites or servers. You can connect to your .mac account or your iDisk. Your downloads will also auto-resume if interrupted. Use the Reveal icon to ‘spotlight’ where your files are stored. Use the Clean Up to get rid of past downloads. You can do a permanent erase or leave a history of your downloads available without the files themselves. You can toggle the upload/download lists with the tiny icons on the bottom of the main window. You can customize your toolbar, add smart folders and customize the columns view options. You can keep a list of serves you use often. There are a few smart keyboard shortcuts built in to toggle the windows. You can also view the your bandwidth or the download logs, as well as the server activity. This could help you troubleshoot problematic downloads. you can set priorities for different files to allocate your bandwidth the way you need to within multiple downloads. SD offers integration with Safari and iTunes. SD can also be run by a command line from the terminal. Although there is no help menu, there is a manual for download on the Yazsoft website. I also find myself hoping that the next version will have a schedule feature for uploading. How great would it be to schedule my files to automatically back up to my on-line storage? Conclusion: This is a great program. I can't think of any reason it wouldn't be useful, unless you have no download, uploading or transfer needs. But well, computers are all about that; since the tape drive to the internet- being able to share data is what it's all about.

Yazsoft - Speed Download

Price - $29 USD

Review: Posterino - Create Life Posters and Postcards

Now that 2006 is gone, create a life poster to highlight the memories from 2006.Posterino Posterino from Zykloid (pronounced like cycloid) is a feature rich life poster & post card creator for the Mac. We've been having fun playing around with it for the last few weeks. Keep reading to see what we thought.

Tmac (click to enlarge)

Posterino is a new application that makes it very easy to create custom 'life posters' and postcards. A life poster is a collage of pictures framed together. It's a great way to bring together a series of pictures that are special to you.

Features:

- Automatic creation of Life Posters and Postcards. - Integration with iPhoto & Aperture. - Customizable Templates. - Export to Mail, iPhoto, or Disk. - Easy to follow tutorials. - Universal Binary - works for PPC & Intel Macs.

System Requirements:

- Mac OS X Tiger (10.4) or greater. - 20 MB of free disk space. - Lots of Ram. The more the better. - iPhoto Update: The developer notified me that iPhoto is no longer a requirement.

First Run:

When you start Posterino, you are greeted with the template manager. You can choose some predefined templates of posters and postcards, or choose a blank page. If you choose a 'blank' page, you have to create a frame for each item individually, and if you are going to add lots of images, it quickly becomes time consuming. Templates-2 click to enlarge

The predefined templates look great, and you can customize them to the size that you are going to use for printing. It shows all of the standard sizes - A1-A6, 3x5, 8.5x11. During my testing, I always opted to go with the predefined templates.

Personalize with your photos:

Once you have the template selected, you can drag and drop images into the predefined frames, right from the photo browser. It allows access to all of your iPhoto, Aperture, and Pictures folders. You can even add your own custom folders for the app to search. This is great if you have your images spread over various folders. Dragging and dropping individual images on a poster can be tedious. To automate the scheme, you can choose simply select 'Choose random selection', and Posterino will populate a random selection of photos into the frames. If your library didn't have enough images to fill all of the frames, you can select from another library, and then have it choose another random selection. You can continue to do this until they are all filled. If you don't like the order that they are sorted on your poster, simply drag & drop images around on the poster, and it the pictures will switch places. If you really didn't like the result, you can 'Shuffle' the images and come out with a completely new result. Alternatively, you can arrange them by date, order, or ratings. Posterino With Placement-1 click to enlarge

I found the best method was to create a library in iPhoto with all of the pictures I wanted on the poster, and then I let Posterino populate from that library. This gave me more control over what photos were placed on the poster. Since it grabs the data from iPhoto, you can take advantage of iPhoto smart albums. For example, you could make a library with criteria set to '2006' photos with greater than 4 star ratings. iPhoto is very powerful, and if used properly, you can leverage the power of it with Posterino.

Postcard Interface Browser

Once the images are in place, you need to go through them and make sure no heads are cut off or anything else that would draw attention from the focus of the picture. You can simply double click and change the image placement. Ideally, I would like to double click on the picture, have it zoom in, and let me modify it that way. I hope to see this feature in an upcoming release.

Customize the Text:

If you like, you can add any text you want to the poster. The predefined templates show years, such as 2006, but you can change the text,font, and it's properties to anything you like. You can even create a new frame and add text to it as well. If you prefer to have no text on the poster, Posterino supports that too. full poster demo

Very Customizable:

The developer didn't leave out much as far as customization. You can change the postmark & stamp on the postcards, create custom page sizes, save your own templates, add drop shadows & borders, and more. You can even change which side the photo browser is on. You can add frames anywhere on the page, and configure the number of rows and columns on the poster. 14 rows x 7 columns of pictures not your cup of tea? No problem. You can go to the layout generator and tweak the settings to fit your project. If you want to remove some of the frames, and create some larger ones inside your poster, it can be easily done. You can delete the predefined frames, or just resize the frame you want larger, and it will be on top. Playing around with Posterino is the best way to learn all of the features. The built-in tutorials are also very insightful, and step you through the process of creating a poster or a post card.

Custom PaperPostcard Interface

Postcards:

Posterino is also great for creating postcards. I sent out a few holiday cards this year using Posterino. For friends I had lost touch with, I thought this was a great way to send a quick note and a picture of the family. I used Email to send the postcards, but you can create hard copies as well. Simply export them to iPhoto and print them to postcards, or save the file to disk, and use any one of the online services to do your prints. Stamp Creation

Printing:

I really have enjoyed playing around with Posterino. I had never even considered making a life poster until I started using it. I already ordered one from Kodak, from within iPhoto. The 20x30 is going to run about $23 USD before shipping. You simply export your poster to iPhoto and then use the 'Order Print' option under the Share menu. Printing directly from Posterino is not an option. You have to do some type of exporting, and print from a different source. That's not necessarily a bad thing. If you export your image to iPhoto, it's a snap to print from there. I would like to see this implemented in a 2.0 version.

Issues:

- Can't drag/drop into the frames from other apps or images you have in a folder. The image must come from the image browser. - There is no 'Make it fit' button. For example, if your image is large, you can't resize it to fit inside the frame. - It takes a lot of Ram. I have 1.5GB, and if I am rendering a large poster, it slows the system down for a few minutes while it renders. This is to be expected though, especially dealing with a large number of photos. - No 'Printing' options inside of Posterino. You must do it with iPhoto or save it to disk and use another app or printing service. - The introductory price is $19.95, which I think is reasonable. However, if a price increase occurs, I would imagine that people would be less likely to purchase, since it is not an 'everyday' application. Conclusion: Posterino may not be a day to day app for most, but when you want to create something special, this app really shines. Think of what you can do with it: make a team poster of your kids soccer season, an anniversary collage, or send email greetings with it. It's a very unique app that integrates very well with iPhoto. The few problems I did find with it, aren't enough to take away the usefulness of the app. 

Zykloid Software

Posterino - $24.95 USD