Image Is Everything

Image Is Everything

A few weeks ago with the release of Pixelmator, I dashed off a few first impressions comparing it to Acorn, a new contender in the Mac OS X image editing softscape. Since those first impressions, I have been giving a lot of thought to this, and other graphics and image processing applications have come to my attention. So here’s the scoop.

I want to be clear up front: I won’t be comparing the applications’ feature lists exhaustively in the article. I am also going to concentrate on some major items that are always requirements for me. That means I’ll miss some that are critical for you. And I’ll be concentrating on the UI and the behaviour of these apps, because that’s where we spend the most time. Little things that get short shrift in other reviews like application and document icons will be covered.

Testing

My test platform is my aging, but much loved, PowerBook 17 G4 1.5 with 2 GB RAM and an ATI Mobility Radeon 9700. I am not using benchmarks at all, and any time I mention how fast something is it’s a subjective measure. I should mention I am a professional Graphic Designer, and I spend a lot of time in Adobe Creative Suite 3 Design Premium, but I am not an extreme Photoshop professional. I don’t use a tablet. I am always on the lookout for new interesting software with an eye to improving my efficiency and capabilities.

The test image is one that I have taken with my Samsung NV3. The image is a relatively slow exposure taken on a city bus on my way to work one morning. I will be handling the picture in its original format: JPEG, 3072 × 2304, 3.2 MB. This camera doesn’t output RAW files. The photo is stashed in iPhoto ‘08 (v. 7.1). There are a lot of undefined edges, reflected colours and halos.

I’ll be running these apps with a few others open, a typical scenario with me. In addition to the usual suspects I’ll be running Activity Monitor and checking in periodically to see what the state of things are. Often I am running some CS3 apps too, but for this I’m not going to because I just think it will be a pain.

I am running these apps when testing:

  • Finder
  • Terminal
  • Mail
  • iCal
  • iChat
  • iTunes
  • Safari
  • Coda
  • TextMate
  • Scrivener
  • Yojimbo
  • Linotype FontExplorer X
  • Address Book
  • CSSEdit
  • Version Cue CS3 running in the background
  • Snapz Pro X running in the background

Selection Criteria

The comments for The New Wave were excellent, and there were some good suggestions for other programs that one might compare. I have chosen to limit this article to comparing three applications. They are: Pixelmator, Acorn and DrawIt. I selected these programs because they are all native Mac OS X applications, they all use Core Image, and they all exemplify a fundamentally different approach to making an image editor.

This last criteria, is extremely important. One of the most major features of any application is its UI. It’s often overlooked, especially because many UIs have become homogenized over the years. Usually one word processor looks and acts pretty much like another. There are of course many advantages to this state of affairs especially when it comes to learning new programs. The downside is that it stifles innovative tools and features,because they may not be able to be expressed clearly using the current UI model.

The exciting thing about these programs is that they exhibit a range of thought and approach, that demonstrates the diversity and originality that’s possible, even within a consistent OS interface.

Focus + Stated Goals

Let’s take a look at how each of the contenders bill themselves.

Acorn

A simple and easy to use image editor, built for the 21st century.

Acorn is a new image editor built with one goal in mind – simplicity. Fast, easy, and fluid, Acorn provides the options you’ll need without any overhead. Acorn feels right, and won’t drain your bank account.

Don’t let Acorn’s size fool you; it’s a powerful little guy. Fancy math to keep your pencil strokes from having sharp edges, squeezing as much performance out of your computer’s GPU as possible, and simple innovations to make your life easier.

DrawIt

Drawing and Illustrating for the Mac

DrawIt is not your typical image-editor. It does not fill up your window with lots of pallets you don’t use but instead presents with just one simple and clean window. Nevertheless, DrawIt packs an impressive feature-list into this single window. DrawIt is layer-based, has a powerful vector-drawing tool, incredible support for masks and much, much more.

Pixelmator

Instruments to join the creative world

Pixelmator, the beautifully designed, easy-to-use, fast and powerful image editor for Mac OS X has everything you need to create, edit and enhance your images.

So that’s pretty clear Acorn = Simplicity, DrawIt = Not Typical, Pixelmator = Beautiful + Easy.

It would be obvious to compare the programs’ feature lists which would be a disservice to all of us. Instead I am going to concentrate on the experience of using these applications, and focus on doing some of typical things with my photo, things that should be easy to accomplish. This should demonstrate how the applications’ UIs work, and the facility with which things can be accomplished.

Installation

Installation is as simple as we’d expect. Download the app and drag it to the /Applications folder to install it.

Updating

Each program makes use of the Sparkle module for update functionality, and enables it with a selected by default check for updates choice in their preferences.

In my test I had an earlier copy of DrawIt not yet installed, which I installed and ran, and experienced the typical Update Available window that Sparkle enabled apps show. Worked like a charm as expected, though sometimes I wish I could set the app to update at the end of a session, rather than the beginning.

Icons

The Finder icon is an important part of any application. Developers who get it spend some time and money on their program’s primary icon and those who care spend on the entire icon family.

Icons have a lot of things to do. They need to stand out in crowded docks, convey enough information about the app that a user may make an educated guess about what it does, convince prospective users that the application is indeed of professional quality, and assure existing users that their money is well spent and they remain in good hands. This applies to icons inside the application, as well as the files or object icons that result from using an application.

Acorn

Acorn’s Finder icon, is appropriately enough, an Acorn. Cartoony, and not too far off the mark, it’s simple and attractive. It also resides in the brown part of the palette and is a unique enough shape that it does pretty well for itself in the dock. That it doesn’t reveal what it’s intended for is too bad, but then neither do others ( Photoshop -indeed all the CS 3 apps- Coda, Skype, there are probably quite a few…), and I don’t think it’s fatal.

But it’s shiny. It’s dipped in plastic. An Acorn. Dipped in plastic. What about something not so plastic like Coda’s nice leaf icon?

Acorn’s files are typical document icons. Acorn displays the Finder icons in the Open and save dialogue boxes. If you select Option + Acorn > Preferences, you can set Acorn to save a thumbnail image icon.

The UI icons are pretty good. I’d rather the Paint bucket wasn’t lying in the spilled paint, but with this single exception, these icons work well, although we’ll see some problems a little later on with some of these.

DrawIt

The Finder icon is a box of crayons on some paper, and while not the most original concept there is distinction here that it works very well in my dock. It also observes the idea of using a drawing implement and a page to indicate its purpose and stay close to the HIG for application icons. It’s kind of crazy though. I was looking at it and realized that the crayon box only holds three crayons and there the black crayon on the page with no place in the box. But the thing is I like it and it does it’s job.

DrawIt documents appear as normal document icons with the DrawIt crayons and label on them. Other file types display as their default application icon. Open and save dialogue boxes display whatever the Finder displays.

The UI icons are very attractive and are well designed. They look best on the large size setting.

Pixelmator

Paintbrush. Okay. Paint drops. Yep, they even use those as their favicon. Board. Palette? Hmmm. Maybe. Photograph. Okay fair enough. Definitely orange. A lot like iPhoto and probably intentionally so. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It works well, though I do a double-take when iPhoto and Pixelmator are open at the same time.

Pixelmator document icons are regular documents with the orange photo from its Finder icon attached and a label indicating file type. Pixelmator attaches it’s icon to file types like .pxm.

UI icons are nicely made and well drawn. Except for the fact that black tools just DON’T SHOW UP OVER A BLACK (or almost black) background and are hard to target and hard to check even when they’re popped out. You really have to focus to get the Move tool or Crop tool.

Startup

Opening the app with no image. I’m counting icon bounces in the dock for timing.

Acorn

Acorn opened to palette and its startup window in 9 bounces (a single bounce is both up and down). The Acorn startup window is simple: Start a new image or open an image. Selecting New Image displays a dialogue box for pixel dimensions of your new graphic, your desired resolution and background colour which can be Transparent, Black or White. If there’s an image on the clipboard the From Clipboard button will be enabled. It’s a nice touch. Selecting ‘Open Image’ displays a regular Finder open dialogue box. you can disable the startup window in the window itself or in Acorn > Preferences…

Note: Acorn uses about 40MB on launch without an image opened.

DrawIt

DrawIt opens in three bounces. The app’s window opens and a sheet pops out for setting width and height with and background colour. The default background is Transparent. Clicking to change the colour opens the Mac OS X Colors inspector. Click Okay to begin or Cancel to dismiss the window (like a good Mac OS X citizen DrawIt remains open on window close).

Note: DrawIt uses about 32 MB on launch without an image opened.

Pixelmator

Palettes, erm, I mean (cough) HUDs (cough) begin opening at bounce 9 but the app isn’t fully launched until bounce 11. I got the update notification to 1.01 on my first launch today which I decided to install. This update fixed issues with the wand, and adds support for opening CMYK files, and more which I couldn’t read about because the scroll bar in the Software Update HUD didn’t work. Neither did the thumbs or my mouse wheel. It also wouldn’t take any click on the control buttons (Skip this version, Remind Me Later, or Install update). Even after switching to Scrivener to write this, the HUD stayed on top of everything. Interestingly, while I was taking the screenshot, the Startup Window was apparently loading in the background behind everything else. When the screenshot saved, the Startup window was interleaved with other windows and behind the Software Update HUD, but wasn’t accessible either. Clicking on the HUD made everything look like the screenshot again.

Pixelmator: Locking me out

By Command clicking between Scrivener and Pixelmator, I got the startup window to the top and dismissed it then the Software Update ran. Sparkle of course works as advertised. The 1.0.1 update is almost 30MB big.

(Music plays while update is completed etc.)

Okay, the update is done and it installs and relaunches Pixelmator if I want it. I do that.

Let’s go again. This time HUDs begin opening at bounce 6 but it still takes 11 bounces before the app is launched and the Welcome window displays. It’s swooshy, with the titles and options doing a really great Keynote-style build-in. Looks freakin’ awesome. I quit the app and started it again (this time 3 bounces to the first HUD and 7 to launch – and no I hadn’t found the Help > Welcome Screen… menu item yet). I can Create a New Image, Open Existing Image or Start Using Pixelmator. I can select to not open the window at startup. Create New Image will open a dialogue box familiar to any Photoshop user. But it’s hard to read. Open Existing Image displays the usual Open dialogue box, and Start Using Pixelmator dismisses the Welcome window and puts me in the app as expected.

Note: Pixelmator uses about 62 MB of memory on launch with no image opened.

Pixelmator: Can’t click text

Summary

Note to everybody: Make the text labels next to selectors in dialogue boxes clickable. It’s just nice manners. Acorn’s Startup window allows this, to my great relief.

Acorn: No visual Feedback

In Acorn there’s no need for a ‘Start Using Acorn’ button when a window control will do the trick. But my favourite is DrawIt. It’s fast and doesn’t mess around. Bam! The app opens, and gets you started on an image right away. That’s a nice use of sheets. The added benefit is that you can ignore it and just do a Command + O.

Acorn: Regular Window Controls

DrawIt’s got this nailed down and Acorn does pretty well too. Pixelmator isn’t that far off the mark, but the little things like non-selectable labels and the team’s choice to HUDify already shows weakness because they have to add a new control to make something happen that they could have got for free like Acorn did, or entirely dispense with like DrawIt.

DrawIt: Sheets

My bias is for Acorn’s proposition, but I have to say that DrawIt is compelling and wins me over.

UI

Well this is where we really get into it. The UI is where you’re getting things done and it’s where the differing approaches of these apps really becomes pronounced. This isn’t trivial. It’s all important. I’m going to spend a lot of words here and come back to these points later while we explore some of the tools.

Acorn

Welcome to the future. It’s a single palette that cleverly combines the toolbox, tool options and layers. Menu commands seem well placed, but in an unconventional move the tool menu items are under View. Do we view Tools? I guess in a sense. The tools all have keyboard shortcuts. In fact Acorn is thoroughly shortcutted and smartly done. Filters don’t have shortcuts however, but more on this later. In addition to the single tools palette, Acorn uses Mac OS X’s colour panel and font panel. A sound move from a development and UI consistency point-of-view, but also a pain in the ass for finer type controls.

Acorn has comprehensive Help that’s clear and concise too.

For the most part, the tools work as I expect them to but I immediately miss the ability to drag control handles and rotate selections and layers as I do in Photoshop. This is actually quite a big deal to me because it’s very common for me to want to straighten and crop or rotate a layer so it looks better in the piece I am creating.

The zoom tool is easily lost because it has no white or light areas.

Note: Opening the 3.2 MB test file caused Acorn to use over 200 MB of real memory.

Closing Acorn released memory but only down to 62 MB holding on to 30 MB.

DrawIt

DrawIt’s UI is clear and obvious. It owes its approach to iWork and siblings and it shows. There’s a single window, panels attached on both the right and left and a great set of toolbar icons at the top.

The fascinating thing about this app is its conception of tools and objects. In DrawIt, EVERYTHING is a layer. I’ll repeat that. Everything is a layer. Drawing tools are layers. Images are layers. The objects you draw are layers. The masks you make are layers within a layer. There are a set of tools and they are specifically bitmap editing tools that you use to directly change the pixels in an image. Otherwise you’re working with layers.

To draw something you select Insert in the toolbar and select the kind of layer you want. Click inside the image area and you’ll be drawing. When you like what you have you press Return and you’re off to the next task leaving an object on a layer behind.

Understandably, the entire left panel is dedicated to layers. The right panel offers different options depending on the object selected and whether or not a filter is applied.

There are a couple of nice touches too: like the gear menu under the toolbar. The gear icon functions as a toggle. In one setting it shows you which object is selected in a chain of items. In the other is shows you tool hints options and settings. Objects in a group can be easily identified and selected using DrawIt’s Expose feature which, like Apple’s Exposé, reveals all the items stacked atop one another allowing you to select the correct one visually. This is really cool.

Right off the bat I had trouble trying to close paths when I was drawing with the vector layer/tool (hmmm that’s interesting, what should I call them?) until I realized that closing was a tool option and there was a toggle switch. I am not yet sure if I like this, but I don’t hate it.

Note: Opening the 3.2 MB test file caused DrawIt to use over 86 MB of real memory.

Closing the image in DrawIt released memory but only down to 83 MB.

Pixelmator

Pixelmator presents an interface that’s just plain nice to look at. It’s very dressy and the palettes in presents will be familiar to anybody who uses or has used Photoshop. I should qualify that by saying Photoshop 7 or earlier, before docked panels became the norm. There’s a toolbox two columns wide, a brushes palette along with the usual suspects: a swatches palette, a layers palette and a tool options palette. There are a few others like gradients and mask in the View menu.

At this level, things feel and act pretty much like Photoshop. The dark palettes however, make working with dark colours and tools difficult. Selecting tools in the toolbox makes them pop-out which is a nice touch, but this isn’t sufficient to help a user find the dark coloured tools like Move, Crop, Magic Wand and Zoom. Adding a new swatch also shows a subtle shift from Photoshop. In the gradients and masks palettes, Pixelmator pops open a sheet with a caution stripe across the top, and provides the tool or option to name the item. I think this is good because the sheets keep the interaction non-modal which is something that I absolutely loathe in Photoshop.

Keyboard shortcuts mimic Photoshop too.

Note: Opening the 3.2 MB test file caused Pixelmator to use over 200 MB of real memory. Closing Pixelmator released memory but only down to 85 MB holding on to just over 20 MB.

Summary

Acorn has chosen a novel path with a single palette which I think is great. DrawIt is taking an iWork approach, and by merging the ideas of tool and layer is simplifying making things happen. Pixelmator’s differences are superficial in the main except for the implementation of sheets for tool and options in the palettes which is just fantastic.

My bias is for Acorn’s approach, but DrawIt is growing on me. Pixelmator’s palette sheets are great but only enough to qualify as a nice improvement over Photoshop. I appreciate the touches that Pixelmator brings, but floating palettes all over the place, HUD style or not is just such a pain.

Full Screen Mode

Editing in full screen can be a real pleasure and all the programs have the capability.

Acorn

Click the tiny full screen toggle icon at the bottom of the tool palette or press the F key, or select View > Full Screen. I commented in The New Wave, that I wished the bright background in full screen mode could be dialed back, and Gus Mueller, Acorn’s dev, responded suggesting I hold down Option and select Preferences. This showed some extra preferences which have been kept hidden for simplicity’s sake, including the option to change the colour of the background. That’s a big help.

The menu bar is available when you jam your pointer to the top of the screen.

In full screen mode, the status bar at the bottom of an image is still displayed along with the scaling slider. The tool palette’s opacity is reduced too, which is a considerate piece of detailing.

DrawIt

Pressing the F key, selecting View > Full Screen in the menu toggles the view. The attached panels become floating palettes in this view, the toolbar, gear bar and menu bar disappear and aren’t available until you return to normal view. The colour of the background is available in the Preferences, under the Colours tab.

Pixelmator

Command + F places you in full screen mode. Palettes stay visible and the menu bar is available with the pointer to the top of the screen.

Preferences

Acorn

One of the simplest preference panels I’ve seen in a long time, Acorn offers seven options grouped in 5 groups. Selecting the Optional Preferences (Option + Acorn > Preferences) offers an additional six grouped into 5 categories. For some reason the keyboard equivalent to get to the optional preferences doesn’t work. You have to select from the menu. Acorn’s Preferences are intentionally simple because that was one of the design principles that Gus Mueller used for developing Acorn.

You can set Acorn to show the startup window, remember which documents were open, make a new layer for shapes and keep those shapes selected, automatically check for updates, set a keyboard shortcut for taking screenshots and set an image format for file actions. Optionally, you can set the full screen background colour, the height of the rows for each layer in the tool palette, suppress the layers warning when saving files that don’t support layers, create a thumbnail icon of the document and hide the canvas border.

DrawIt

Probably the most comprehensive of the bunch, DrawIt’s preferences are displayed in a standard Preferences panel beginning with the General Tab. Default styles comes next and allows you to make settings that will automatically be applied to you layer objects when you make them. Colours comes next which offers settings for visual presentation various things like groups and Expose. Placeholders is the last tab and is another innovation that employs a common word-processing feature where variables or tags (such as current date and page number) can automatically be substituted with other information. This makes inserting unique variables into a template easy and consistent.

Pixelmator

A simple three tabbed preference window, Pixelmator allows you to change 5 settings. I rather suspect that this window will become quite full over time. In General you can have Pixelmator startup with the Welcome window or do nothing; set the contents of a new image to White, Black or Transparent. Under transparency you can set the grid size and darkness and under Updates you can enable or disable checking for updates as well as check now. 6 settings. Not 5. I stand corrected.

Summary

As these programs develop, these settings will become far more extensive except in the case of Acorn which will stay as lean as possible given Gus’ stated design goal. I hope that all the apps keep tool options and the like in the active part of the UI and don’t banish them here.

Layers

All of these applications support layers, which is great. DrawIt takes it all the way and shows us that layers objects and tools can be one, which I just can’t help but be pleased about.

The difference from other approaches is subtle. I think the specificity of each and every thing being it’s own part exposed in the layer tree just makes sense to me.

Fast Image Creation

I take screenshots or use art from one file and copy it to the clipboard to use in another piece of art. My preferred screenshooting app is Snapz Pro X which I find extremely useful as it can save shots to the clipboard, send to e-mail, send to a printer, save a file of many types into pretty much any location and generally read my mind. And make movies.

So it’s set a pretty high standard which I don’t expect these apps to match. What I hope to find is that these apps are a handy alternative or a useful option for people who don’t have or use Snapz Pro X.

Acorn

Acorn offers a couple of useful alternatives here. You can start Acorn and select New From Clipboard in the startup window. If that’s disabled or you’re already up and running in Acorn you can select Command + Option + N or File > New From Clipboard for the same option. You can also create new images from selections using File > New From Selection. So it’s already pretty handy.

If Acorn is running, you can press Command + Shift + 6 and Acorn will offer a selection frame which you can adjust. Pressing Return will take a screenshot and open it immediately in Acorn for editing. It’s a very nice touch, and makes some options for touching up screenshots a bit handier than Snapz Pro.

DrawIt

File > New from Clipboard or Command + Shift + N is there which is great. DrawIt doesn’t have a startup screen or Welcome Window so the option is missing from those places.

Pixelmator

This app isn’t as obvious in its support for making new images from the clipboard, but it is there. Just like in Photoshop, the New… dialogue box come pre-populated with the dimension of the image on the clipboard. So in Pixelmator you can handily do this action. Not surprising behaviour here at all.

Pixelator: New Image dialogue

Summary

I am glad I had a chance to revisit and check out my suspicion that Pixelmator would pattern Photoshop for this functionality. Acorn has the best features in this task, and they’re handy and well done.

Rotate

Well here we go starting to manipulate the image. I am not trying to create any one thing or design, I just want to do something common.

Acorn

The question of whether or not you could freely rotate objects, images or layers in Acorn came up frequently in the comments in The New Wave and the only answer is: Yes you can. Sort of. In Acorn you can rotate the canvas in 90˚ increments clockwise or counter-clockwise. You can do the same with a layer as well as flip it across its horizontal or vertical axis. It’s there, just not that free. Selecting a layer then going to the Layer > Transform Selection menu item seems promising, but doesn’t allow me to rotate the layer freely. So now comes the fun part.

You can go to the menus and select Filter > Geometry Adjustment > Affine Transform which will get you the controls you need to rotate your image. There are several problems with this. Setting your origin moves the origin corner (lower left) to that location. It’s NOT setting a new origin co-ordinate within the image extent, but moving the origin to that co-ordinate. Using the Rotate wheel would be great, but it’s tiny so typing numbers becomes necessary. This is a pain especially because you can’t up or down arrow to adjust the value. This is further compounded by the fact that the origin for the Affine calculation remains staunchly in the lower left so you can’t select a point around which to transform.

So that’s not so fun, but it gets worse, because filter operations in Acorn happen in a dialogue box. Now the nice thing is that operations can be chained together in a nifty display like setting up an Automator Action. You can preview the effect live or display dialogue box preview if you prefer. So that stuff is all right, but after getting so clear and clever with the single toolbox approach, I think that dumping me in a big filter box is kind of surprising. I thought perhaps there would be a Filter section in the toolbox with a node view and pop out sheets on the nodes for options like in Shake, keeping everything in one palette. But alas it was not to be.

 

Doing simple rotations in Acorn is just too difficult. I must be missing something. Please tell me I am.

DrawIt

All right. Select an object or layer, Press Command + R, grab a corner and rotate. You can freely rotate around the objects centre point, but there’s no way to change that, and there’s also no numeric read-out or input to gauge or finely regulate a rotation. This is far better than Acorn, but obviously could be better.

Pixelmator

Pixelmator offers the usual 90˚ clock- and counter-clock wise rotations, flips etc. and also offers Edit > Transform > Rotate. This places control handle on the corners and displays a small readout with the rotation value and a confirm (√) or cancel (X) button. You can specify or get a read-out to two decimal places, but it doesn’t do math like a lot of the dialogues in Adobe CS do. I love entering values like 90/17 and have the application calculate the result. There’s no keyboard shortcut and also no apparent way to change the operation’s origin point. So it’s centre point or nothing.

Summary

I have to admit to some pretty serious disappointment here. Doing rotations on an object or image seems to me such a basic function that I am flabbergasted that none of these tools get it all the way. Am I missing something? As it stands at the time of this writing, Pixelmator handles this the best, but a settable origin would be nice. DrawIt is a close second and I can’t discuss Acorn becuase it makes me cry, and I get embarrassed when I cry.

Free Transform

By free transform, I mean the ability to select an object, layer or image and conduct any number of operations on it like rotation, skewing, distorting, scaling or enveloping.

Acorn

So the fact that you have to go to the Filters menu and select an appropriate filter for this set of operations, isn’t so much a problem for me. It’s selecting the correct filter, then learning how to use it and seeing as how some of the filter option panels are, um, shall we say, uh, less than intuitive, its becomes a pain rather quickly. I understand that introducing all the great things that Core Image offers is a real challenge and probably strains the resources of an indy developer in terms of time and/or money. I wonder though, if restraint isn’t the better part of valour.

So for transformations like we’re discussing you have to hit Filter > Geometry Adjustment and then sort yourself out. Filters are complex enough that I’m not going to get into them here, suffice to say that you’ll want to have some time to figure things out, so don’t try if you’re in a hurry for any reason.

DrawIt

Select an object or layer and you’ll see typical selection handles on the corners and side. Drag to scale. Press Command + R and rotate. Beyond that though, there doesn’t seem to be any way to skew or distort an object.

Pixelmator

Probably the most diverse set of options in this respect, Edit > Transform gets you a fair Photoshop like list of transformations: Scale, Rotate, Skew, Distort, Perspective; Rotate 180˚, Rotate 90˚ CW, Rotate 90˚ CCW; Flip Horizontal, Flip Vertical.

There don’t appear to be keyboard shortcuts, but I couldn’t believe it and went looking in Help. No joy. There are none. The tools work as expected which is nice, but not all of them have a numeric readout.

Summary

Disappointment again. I’d expect to see the selection handles behave more directly. Selected objects should be able to be freely rotated and messed with with a la lot of round tripping to the menu bar or goofing around in complex dialogue boxes.

So, pretty slim pickings here except for Pixelmator which has the works and just needs refinement. Perhaps in time these apps will include easy to use, combined transformation tools.

Crop

Cropping is pretty common in my world, because I take hasty pictures. I’m also interested in trying to extract new visual impact from tired old pictures that people have seen over and over again (in my job, I have a limited selection of photos in the approved library) so cropping is one of my favourite methods to create dramatic and useful images.

In Photoshop, the crop to allows me to select a size, position and rotation with one selection box and then upon pressing enter I can Crop and Rotate in one fell swoop. I thought in iPhoto the tool was much the same, but with the addition of a compositional grid for lining up horizontals or verticals in the image with the rotation capability and then cropping and rotating. I looked, but then it was iPhoto ’08 and I just don’t remember what came before. Maybe it was Aperture or Lightroom, which I only used beta or trial versions of and no longer have available.

I expect the crop tool to operate in this way, so let’s se what we’ve got.

Acorn

Selecting the Crop tool (Tools Palette > Move > Crop) allows me to drag a selection box over the image. Compositional Grid! Yay! Information about the selection is displayed in the middle of the selection. The information is the coordinates of the top left and bottom right corner and also has a tip for Crop tool use. Okay, so far so good. But the selection can’t be rotated and the fact that I need to do some mental arithmetic to figure out how many pixels high and wide my selection is… well let’s just say my head gets all noisy. This tool would be a lot better if it had height and width displays on it like the Frames feature in xScope. I like the compositional grid though. Even though it disappears a moment after positioning, it’s a great help in visualizing the outcome.

DrawIt

It was deceptively simple. Select a layer. Press enter. Select Format > Crop Layer from the menu bar or press Command + K. This is the point where I got confused so I’ll explain this to you. You will see a light blue outline around the layer. There are no selection handles but clicking and dragging will set the crop frame on the layer. The crop selection is rectangular and can’t be rotated. The layer can be rotated, but the crop selection stays orthogonal to the canvas. It’s pretty weird because dragging the crop selection edge will adjust the crop on the rotated layer, orthogonal to the layer. Pressing Return will accept the adjustments. A nice thing about DrawIt’s Crop tool is that it’s entirely non-destructive and you can go back and adjust your crop any time.

In DrawIt, it seems far more useful to use a mask and a layer rotation to ‘crop’ an image.

Pixelmator

If you can find the Crop tool in the toolbox and get it over your image, and click and drag Pixelmator displays a compositional grid and some selection handles. The Tool Options palette allows you to discard the cropped information or just hide it if you want it in the future. Nice enough, but again, rotation doesn’t apply. Pressing Return commits the changes.

Summary

I appreciate the non-destructive nature of Pixelmator’s and DrawIt’s crop tools. I like the compositional grid in Acorn and Pixelmator, but I’d love to see some rotation so I could kill two birds with one stone. DrawIt’s tools seem to be focused on creating and not editing, though with a little planning the result would be perfectly decent. The offerings of Acorn and Pixelmator are both adequate, though the extra palette for Pixelmator’s tool is a small mark against. I like its display better though, so it’s a wash.

Adding rotation and more appropriate information in context would help all of these out.

Undo

A long time ago, when RAM was scarce and expensive, Photoshop had a limit to the number of undos it could offer. As time went by some good design changes and generally massive increase in RAM availability eventually led to Photoshop offering unlimited undos.

This is a good thing, especially for pursuing experimental approaches and being able to back out of poor design decisions.

Noticeable in all of these applications are no limits to the number of undos except that of RAM that the application is allowed to use or address.

In all cases Command + Z and Command + Shift + Z are the Undo and Redo combinations.

Acorn

The commands work as anticipated, but there’s no information about the operation that it’s currently undoing.

DrawIt

The commands work as anticipated, but there’s no information about the operation that it’s currently undoing.

Pixelmator

Pixelmator kindly indicates which operation you will be undoing if you care to use the Edit > Undo menu, displaying ‘Undo Pencil’ for example. Nice!

Selections and Masking

These two things are little less important to me than they are to many of you out there in ReaderLand, so I am going to try to do these without getting impossibly deep. I’m simply going to try to select the advertisement that’s stuck to the ceiling of the bus in a quick and reasonably accurate way. I’ll give each a couple of tries with a different approach.

Acorn

Acorn’s selection tools are pretty typical, but lack a polygonal lasso or a magnetic lasso. The magic wand works as expected and higher tolerance settings include more of the picture. I like Acorn’s choice of using Escape as the deselect command as well as Command + D which has annoyed me forever.

My initial attempt is using the Freehand Lasso tool. It feels like it’s a cross between a regular lasso and a magnetic lasso. If I dragged slowly it seemed like it was trying to find colour to snap to. Maybe that’s an illusion, because I had to drag slowly to see the selection I was making. I dragged an outline carefully around the ad. It took a minute I would guess.

My next attempt I decided I’d select a lot of the area with the Rectangle Select tool Then add as much as I could to the selection using any of the others except Magic Wand. I followed Acorn’s Help, holding down Shift to add to the selection, but this had the added effect of constraining the selection to a square when I was using the rectangle Select tool. I finally figured it out though. Hold down shift before you click to add to the selection, then click and begin to drag. Release the Shift key and you select a regular rectangle of any size. This wasn’t working so well just in terms of time and accuracy. After I made the larger selections I zoomed in and tried making finer edge selections using the lasso Selection tool, but the results were no better than my previous lasso attempt.

As an alternative I added a layer over the image and selected a bright green flood fill. I put the opacity of the layer at about 30%. Then I selected the erase tool and erased the fill over the poster. This was a pretty nice way to do a Quick Mask, and the results were pretty good. I selected the empty pixels and turned off the layer, leaving the poster shape selected, I was able to select the image layer and copy out the poster. With a little more care, and judicious brush selection, this could have been improved, but I felt much more in control than just using the lasso.

Acorn: Mask technique

DrawIt

Because DrawIt is primarily a drawing program, and further, is based on layers, there is a distinction made between layer tools and bitmap tools. Bitmap tools are used specifically to select pictures within a rasterized layer. As a consequence DrawIt has only a rectangular select tool and a magic wand tool for selections.

Does this mean that DrawIt’s selection capabilities are less than stellar? I tried selecting the poster in the test photo.

I tried using the Magic Wand tool, but to increase its tolerance was to decrease its usefulness. The photo has a lot of different colours and some occur within other colour fields. This proved to be challenging (and would be for any application). I tried the rectangular select tool, but without a lasso or a polygon selector this just wasn’t going to cut it.

I changed my approach. First I added a layer and flood filled it much as I did in Acorn. I could select Fill and turn it on in the Attributes panel, but then it wasn’t erasable. The eraser tool has a softness setting which was a big help in doing this. I found myself wishing for the capability to swiftly zoom in and out and have a hand tool to move the canvas during this task. Then I remembered my mouse wheel Up Down and Shift + Up and Down had me scrolling around the picture just fine.

This approach was working great. I erased the portion of the layer with a nice wide eraser with soft edge and corrected some of the corners with a smaller one. I set the tolerance of the Magic Wand to about .15 and selected the poster. That’s what I expected. But now I found myself in a bind. I had no way to save the selection, and the selection applied to that layer only. Exporting part of the image gave me a different selection than the one I made so that wasn’t a solution either. Obviously my approach was wrong.

Then I used the layer shapes and made a vector selection. I made sure that Close path was turned on and drew a rectangle around the poster. It was a little difficult only because I had Alignment Guides enabled so when points got too close to each other they snapped together. But this is really what I was after. I was able to draw a shape that matched that of the poster. I made sure the shape was filled and selected both it and the image layer then went Masks > New Mask from Layer… I clicked the gear icon on the path bar and I had my selection masked out.

DrawIt: Vector Layer

I realized I should have had a copy of the layer so I added and image layer and sized the layer to match. Then I dragged it upward in the layers panel to put it behind the masked image layer. Now I had a masked selection. I clicked the Filter tab on my poster layer and selected Color Controls, reducing saturation to get a black and white effect. It looked pretty good. I can imagine that adding masks and turning them on and off with the layer visibility control could be pretty powerful.

DrawIt: Mask and Filter

Let’s see what Pixelmator has to offer.

Pixelmator

I’ve got a ticket on the Mode Hate Train so when I saw that Pixelmator’s lasso tool was mode based I figured I’d be on the train the whole time. It wasn’t the case. After I consulted the Help to figure out and confirm the 3 modes. I started making my poster selection in the Add to Selection mode. This was great because I didn’t have to worry about holding down a modifier key or clicking in the wrong place, or having to activate the add to mode with a modifier which I needed to let go. I just clicked and dragged until the poster was selected.

At this stage I wanted to refine the selection so I went Edit > Refine Selection… (Command + Option + M) to get the Refine Selection sheet. The sheet offers sliders to control Feather, border smoothness and contract/expand. These controls are great and Border works by converting the selection you have made into the inside selection of a ‘box’ with a new selection drawn as many pixels away from the original selection as you specified. I like this a lot. But because Irony is the Ruler of All, it just so happened that the part of the image I was adjusting was at the top and the sheet obscured it as I made adjustments. Sigh. And of course there is no live preview in this mode.

Pixelmator: Sheet Over Selection

Well I was able to make a reasonable selection pretty quickly so it’s not all bad, but of course a polygon selector, or vector selection tool would have been nice.

Pixelmator offers a Quick Mask for layers like Adobe Photoshop does, so I thought I’d try that too. Working like the workaround I tried in Acorn and DrawIt, the Quick Mask essentially gives you a rubylith screen which you can remove to expose the part of the image you would like to modify.

Click the Edit in Quick Mask Mode icon at the bottom of the tool palette and the mask is applied. I used the brush tool to paint away over the poster. And for the most part I thought this was okay. Then I clicked the Load Mask as Selection button on the bottom of the masks palette and saw just how inaccurate my work had been. It’s not surprising really. Considering the amount of red in the actual photograph it was really hard to tell if I was painting away the mask or not. It would be useful to have the option to change the colour in circumstances like this in order to improves the quick mask edit.

Pixelmator: Red on Red

Without a polygonal lasso or magnetic lasso or a vector tool, selections are going to be inaccurate. I also tried the magic wand , but because it works on the same principles as all magic wands, the results were uneven, especially in the undefined reflective nature of the photo.

As I was painting away the rubylith there was visual artifacting that resulted in kind of an aggravating blink that made the process more difficult. Also when doing a process like this you’ll want to be in precise tool mode by having the caps lock key ON.

Pixelmator: Artifacts

Summary

All told, I was hoping for a bit more.

DrawIt pretty much has the most flexible masking and selection tools, if you play in it’s new approach. The ability to create shape layers and convert them into masks as well as add masks with layers inside of them, pretty well gives you limitless options with a fine degree of control. I do wish that the masks could be converted to selections in a rasterized shape/bitmap/image layer. That would pretty well seal the deal.

The masks in the help file for Pixelator show selections for hair and the like, and I’m left wondering just what kind of Wizards those guys are. I think that Pixelmator got the Refine Selection tools idea right but the implementation should be a palette that can be positioned in relation to the selection, so after you apply it you can see what you want to do. A Preview function here would be awesome.

Acorn’s lasso selector was my favourite freeform selection tool, but the lack of precise tools and after selection adjustments made it just a bit too clumsy.

All of the apps could benefit from a polygonal selector (or a straight and curved line mod key and or a variation smoother or governor of some sort) and, even better, a magnetized selection tool.

You can do basic things here, and I am sure making selections in cleaner, higher contrast pictures than this test image would be pretty easy in all cases with the magic wand tool.

Filters

Well, as we all know, even if we don’t handle images all day long, Photoshop has spawned an entire industry of filter developers, making it a hugely flexible tool that has the capacity to be as specialized as one’s imagination.

When Apple introduced Core Image, it made available to independent developers a wide range of image manipulation effects, essentially automatically providing an extensive library of filters that could be exposed to the user. This technology, more than any other I think, has given rise to this new wave of image editors.

Acorn

Acorn provides access to filters through the Filter menu. This menu is organized into categorical entries which helps you find the kind of thing you might be looking for. But without a good deep knowledge (which I will admit to not having) about imaging filters and what the terminology is, you may find yourself overwhelmed with options.

Initially, you select a filter from the menu which is grouped according to kind, and the Apply Filters window opens. The window is a channel that shows filters much like actions in Automator. Filters can be chained together, and clicking the bottom green Add Filter will introduce another filter into the chain. When you do this, you get a sheet that has animated previews of the filter effect that you select, giving you a good impression of the way your image will be affected. You can select a Preview toggle to see the effects live. You can also expand the window to show a preview panel which I found needlessly redundant and interfering. Clicking the red X in each filter panel removes it from the chain. Filters can be dragged around to re-order them in the chain. Once you click apply, the filters are applied. The Apply Filters box is modal, meaning you can’t do other editing with the filters window open.

Acorn: Apply Filters Window

After the filter chain is applied, it is undo-able and redo-able with Command + Z and Command + Shift + Z as a normal step in the history of your changes.

Acorn: Filters applied

In all, this is a pretty fair solution for getting filters to the user, but it has some drawbacks. I found my self wishing for more accessible controls and better guidance about the use of the filter itself. Sometimes the filters were just plain baffling.

Acorn: A Filter Panel

DrawIt

We already got a hint of DrawIt’s capabilities in the selections section, but let’s take a closer look.

As you add elements to your image, whether they are layers or masks, you get the ability to change their attributes and add filters in the right-hand side panel. This is a deceptively simple thing. It means that every single element can have filters applied to it. When you click the filter tab, and pull down the menu you get a categorized list of filters much like in Acorn. Selecting one adds a filter control panel. You can add as many of these as you want. You can’t seem to drag them around to re-order them though.

DrawIt: Filters Applied

The filters are live and take effect immediately. You can remove them by clicking their close button.

As you progress, you can go back at any time and by selecting the layer or element you can add more filters or remove them as you wish. Let me repeat that. Filters are live and applied as you introduce them and adjust them. They stay in effect and can be changed at any time. You can’t see me right now, but I am weeping tears of joy and shaking my head listening to the hollow sound of what I believe is lack of imagination. Filter states are saved and are as adjustable after saving and closing as they were when you first applied them.

DrawIt: Filters Applied to Star

This is absolutely killer. Killer. None of the new wave of apps have this.

I wish I had the days to explore this before writing the review, but time is a-wasting so alas I must move on.

Pixelmator

Pixelmator handles filters in pretty much the same way as the others. There’s a categorized filter menu and selecting a filter opens the filter’s palette where you can make adjustments quite handily. The controls are obvious and easily handled and the icons that label the sliders can be clicked for an integer adjustment just like in Apple’s iPhoto or Aperture. This is a nice feature.

Some of the filters are transformations that require a radius or centre point and these filters have a ‘rope’ attached to them. You can drag the loose end of the rope to adjust the origin. it’s a lot clear than just providing a blue dot, but the rope animation is kind of slow on my machine.

Pixelmator: Bump Filter

Pixelmator: Flash Filter

Pixelmator has some filters the others don’t, called Transitions which have effects like the turning of a page corner and the effect of an explosive flash in front of the image.

Filters are cumulative, and can be repeated from the Filter > Last Filter command (Shift + Command + F). There’s no way to chain filters as in Acorn or DrawIt, and Acorn remains unique with the ability to re-order filters at will.

Summary

All these apps shared mostly the same names or terminology for the filters that Core Image provides. Sometimes this is good, but others like ‘Affine Transform’, though accurate and specific, might not convey the right idea to the user at time of creation.

In Acorn many of the filter panels the controls are small and hard to use for fine adjustments. The good news is that there are usually value fields that you can type into. In some cases the filter panels are very crowded and offer enough options that you wished for a lot more guidance when it came to figuring out what the filter can do.

Actually, I wished for a lot more guidance about what filters could do or what potential uses for them might be, though Acorn’s animated preview was nice in showing some idea of the range of effect a filter might provide.

The fact that filters in DrawIt it were so flexible really made this the winner for me. Acorn’s previews and re-ordering were great but filter controls were somewhat lacking. I like Pixelmator’s filter control a lot.

Memory + Performance

While I was testing these apps, trying out the various selections and filters I was trying to keep my eye on memory use and stay aware of performance issues.

When the apps launched they open and carved some memory out for themselves, DrawIt being most efficient, Acorn a close second and Pixelmator being the most greedy. Opening the test photo really made memory use spike, probably in preparation for layer additions and compositing and filter applications.

Acorn went from 32 MB to just over 200MB and Pixelmator grabbed just as much. DrawIt was a little more conservative taking 86 MB.

Closing the test file relinquished memory but never back to the startup amounts.

Performance wasn’t what I expected. These programs felt slow. In my modest tests, Pixelmator was probably the most responsive, but rendering artifacts were a real problem. Acorn performed smoothly but slowly and felt stodgy and soupy at times, especially when zoomed in on a portion of an image. DrawIt varied widely. When drawing, adding layers or filters DrawIt was snappy. Scrolling was good too. But then DrawIt took a long, long, time when scaling image layers, and crashed once during a filter adjustment.

When I did the flood fills for the quasi-masks, Acorn and DrawIt both took awhile to think about it.

Pixelmator uses the F/OSS ImageMagick library for a lot of its brain. This library has been developed over the course of years and provide functionality to manipulate a range of bitmap formats in an efficient manner. This is where a lot of Pixelmator’s general speed is coming from. When it come to Core Image, all the apps here use it as the basis for filters. This is where Pixelmator’s claim about being ‘GPU powered’ comes from. Though I do think that being the first is certainly debatable as any app that implements Core Image surely gets the framework’s GPU processing and there are many apps that have preceded Pixelmator that use this technology. Further, claims that ‘Pixelmator is blistering-fast on the latest PowerPC and all Intel-based Mac’s.[sic]’ doesn’t feel like it’s the case. It’s not slow but my eyes weren’t popping out of my head either.

All of the apps took awhile to save out files too. Maybe not a problem, but I reflexively save after every major operation, especially if I think it’s taken a long time to render. And I also save whenever it occurs to me. It occurs to me a lot, so I found myself waiting. After a bit it becomes a real drag to be kind of in the flow then have to pause before continuing. none of the apps offered a save progress bar. It would be nice to see something. In Pixelmator I was relying on the window’s close button to change from grey and for the cursor to return to the selected tool. DrawIt showed a beach ball but the others relied on the title bar to change and the close button to become available to tell me they were finished. This isn’t a deal breaker, but having visual feedback on progress can provide a lot of reassurance. Maybe use the Dock icon or a sheet…

Summary

Claims to the contrary, all of these apps could afford some improvements in their performance speeds. I really hope that DrawIt and Acorn improve their speeds. It may be that on Intel Macs they’re a lot better performers, but even if they are, I don’t imagine that rendering speed and operation performance would be a bad thing.

Saving + Exporting

After your work is done, you’ve got to save it and make it available in some kind of format that’s useful for your requirements.

Acorn

Acorn saves to its native format .acorn, as well as the usual suspects: PNG, TIFF, GIF, JPEG and BMP. Although TIFF can support layers Acorn will only save layers in .acorn files. If you select JPEG as the file type there’s a quality slider but otherwise there are no options for saving the file type. What this means is if you require transparency in the final file, it must be in the original, and the target file type must support it too.

There is no information in the Help file about the files that Acorn saves, but it saves all the files in 8 bit RGB.

Acorn has a neat feature that makes it handy. the File > Actions menu has some interesting options. The first is PDF Workflow > which gives you direct access to PDF options normally provided in the File > Print > PDF menu button gizmo. This is nice. you can also add an image to iPhoto directly, open the folder that contains the shell and Python scripts that provide this actions, open the image in Preview, and send the image to Mail where a new message is opened with the image inserted as an attachment. Most of the time that these actions take are dependent on other apps and if they’re open and ready for business.

DrawIt

DrawIt saves its own file type , .drawit, as well as exporting JPEG, PNG, TIFF and GIF. PDFs are available through the Print dialogue > PDF button menu gizmo.

DrawIt is interesting in the when you export, it pops a sheet that gives you options to set the pixel dimensions of the final output, the format and any format options (JPEG has a quality slider and TIFF has a compression options menu for example). It also exposes a few Quartz Filter effects allowing you to flip the image rotate it make it black and white or make it sepia.

The final option is like Acorn’s Actions menu and offers the possibility to export your file as an image, email it, upload it to ImageShack, send it to iPhoto, or copy it to the clipboard.

You can also preview your settings which is handy considering the presence of Quartz filters.

Select your options and click Export. A normal ‘Save’ dialogue box opens and you can save your file. Drawit doesn’t show you but it does append the file type to you name when it save the file.

DrawIt also has the unique ability to export a partial image (Option +Shift + Command + E), which shows you a blue selection border over your image which you can size and position.

There are no handles on it (that would be nice) but you can drag the edges and move it around as you’d expect. Press return when you’re satisfied, and the sheet pops out as described above.

Nice feature because it allows you to check in on portions of your artwork as you go or share them with your workgroup without having to reveal and discuss the entire image.

All the files were defaulted to 8 bit RGB files, something that isn’t settable.

Pixelmator

Pixelmator has a very extensive list of file types it supports. File > Save As… shows 12 types, and File > Export shows those same 12 plus 47 more for a total of 59. We’re getting into Graphic Converter territory here. And that’s not a bad thing. As I mentioned in ‘The New Wave’ GC is feeling very long in the tooth. Pixelmator also opens a bunch of different types which would make it the go to app if you weren’t using GC.

Pixelmator’s flexibility comes at a price, and it always took the longest to save. Strangely, saving or exporting a GIF of the test image made it unresponsive 6 times out of 6. Ouch.

The output was 8 bit RGB files. Not something that I could change.

Comparison

Comparing File Save Efficiency (File > Save As… or File > Export…)

File Type Acorn DrawIt Pixelmator
(original JPEG) (3.2 MB) (3.2 MB) (3.2 MB)
Acorn 16.7MB, 9 s n/a n/a
BMP 20.3 MB, 3 s n/a 27 MB, 20 s
Drawit n/a 8.9 MB, 14 s n/a
GIF 1.9 MB, 5 s 1.7 MB, 4 s Killed Pixelmator(2)
JPEG* 6.5 MB, 2 s 6.6 MB, 3 s 6 MB, 22 s
PDF** 18.8 MB, 5 s 3.1 ,5 s(1) 20.5 MB, 39 s(3)
PNG 10.4 MB, 10 s 8.5 MB, 14 s 10.3 MB, 40s
PXM (Pixelmator) n/a n/a 27.2 MB, 5 s
TIFF 27 MB, 2 s 20.3MB, 2 s*** 27 MB, 25 s
All images saved from original JPEG opened in respective app.
*Highest quality setting chosen
**PDF-X from Actions > PDF Workflow menu, or Print > PDF > PDF-X
***No compression
(1) This document was paginated, the image split into four parts across 4 pages
(2) Did File > Save As… and saved as GIF. I killed the process after 1 minute 45 s. Repeated this 3 times to be sure. File > Export… resulted in the same problem, also three times.
(3) Pixelmator saves directly to PDF so this is a File > Save As…

Summary

All of the apps save to RGB and none expose any CMYK controls, so they’re not suitable for prepping files for press work. For me that’s a real limitation, but for many printing to local lasers or inkjets or publishing to the web, it’s not that big a deal.

The time it takes to save is a real issue with all these apps, DrawIt and Acorn, both being the quickest. All of them could use some visual progress indicator during the save operation.

The sizes of these files are mostly dependent on the types themselves.

Unless I needed some unique file types, I’d choose DrawIt or Acorn over Pixelmator.

Scripting + Plugins

Extending the capability of a program is both the domain of scripting and the more popular model of plug-ins. Often repetition is handled by scripting or user recordable macros or actions. These programs are new, so let’s see what they have to offer.

Acorn

Acorn offers a couple of approaches to these to aspects of image editors.

Firstly, Acorn is unique in that it supports Python scripts as well as Objective-C compiled plug-ins. This is precisely the way that Photoshop became so huge. Initially plug-ins provided capabilities missing in the main app. Even as the feature list of grew, these plug-ins matured and refined the main app’s offerings or were retired and replaced with plug-ins more suitable.

You can download and use sample code for Acorn’s plug-in architecture.

Already there are some plug-ins out there for saving files, masking operations, and correcting white pixel haloing when exporting files with alpha channels. Perhaps there are more and I hope that Flying Meat is prepping a plug-in page which will offer some sort of index to these as they’re developed.

Acorn doesn’t expose any Applescript dictionaries or Automator whatchamacallits.

DrawIt

Currently, DrawIt is the least scriptable of these new apps. There’s no Applescript Dictionary, and nothing appears in Automator either. A brief conversation with the developer indicated that DrawIt may very well get some scripting in the future, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Pixelmator

This app has bragged from the get-go about implementing Mac OS X tech, so it’s not surprising to find that it has an Automator library. There are 5 Actions each with different settings, and one that I think is interesting which is Transform Images. This offers 12 transforms and 4 settings, including Shear and Rotate. Dumb little tiny controls, but having this capability is great.

There was a comment on The New Wave about plug-ins for Pixelmator which pointed to this entry at the Pixelmator forums. The developer states flatly that there will be no SDK for Pixelmator plugins. Further suggestions are ignored.

Summary

Acorn offers the most flexible support for plug-ins and scripting (if you’re a Python or shell scripting kind of person). The fact that plug-ins can be written in both Python and Objective-C bodes well. I think it’s really too bad that the Pixelmator team have chosen not to support plugins, but from a support point-of view I guess it makes sense. I am cautiously optimistic about what DrawIt may do, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Tonight’s Verdict

Okay, so we’ve been through the apps and I’ve tried to give you some good detail about how they work and behave.

In all cases I think the apps are promising. They all show a different approach, and a different focus about editing images, which is nothing if not useful.

For original image creation, and figuring out how to make rich complex images with masks, layers and live filters, I think DrawIt is the best. I love this app’s refreshing originality: its iWork feel (unique to image editing – even iPhoto isn’t like this) and the ‘everything is a layer’ approach to tools and element creation. The live filters make this thing so cool I lose my ability to speak. Sure Photoshop has this but it never had it so early, and it costs a lot of money. I am excited about the kinds of innovations we’ll see from the developer. If I think I can do it in DrawIt, I am going to reach for this one first.

My second choice is Acorn, and pretty much for the same reasons as I outlined in ‘The New Wave’. I am a palette hater and the single palette thing really appeals to me. The price is right and there’s going to be a great library of plug-ins soon. I like the design goals too: simple and modern.

Pixelmator is my third choice, primarily because there’s no new UI here except in some details, and though it feels comfortable and familiar the palette thing just makes me crazy.

Opinions on these findings

In general, all the applications could use some refinement in selection tools. Magnetic and polygonal lassos would be great. Vector drawing tools with the ability to convert shapes to selections would be ideal. Acorn plug-in opportunities abound here with the potential for specialized masking tools like Vertus Fluid Mask or tools that address other specialized needs.

Transformations could be better too, and I don’t think I should have to select special tools, or worse, dialogue boxes and filters to rotate elements.

Saving files could be helped with some kind of progress indicator too, especially in Pixelmator where files saves take the longest.

Core Image is great and these apps show that you can get a lot of capability rivalling Photoshop by using it. The problem lies in the sprawling nature of image manipulation where almost anything is possible. Categorizing operations helps, but only goes part way. Describing or demonstrating the effects of a filter a good too, but there’s never guidance on why or when I might choose one over another. This is actually a problem in all image editing, but it’s really apparent here, using these apps.

Also we need to talk about in-application icons. Maybe the Gamma on Modern Macs is a lot brighter or maybe modern Mac displays are far better than my aging PowerBook LCD, but icons and tool representation are critical. Pixelmator team: Please make your black gradient icons white and grey (if you really want the 3d gradient effect), don’t walk. Run. Change this now. Move, Crop Magic Wand and Text. And Zoom. Acorn could uses some brightness in the icons too. Working on dark parts of an image is a pain. DrawIt’s are pretty good, and the pen tool benefits from the layer becoming translucent white. DrawIt’s toolbar icons are great. I’d prefer handles on selection drag points in Crop and Export Partial Image… tools though, or some kind of clue that the edges are draggable.

Well, for the first round these apps are pointing the way to a pretty promising future. I enjoyed testing these and look forward to what comes next. Please add your comments I welcome the input and all of these and other apps as yet unwritten can benefit from well reasoned commentary.

Linkage

The Contenders
Acorn
DrawIt
Pixelmator

Other software
Coda
CSSEdit
Graphic Converter
ImageMagick
Shake
Sparkle
Snapz Pro X
Scrivener
TextMate
xScope
Yojimbo


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