More Than a Checklist

Table of Contents

Introduction
Feature Checklists Suck
First Impressions
UI
Preferences
Layers
Fast Image Creation
Rotate, Transform and Crop
Selections
Filters
Memory + Performance
Scripting + Plugins
Tonight’s Verdict
Notes (includes a plot of Raster Graphic Editors)

Introduction

It’s been almost three years since I wrote Image Is Everything, and while that page still gets hits, it sure is outdated. In the intervening years the apps I profiled have undergone a lot of changes. DrawIt has focused on becoming a vector-based raster image creator, instead of an all purpose editor. Acorn has gone from version 1 into version 2 and Pixelmator has just reached version 1.6.

So here’s a new take on the two key apps, Pixelmator 1.6. and Acorn 2.5.1.

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Feature Checklists Suck

I don’t think it’s as helpful to compare feature lists, as much as it is to compare using the apps. Do these apps have features that match every one in the latest version of Photoshop CS5? No. Are these every bit as useful for a graphic professional’s use? Yes.

I’m interested in how the major features are implemented and what it feels like to use the app. Which one makes the most sense to me? Is it comfortable or does it force me through a bunch of steps that I’d rather not go through?

Think that Photoshop is the best that can be? Think again. Let’s apply a new gradient to an image:

  • Decide if you want to apply the gradient directly to a selection or via a Layer Style, or add an Adjustment Layer (let’s choose Layer Style)
  • Click to select the layer you want to apply the effect to
  • At the bottom of the Layers palette, click the FX button and select Gradient Overlay… (this can be one click if you’re used to non-sticky menus)
  • The Gradient Overlay dialog opens with a default gradient applied
  • Now we need to select settings for the gradient. If we were to change every one:
  • Blend Mode – one click
  • Opacity – Type a number or click and slide
  • Gradient Selection – Click the image to edit the attributes of the Gradient itself, or click the down arrow to select a different gradient from the library. Optionally: click to reverse the gradient ramp.
  • Let’s keep it simple and just select a preset. Optionally I could click to select a fly-out for other libraries or new gradients and then click again to make the selection.
  • Click away from the overlay after making the preset selection
  • Click to set a new style and again to align with the layer
  • Click and drag to set rotation or tab and type a number for this, or double-click and type a number
  • Click and drag to set the scale of the style, or tab and type a number, or double-click and type a number
  • Click OK or hit Return

That’s 12 clicks. All in a dialog box without being able to work directly in your image. Add more clicks if you need to create a new gradient, and more still if you need to set transparencies or create new colours. This whole process is immensely flexible, but it lacks some crucial features:

  • Respect for the designer or user. It forces you into a dialog box and gives you abstracted tools like the rotation tool.
  • It requires too many clicks to get to a result
  • It assumes that flexibility is ALWAYS the choice for the user as opposed to speed and convenience
  • It assumes that flexibility can only be provided within the context of a panel or dialog box and even adds more boxes to situation the further you go

Here’s Pixelmator’s approach:

  • Select the layer you want to affect or make a new layer
  • Select the Gradient tool
  • Select one of the gradient presets in the Gradient HUD
  • Click on your image and move the cursor
  • A real-time HUD readout advises you about angle of drag as the gradient is applied to you work real time and interactively
  • Click to apply

That’s 5 clicks and a lot more relevant feedback. Of course you’ll add more clicks if you want to add a gradient to the presets panel, but my point is that Pixelmator’s approach really simplifies the interaction while improving it immensely with direct visual feedback and useful information. Obviously features just can’t tell the whole story.

So while both apps have gradients (you can check the item on your feature list), it’s evident that one method is far, far better in terms of respecting the user’s goals than is the other. That’s how come these apps represent more than a checklist and deserve our attention.

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First Impressions

No CMYK

Sit down. Take a powder.

Acorn’s developer says flat-out “No” to CMYK support and has no plans to go there. He’ll let “…Adobe serve the dying print market”. Pixelmator doesn’t support CMYK either, and their explanation is simple: RGB is a wider colour space, use it because it’s better for screen and images. When you go to print in CMYK get professionals to convert and colour correct the file.

Three years on, I like the sound of this. I know many of you are looking for ways to replace Photoshop and I don’t think this should stop you. You can use Automator actions to build a conversion to CMYK or even better, just hand the file off to people who can make the file awesome for Print. Many print houses charge extra for this, but unless you are good at conversion and correcting, it’s probably worth it.

Finder Icons

Acorn’s icon is much improved having been revised from the glossy plastic rendering to a far nicer rendering:

Acorn's original icon for version 1.x

Acorn's version 1.x icon

 

 

Acorns new 2.x icon. Much improved.

Acorn's version 2.x icon

 

 

Pixelmator’s remains unchanged.

The classic remains

Pixelmator's classic icon remains

 

 

Speed to launch

These apps are now extremely fast to launch. They are ready to go, with their Welcome Screens open, as the second bounce completes. Consider that when I first looked at these apps, both Acorn and Pixelmator were taking 9 to 11 bounces to get ready for use. Compare this to [Photoshops CS5's] 7 bounces to its splash screen and then another 7 seconds to its ready state (launch speeds are subsequently faster owing to OS X caching policies), and you can appreciate these apps are truly tailored to OS X.

When running without an image open, Pixelmator takes 26MB of memory and Acorn takes 53MB. The improvement in Pixelmator’s resource use when idle is 34MB while Acorn is using about 13MB more than before (owing to some fundamental changes in the way it’s architected).

Welcome Panels

Still beautifully animated, Pixelmator’s shows a small embedded version of the most recently opened image in the Open Recent Image combo button (replaces the Start Using Pixelmator selection in the first release), and although it’s not expressed visually, the labels in the window are clickable now as well. Nice detailing and convenience.

The animation in Pixelmator

The animation in Pixelmator

 

 

Acorn’s Welcome panel is reorganized and expanded as well. It offers tips, as well as New Image…, Open Image…, and Online Help and Docs…. I am not sure what the right half of the panel is for though. I looked in the docs and did an admittedly cursory search online, but didn’t find anything.

Welcome to Acorn

Acorn's version 2.x Welcome Screen

 

 

Acorn’s Bezier Curves

A basic implementation that the developer promises a full future for, this is a great addition to the app. This supplements the Oval, Rectangle and Line tools and gives you nice control over vectors.

These all feel fast and fluid.

Acorn Has Layer Masks

This is an excellent and welcome addition, taking Acorn’s utility up to a whole new level. You can find out more about it on the Layer Masks help page. I found in my use, the selection bogs down and is stodgy, and the cursor is hard to handle if I move off the image and over the tool palette or colour inspector while the Layer Mask is selected and a brush tool is on. I am sure these will become more refined in time.

Pixelmator Has Aperture Support in its Photo Browser

Additionally convenient if you are going to use your Aperture library as a source for your work.

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UI

In Image Is Everything, I was clear in my dislike of multiple palettes and extra interface windows and clutter. I haven’t changed at all. The programs have remained true to their pedigree as well.

My surprise is that Pixelmator, even after three years of development is as organized and uncluttered as it’s ever been. I think that’s really saying something, and I was certain that this app 3 years on would be a big crazy grab-bag of panels and palettes. I am glad the Pixelmator Team has proven me wrong. The Pixelmator tools palette is much improved with brighter icons for the Move Tool and the Gradient Tool. Pixelmator assumes that I have my dock on the bottom of my screen so it opens the Tools Palette and the Tools options panel behind the dock.

Pixelmator behind dock

Pixelmator behind dock

 

 

After I drag them to my preferred locations it remembers them fine. The UI looks calm and classy. I have decided to focus my hatred of so-called ‘HUDs’ at Apple, and not fault the Pixelmator Team for their choice to use this window style for their palettes. These stay nice and unobtrusive in practical use.

There are some very elegant improvements in the UI as well such as REAL HUD-like behaviour when using the tools with real-time position and setting read-outs, as well as undo pop-up as you hit Command +Z to unwind a series of actions.

Rotation tool showing a REAL HUD

Rotation tool showing a REAL HUD

 

 

Acorn shares this notion as well, helpfully providing actions in the display such as the opportunity to Command move a selection after a selection is made.

Acorn showing a REAL HUD

Acorn showing a REAL HUD

 

 

Interestingly, Pixelmator has not strayed from using the Mac OS X Color Panel in its default window (which has the added advantage of a screen-wide colour picker built in augmenting the normal eye-dropper tool.) The Type Tool display a manageable sub-set of controls in the Tools Options panel and hitting the Show Fonts button opens the Mac OS X standard Fonts panel.

The rulers in this app are really nice. The tool position in the rulers is highlighted with both an index marker as well as more intensity or brightness in the rule marks around it. It’s subtle but AWESOME and it’s this kind of attention to detail that I think make Mac apps great.

Pixelmator's subtle but effective ruler location display

Pixelmator's subtle but effective ruler location display

 

 

Acorn rulers not as detailed or subtle

Acorn rulers not as detailed or subtle

 

 

More detail than Acorn but unsubtle

Photoshop has more detail than Acorn but is still unsubtle

 

 

And again in the Details department, Acorn displays some thoughtful work. In Photoshop you could choose to have precise cursors for accuracy or expressive cursors that let you know which tool you had selected.

Photoshop's cursor preferences

Photoshop's cursor preferences

 

 

In Acorn, the tool cursors are thoughtfully designed to bring you the preciseness along with the visual cue for the selected tool:

Acorn's Crop cursor: informative, and detailed by default

Acorn's Crop cursor: informative, and detailed by default

 

 

Acorn stays true to its single panel concept, and is the epitome of organization. This was one of its most compelling features, and remains so to this day. The single panel has been refined, sporting new icons and a better tools options area, as well as more tools too. Acorn adopts Photoshop’s practice of grouped tools and clicking and holding an icon with a black triangle reveals extra related tools.

The unified Acorn approach

The unified Acorn approach

 

 

The Tool selection fly-out for optional tools

The Tool selection fly-out for optional tools

 

 

Minor things of note in Acorn: the Pan tool in the palette is an arrow cross while in the canvas window it’s a hand; and the Menus for selecting a tool are in the View menu still as they were in the first release (Maybe make a tools menu and put filters under tools?). The canvas window also has a zoom slider.

Acorn’s Eye-dropper tool is placed by the colour wells in the Tools Palette, and invokes a Mac OS X screen-wide colour picker. Very convenient. The Type Tool here exposes all of the functionality of the system panel in the tool options area and simply makes advanced features of the system Typography palette the extra (represented by a stylized Ampersand).

Brushes are handled neatly in both apps as well. I love that in Pixelmator you double-click on brush and it pops a brush editor sheet so you can alter the settings. Click the gear and you can load brushes, including Photoshop brushes, create new brushes from images and do just about anything you should be able to do with them.

Acorn offers a Brush Designer window (good name) and you can set up brushes with the tools as well as images. You can experiment with your brush to see its effect and then save it. You can select them in the tool options in the palette.

Acorn has a nice feature called New View which shows the same image in a separate window at a different magnification. This is great.

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Preferences

The screenshots here show the extent of preferences.

Acorn's General settings

Acorn's General settings

 

 

Acorn's Advanced preferences

Acorn's Advanced preferences

 

 

Registration for Acorn is in Preferences

Registration for Acorn is in Preferences

 

 

The optional preferences I mentioned in Image Is Everything are still there too.

Pixelmator shows four panels in its preferences.

General Preferences

General Preferences

 

 

Transparency display settings

Transparency display settings

 

 

Rulers, guides and grids

Rulers, guides and grids

 

 

Update settings

Update settings

 

 

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Pixelmator

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Layers

Both these apps sport excellent layer handling and have added Layer Groups and allow transparency (per layer and per group), blending, and locking as we expect in modern raster editors. Tool and feature widgets are positioned differently, but I found I like Pixelmator’s better overall.

Acorn Layers support groups and notice you can use blending options and opacity on the entire group as well as per layer

Acorn Layers support groups and notice you can use blending options and opacity on the entire group as well as per layer

 

 

Pixelmator Layers support groups and notice you can use blending options and opacity on the entire group as well as per layer

Pixelmator Layers support groups and notice you can use blending options and opacity on the entire group as well as per layer

 

 

Both apps also support making new layers using your iSight camera.

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Fast Image Creation

Using these apps for quick tasks is easy. They open fast and offer a variety of ways to edit or create and image.

Both these apps inherit canvas size settings from the clipboard when you hit Command+N. Also, both offer a nice variety of settings in the New/New Image dialog boxes.

New dialog with cogwheel expanded

New dialog with cogwheel expanded

 

 

Pixelmator: New dialog with presets expanded

Pixelmator: New dialog with presets expanded

 

 

Acorn: New Image dialog

Acorn: New Image dialog

 

 

Acorn: New Image dialog with Presets expanded

Acorn: New Image dialog with Presets expanded

 

 

Acorn has a wide range of options for creating images quickly. New, New From Clipboard, New from Selection all appear in the File menu. You can also make a layered image from a screenshot using Command+Shift+6. Some people will pay $25 for this kind of functionality alone.

Acorn can also make a new image from your iSight too, but Pixelmator stays with adding a layer to the current image.

Pixelmator supports importing images via the File > Import… command which invokes Mac OS X’s Image Capture app for importing images or scans from external devices.

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Rotate, Transform and Crop

These are pretty frequent operations and I am pleased to say we have come a long way from the initial take on these.

Acorn, which was so disappointingly hamstrung in my initial assessment has rectified its shortcomings. In addition to rotating layers in 90˚ increments, you can select Layer > Transform > and one of three options: Scale Transform, Free Transform and Perspective Transform. The operations work on the pixels inside a layer so if filled pixels in your layer occupy only a portion of the canvas, the filled pixels are effectively treated as a shape. The cursor could use work in indicating ability to rotate, but this effectively gives you full control over elements just as you’d expect.

Acorn now has excellent transform tools compared to its original version

Acorn now has excellent transform tools compared to its original version

 

 

Pixelmator matches this functionality and you can find the same tools two ways. Simply select the Move Tool and turn on Show Transform Controls in the Tools Option Panel. As soon as you click and begin a transform on your selection, a Transform panel will open and display a bunch of useful information. Hit Return to accept your changes. You can also access this functionality any time no matter the selected tool by pressing Command+F or selecting Edit > Transform…

Pixelmator's helpful Tool Options

Pixelmator's helpful Tool Options

 

 

Pixelmator also displays the transform panel when you're transforming

Pixelmator also displays the transform panel when you're transforming

 

 

When it comes to cropping your image both apps are flexible and offer useful features. You can crop presets in Acorn and Constraints in Pixelmator. Both tools give you a Thirds grid for compositional help. Pixelmator allows rotation, but unexpectedly rotates the picture behind the cropping frame. It works fine especially if you’re trying to get the crop to align with an element inside the image, but I expected the frame to rotate over the picture. Acorn’s Crop tool doesn’t seem to rotate at all. In both apps you can Option+Scroll-wheel to zoom in and out with the crop tool on.

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Selections

Using the difficult, noisy and glare-y bus picture from Image Is Everything, I intend to try the tools again to select the ceiling poster. Last time it was difficult, and this time I hope it will be more manageable.

Acorn sports five selection tools now and appropriate adjustments for each. There’s also a Polygon select tool as well as Freehand, Rect and Oval, and a magic wand. In my short test, I discovered the polygon select tool was by far the easiest and most effective for this particular challenge. Zooming in a modest amount and making selections in line segments proved very effective. I was able to add and subtract from the selection to adjust my corners and edges, but because Shift key acts as the angle constraint key, it was a little difficult to get my key holding and releasing correct. The Free Selection tool I find is a little baffling. It always draws a closed selection area and it took me some getting used to. Well Okay, I’m not used to it but if I concentrate I am okay with it. There doesn’t seem to be a way to save the selection.

Acorn's selection

Acorn's selection

 

 

Pixelmator’s Magic Wand tool is great. if you’re familiar with Apple Keynote’s Transparency tool, you’ll get how this goes. Click and drag to select more of the image. Magically. This is a great tool, but my sample image is far too noisy and murky to have this be totally effective. I found I could get some basic selections made quickly, but I needed to add to them with the lasso tool.

Using the Lasso Tool was pretty much as I expected and far too variable for me. I selected the Polygon mode in the Tools Option palette and was able to make a good selection as quickly as in Acorn. I like the Refine Selection tools which have been reimplemented as a panel (originally it was a sheet) and update the image with a live preview in Quick Mask view.

Pixelmator's selection

Pixelmator's selection

 

 

Pixelmator: right-click (or Control-click)

Pixelmator: right-click (or Control-click)

 

 

Pixelmator: refine the selection in a quick mask preview

Pixelmator: refine the selection in a quick mask preview

 

 

Overall these tools are much improved from before and made my test relatively easy.

I realize now that in Acorn I could have drawn a bezier path, rasterized it, and then made a selection using that layer.

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Filters

First let me say that the way filters are implemented in Photoshop drives me nuts. I understand why they are the way they are, but it’s the 21st century now and I’d be glad to see something else.

Acorn retains the stacking filter panels as I described in [Images Is Everything][]. The preview window is now always on, and you have to select Show Canvas Preview to see the changes live in your image. This is a fair compromise between speed and information. The filters remain organized as before, but some of them like Color Matrix that I showed before are gone. You can still drag to reorder the filters and each can be reset and altered.

The Acorn filter dialog with stackable and re-orderable filters on the right

The Acorn filter dialog with stackable and re-orderable filters on the right

 

 

Pixelmator’s filters work as before, and seem to offer most of the same that Acorn does. Pixelmator also offers Transition (mentioned in [Images Is Everything][]), as well as a new sub-menu called Quartz Composer which exposes some pretty powerful and whacky tools. Pixelmator’s filter panels also sport iconography that increments the slider for the finest selections. I like the fact that there is no preview window (Goodbye Photoshop!) and the effects are applied live in the image. Too bad that there is no editable filter stack like in Acorn, but the filter effects are cumulative and you can step back through them with Undo.

Sepia Tone Filter in Pixelmator, direct application

Sepia Tone Filter in Pixelmator, direct application

 

 

Pixelmator graciously turns off extra panels when using a filter so you can focus on the modifications you’re making. I think Pixelmator’s matches my work style best, but Acorn’s is truly the most flexible.

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Memory + Performance

I have already noted how quickly these apps launch and are ready for use. It’s a great improvement. Memory use is different as well and Acorn uses over 290MB with the test image opened (a slight increase over its initial test), and Pixelmator just goes big with 574MB (this is over twice what it was before). I don’t think that’s a real problem unless you’re running with minimum RAM (and if you are, stop reading this and go out and spend your savings on maxing your RAM right now. I’ll wait.) For comparison, Photoshop CS5 Extended uses 377.8MB of real memory with the test photo opened, and 374.0MB without.

Pixelmator no longer shows the rendering and drawing artifacts from before, and feels snappier overall, with some delay in the more complex filters. Acorn still took a while to process selection from the Magic Wand tool but it too feels peppier overall.

I should note that I have read that a lot of people who have been working with more complex art, or using these apps for designing full web page layouts and UIs, still experience general soupiness when the files become multilayered and complex. I regret that I haven’t been able to dig deep enough to experience the same.

Here is a revised table with new information about the file sizes and save times.

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

File Type Acorn Pixelmator
(original JPEG†) (3.4 MB) (3.4 MB)
Acorn 22.8MB, 2.5 s [16.7MB, 9 s] n/a
BMP 28.3MB, 2 s [20.3 MB, 3 s] 28.3MB, 1.25 s [27 MB, 20 s]
GIF 3.1MB, 2 s [1.9 MB, 5 s] 3.2MB, 5 s (1) ††† [Killed Pixelmator(2)]
JPEG* 6.2MB, 1 s [6.5 MB, 2 s] 6.2, less than 1 s [6 MB, 22 s]
JPEG 2000* 7.3MB, 2 s 885KB, 1.75 s
FXG†† 4KB, 1.5 s n/a
PSD n/a 56.6MB, 1 s
PDF-X** 3.4MB, less than 1 s [18.8 MB, 5 s] 5.8MB, 3 s [20.5 MB, 39 s(3)]
PNG 12.3MB ,2.5 s [10.4 MB, 10 s] 12.3MB, 1 s [10.3 MB, 40s]
PXM (Pixelmator) n/a 38.4MB, 3 s [27.2 MB, 5 s]
TIFF*** 13.4MB, 1 s [27 MB, 2 s] 21.2MB, 1 s [27 MB, 25 s]
Microsoft Icon My test image is too large for ICO file type n/a
†All images saved from original JPEG opened in respective app. The original photo is from Image Is Everything, but on this HDD the file size reports larger than before.
*Highest quality setting chosen
**PDF-X from Actions > PDF Workflow menu in Acorn, or Print > PDF > PDF-X in Pixelmator
***No compression
††FXG is Adobe Flash Platform Interchange Format. The 4KB file didn’t crash Flash Professional CS5 or Flash Catalyst CS5 when I opened it. It also didn’t load the image.
†††There was a delay as GIF settings were applied in the Export for Web panel and then the Save dialog box opened. Then it was 5 seconds.
(1) Did File > Export for Web… and saved as GIF.

It’s worth noting that Pixelmator will do a File > Export… of a PDF version 1.5 (Acrobat 5) the file is 17MB and took about 1 second. It also has File > Export for Web… which is great because you can make the entire image be the preview (No preview windows! Suck it Adobe!) which turns off the palettes and panels as you work. Nice.

Acorn’s Web Export, opens a new window and then proceeds to process your image according to the last settings. This can take a while switching between Preview and Original took a couple of seconds the first time around.

The improvements in saving files are excellent and welcome. Pixelmator displayed a progress bar as a sheet when writing its PXM file, but not the GIF.

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Scripting + Plug-ins

Acorn continues to offer the most flexible architecture for extending its features. Anybody who is programatically inclined will find a method of extending the app. In addition to the AppleScript Editor you can use Automator to build scripts and actions as well. You can also use JSTalk to create macros. And then you can get heavy, and write your own plug-ins using Objective-C or Python.

Pixelmator sticks with its automation through Automator approach, and its set of actions cover adding effects, changing file types, altering images, and more.

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Tonight’s Verdict

With all the changes, it’s actually harder to choose one over the other now. I found that my ticket on the palette hate train hasn’t expired, but Pixelmator has managed to keep window craziness under tight control. I still love Acorn’s single palette approach but it irritated me with the Filter window, and its sometimes stodgy response time while using brushes and layer masks. I am going to give the nod to Pixelmator tonight, based on how comfortable I feel using it and its live in-image filters and Export for Web functionality.

These apps continue to improve and while they still don’t purport to be Photoshop killers (and we don’t need any “There can be only one” thinking here), they are certainly viable alternatives, and truly useful and innovative tools.

You can’t go wrong if you choose either of these, and both developers offer the app on a trial basis so you can see which fits your brain better.

I’d like to thank these developers for investing so much time and energy into these tools. Their modest cost, rich feature set, and most importantly original thinking in the UIs and Interactions continue to move RGEs forward. It would be nice if Adobe would pay the same care and attention to its flagship product. And who knows, maybe they’ll study these.

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Notes

I didn’t include DrawIt in this, because its focus has changed from being a general purpose editor, to a specialized drawing tool more like Opacity. The list of editors that I’m not comparing is long, and many favourites like GIMP, Fireworks and others aren’t compared here as I am interested in focusing general purpose apps that are exclusively Mac OS X.

Also since last review, I moved from my beautiful Powerbook G4 17, to a gorgeous iMac Core Duo 2 20 with 4GB of RAM. I’m usually running a handful of apps when I’m doing this work to keep it realistic:

  • Terminal
  • Mail
  • iChat
  • BusyCal
  • iTunes
  • Safari 5
  • Address Book
  • Yojimbo
  • Pages
  • Keynote
  • Acrobat Pro 9
  • Illustrator CS5
  • Photoshop CS5
  • Fontcase
  • xScope
  • Coda

Raster Graphic Editors

There are a lot of tools for editing & handling images (raster graphics). Some of the tools are cross platform and some will run on a Mac in a VM or under X11 if you want to go there. It’s useful to see what tools are designed to do and where they might relate or be radically different from one another.

Raster Graphic Editors

I plotted the editors I could find according to use-case (the four quadrants) and the generality of the app’s capabilities (centre is more general, and edge is more specific).

I’m focused on the ones in the centre where their capabilities span all the quadrants even if their strengths are focused in just one or two.

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Thanks for reading.

Also thanks to my friends Erik Stainsby and Adrian Nier for their careful proof-reading. The lesson is obvious: make sure you guys see it before I press “Publish”

00:30h 5 Oct: I made some changes for clarity, and I also re-shot a lot of the screen grabs to improve their look.


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