Last week, after Adobe announced its move to a subscription-based cloud plan, our own Kelly Hodgkins asked me to look at software alternatives for some Creative Suite apps.
We know that none of these apps provide a full replacement for Photoshop or Illustrator. What she asked me to do was to spend time, hands on, to get a sense of what kind of options were out there.
For Photoshop, I looked primarily at Pixelmator (US$14.99 "sale" price, but it's been on "sale" since November 2012) and Acorn 4 ($29.99), with a glance at the donationware GNU Image Manipulation Program, GIMP.
I quickly discovered that GIMP is not in the same class as Pixelmator or Acorn. Both Pixelmator and Acorn have seriously targeted ex-Photoshop users, creating tool suites intended to seduce that audience. GIMP just isn't competitive in that way.
You can tell this in the key equivalents added to both Pixelmator and Acorn -- they responded properly to many of the Photoshop-standard text shortcuts I tried such as G for gradient, M for marquee selection and W for the magic wand. On the whole, Acorn seemed to support more shortcuts -- such as 0 through 9 for transparency and Command-Shift-I to invert the selection, but both apps have the sense of Photoshop users in their DNA.
In terms of general interface design, Acorn stood out. I found its toolbar easiest to understand and its adherence to Photoshop norms the strictest. It also achieves the most OS X-like look and feel. Both apps got OS X, in elevating interaction beyond Adobe's prosaic implementation. But Acorn's fine details are palpably superior.
Both GUIs were polished and stylish, although I wish both apps would offer bigger font choices for older and visually impaired users. Acorn's visuals were generally larger except for teeny tiny font choices in palettes. I found the Acorn toolbar much easier for recognition tasks.
In power, however, I lean towards Pixelmator. Although both tools have recently undergone major upgrades, I found the Pixelmator toolset more extensive than Acorn's. There were almost always extra options on the Pixelmator side that I did not find (or, at least, not easily find) on the Acorn side.
I rely on community support for my photo-editing needs. Whenever I need to figure out how to do anything in Photoshop, I turn to Google and the thousands upon thousands of how-to articles and videos found there. During my testing, I set myself common tasks like building buttons or blurring backgrounds in Acorn and Pixelmator, and quickly found myself searching for how-to answers on the web.
While both developers have provided superb how-to support pages on their sites, Pixelmator offers a far larger existing support community. To give a sense of that, the Google results for "glossy button in Pixelmator" include videos and how-to articles from a variety of sites and vendors. The first three include a link to pxm-tuts.com, a Pixelmator support page, and ehow.com.
Compare that with the results for "glossy button in Acorn." These start off with a Flying Meat support page, followed by a bunch of acorn-shaped vector links, finishing with tutorials for Photoshop, Illustrator and GIMP.
If you're looking for a knowledge-base of solutions that you can use today, Pixelmator has the edge.
On the whole, I was terrifically impressed by both apps. While I generally preferred Acorn's look and feel, Pixelmator's feature set and passionate userbase should not be overlooked.