Pixelmator Review – Cheap Photoshop Alternative for Mac

When I’m not pounding the keys for MacRevu, I’m a broadcast designer/animator and my primary tool is Adobe Photoshop. Not only is it one of the best design tools ever made, but it’s incredibly deep roster of high-end features means there’s practically nothing it can’t tackle. On the downside however, it’s complex, expensive, and probably overkill for many kinds of tasks.

Pixelmator is a relatively new image editor that delivers many of the core features of Photoshop in an easy to use application that is a virtual steal at $59. It also includes some thoughtful touches that even the mighty Photoshop doesn’t offer. It’s an impressive application that both beginners and professionals can use and enjoy.
If you’ve ever touched Photoshop, you’ll be right at home in Pixelmator. In fact, the general layout of the menus and options are nearly identical and better yet, many Photoshop keyboard commands are here too. Choosing tools, swapping colors, generating fills, changing blend modes all use the same keyboard shortcuts. Most of your basic Photoshop tools are present on the toolbar as well, along with the familiar foreground/background color swatches & the quick mask mode. In the layers pallette you have blend modes, layer masks, linking & individual opacity controls. Pixelmator also comes with a nice selection of image filters ranging from basic blurs and distortions to some very nice special effects. There are custom brushes too, although unlike Photoshop you can’t save them once they’re created. There are also Photoshop-like tools for photographers including levels, color curves, exposure, color balance and many more There are even user defined guides and grids, and when you’re finished it also exports to a wide variety of formats including PSD, TIFF, Targa, SGI, GIF, JPEG, PNG, PDF and many more.

Pixelmator vs Photoshop

So what’s missing? When compared with Photoshop, quite a bit honestly. Most noticeable to me was the lack of layer styles, a channels palette (alpha is generated on save or export automagically), paths, recordable actions and custom shapes. There also also no vector tools, or customized workspaces. Color management is very simple and there isn’t an equivalent for ImageReady or Adobe Bridge. Still, It’s hard if not impossible to blame Pixelmator for these omissions however. Nobody should expect a $59 program to replicate all the functionality of a $1000 piece of software.

That being said, Pixelmator has some tools and features I truly wish Photoshop had. One of my favorite things is an on-screen notification feature which tells you when the program has executed a basic command like “deselect” or “undo” or “merging layers”. It’s incredibly useful, especially when you’re moving fast. The gradient tool will also show you your gradient in real-time before you commit to it, an honest improvement over Photoshop’s “drag and pray” implementation. I also love the dark charcoal interface which is easy on the eyes and very elegant. Pixelmator can also displays images from iPhoto in their own image browser where they can be instantly selected and opened.

You can capture still frames from the Mac’s built-in web camera and can use a graphics tablet for more precise drawing and painting. Pixelmator also has a very unusual interface for its filters. Once summoned, the control panel for a filter is attached to the image by, for lack of a better word, a rope. The point with the rope attaches to the image becomes the center of the effect. It’s a little odd at first, but while it feels a bit gimmicky, I do like that you see and can modify the effect’s centerpoint and I appreciate the attempt to bring something unique to the table.

In short, Pixelmator is a great program. It’s not a $59 replacement for Photoshop, but it is a design tool that offers a great many of Photoshop’s core features at only a fraction of the cost. I can’t think of another program in this price range that offers this much real design power to photographers and artists. Pixelmator is $59 and requires OS X 10.5. A free demo is available as well as a PDF user’s guide. It’s well worth a test-drive.