Miscellaneous Ramblings

Miscellaneous Ramblings Review

Pixelmator 1.1.3: A Serious Challenger to Photoshop Elements?

Charles Moore - 2008.03.10 - Tip Jar

Rating: 3 out of 4

Graphics have always been an important element of the Macintosh world, almost to the point of cliché at times, but it's arguably never been better for graphics on the Mac platform than it is now, especially in low to medium priced bitmap and photo editing applications.

There is also, of course, Adobe's iconic and astronomically expensive Photoshop CS3 (currently $620 from Amazon.com), the reference by which all other graphics programs are judged, most often with "it's not Photoshop, but..." However, it's pretty hard to justify paying the stiff cost of admission into the Photoshop CS club unless you're a computer graphics professional or a company that needs and can use the application's awesome power and deep feature set, especially when there are now so many excellent bitmap graphics programs that sell for a fraction of Photoshop CS's price - including Adobe's own Photoshop Elements (PSE 6 for Mac currently sells at $83 on Amazon.com).

Last year two very interesting new ones were added to the roster, Acorn and Pixelmator, selling for $39.95 and $59.95 respectively. I checked Acorn for a review last fall [see Charles Moore Reviews Acorn 1.0.2 Bitmap Image Editor on Applelinks] and found it good, probably worth the money for users who want a basic bitmap application, but it didn't really grab me as a replacement for Photoshop Elements.

Pixelmator is another story.

I've been following Pixelmator's development since I first downloaded it last summer, and I've found it to be both the most visually arresting graphics program I've ever encountered in terms of user interface aesthetics and also very capable and likable in a functional sense. The developers say their target is to make Pixelmator a Photoshop challenger - and that isn't just hype (if they're talking Elements rather than CS).


And speaking of Photoshop Elements, the bar is about to be raised substantially with the imminent release of Elements 6 for the Mac. Adobe has kindly supplied me with a prerelease beta copy of Elements 6, and what was already the class of the field in affordable bitmap programs for the Mac is now even more powerful, polished, attractive, and impressive, but Pixelmator (version 1.1.3 of which was released last week) is coming on strong as well.

Welcome to Pixelmator

In comparing the two programs, it's impossible not to infer that Adobe seems to have taken serious notice of Pixelmator, since Photoshop Elements 6's revised interface appearance, which had been generally ho-hum and bland in previous versions, has received a radical facelift and now sports a charcoal background theme, which obviously has a flattering resemblance to Pixelmator's stunningly gorgeous obsidian black interface theme. Pixelmator is still better looking, in my estimation, but Elements 6's more subdued charcoal is arguably more functionally practical.

Photoshop Elements 6 for Mac
Photoshop Elements 6 for Mac

Anyway, I find myself more and more likely to choose Pixelmator for graphics editing chores, partly because it starts up quickly - a very respectable 13 seconds on my 1.33 GHz G4 PowerBook (Photoshop Elements - go make a coffee - well actually about 40 seconds), a distinction that looms larger when you're using older, slower hardware like I am, but also because once it's up and running, I can usually accomplish what I need to do quickly and efficiently using Pixelmator's powerful tool inventory, which I like more and more as I become increasingly familiar with it.

Make no mistake, this is one serious and very good graphics application for $59.95.


On the other hand, Photoshop Elements still has a substantial edge in power, features, user-friendliness, and especially automation (although to be fair, Pixelmator does support Auto Levels, Auto Color, Auto Contrast, and even uses a Channel Mixer) as well as in speed for many functions once you get past the sluggish start up, and it remains a stupendous bargain at $89.95, but Pixelmator sells for $30 less.

Pixelmator is a Core Image-based image editing program for OS X that is being promoted as an "image editor for the rest of us." Written by UK-based developers Saulius and Aidas Dailide, the application is touted as having "everything you need to create, edit and enhance your images." Pixelmator supports layers and a variety of effects.


Pixelmator is a visual tour-de-force. Stunning, really. The document windows are bordered in black, with translucent black backgrounds for the various tool palettes. How ideal this is in practical terms is another matter. It's pretty, but also more than a bit distracting, and I've found myself squinting to distinguish some of the tool selections, whose rendering is more than a bit murky in some instances, and I found myself easily losing track of the cursor position, while other open stuff on your Desktop showing through gets old quickly as well. Also, with my current favorite Leopard desktop picture, which happens to have a lot of black area, the Pixelmator toolbar just sort of blends in and disappears - like the Cheshire cat.

I don't want to disparage the look. It's interesting and distinctive, and the developers have hinted that there is a cool new feature coming that will be related to window transparency. However, as I said, Elements' more subdued theme is more practical.


My main uses for bitmap graphics software are general resizing and file type changing, straightforward editing and retouching (for example, removing unwanted elements like text blurbs), and, most importantly, photo editing: correcting, enhancing, and retouching of images taken with my digital camera or scanned from photographic prints, negatives, and transparencies.

PixelmatorIn Pixelmator, I immediately missed Elements' superb and comprehensive photo correction tool set, which has been further enhanced in version 6 - most particularly the Auto Smart Fix command and the Adjust Lighting and Adjust Color submenu selections, as well as the Spot Healing Brush, none of which are available in Pixelmator.

There is a masks palette that allows you to save your selections for later, and the View menu is nicely conceived to allow you to quickly open or hide just the tools and effects palettes from among the 10 available that you need to work with at the time. Pixelmator also has "dozens" of modal color adjustment and filter palettes that appear only when you choose the corresponding command from the menu bar. Mouseover tool tips are supported.

Pixelmator's sophisticated layers support allows you to blend layers, change their opacity, create clipping masks, or add layer masks to hide some portions of layer.

The Selection tool is quite sophisticated, allowing you to refine selections, to soften edges or create borders. You can add text to your images in Pixelmator using type layers, which are editable and even support OS X's built-in spellchecker. I found the Pixelmator Brushes palette more convenient than Elements' pulldown menu.

There are distortion, blur, sharpen, color, stylize, halftone, tile, generator, and transition filters, and you can save in PSD, TIFF, JPEG, PNG, PDF, and EPS, as well as can open and save Photoshop files with layers supported.

Photo BrowserA particularly nice touch is close integration with iPhoto. The Photo Browser palette provides quick access to your iPhoto Library - events, albums, Smart Albums, and pictures in your Pictures folder - via a handy pulldown menu, and you can drag-and-drop images using the thumbnails in the Browser as layers in Pixelmator compositions (slick!).

A Mac-only application, Pixelmator also integrates with Mac OS X Core Image, Open GL, Automator, ColorSync, and Spotlight, and you can use the Backup tab in the Preferences to back up your Pixelmator preferences, swatches, and brushes to .mac.

Actually, Pixelmator is designed from the get-go to take advantage of OS X's Core Image technology that taps the processing power of your Mac's video card to speed image processing - an effect that will be especially noticeable if you have a powerful GPU and lots of VRAM.

Pixelmator is the first image editor to bring Quartz Composer compositions to image editing. Every version of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard comes with a free Quartz Composer application that can be used to create almost any possible filter for use with Pixelmator and any other application that supports Quartz Composer compositions.

Pixelmator also lets you take pictures with an iSight camera on your Mac and add them as layers to your composition. It also supports graphics tablets.

Pixelmator even has a few features that outdo PSE. I especially like the convenient "Exposure" slider tool that lets you alter image "exposure" values in real time very slickly; it's nicer to use than the equivalent tools in Elements.

The "Levels" palette also works very well.

Unfortunately, while some of the tool and filter application waiting sluggishness has been improved incrementally with the successive version releases, it's still mighty slow, especially functions like resizing images. You also still can't opt to open a new image from the Clipboard, and if there is a way to adjust the setting for new image default size (640 x 480), it has thus far eluded me. Indeed, the Preferences options are sparse to the point of extreme minimalism.

Yet another shortcoming is that if there is a way to clone-drag a selection in Pixelmator, which is a very useful retouching function supported by both Photoshop Elements and even the ancient Color It! [see Charles Moore Reviews Color It! 4.5 For Mac OS X on Applelinks], I've been unsuccessful in discovering it. The Clone Stamp tool is something of a substitute for this, but not a totally satisfactory one.

The Pixelmator team released Pixelmator 1.1.3 last week, featuring a raft of enhancements, refinements, and bug fixes which you can read in the Appendix to this review.

Pixelmator's new built-in Quick Look plugin makes it possible to view almost any of more than 100 image file formats supported by Pixelmator without having to launch the application itself. The Pixelmator's Quick Look plugin is a significant enhancement not only for Pixelmator, but also for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, because there are some exotic file formats supported by Pixelmator's Quick Look plugin that were not previously supported by Mac OS X.

Read the review of Pixelmator 1.2.

System Requirements

  • Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger or later
  • Core Image supported graphics card (recommended)
  • Some features require iLife.

System support: PPC/Intel

$59 demoware

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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