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Pixelmator

You don’t need to be a photo nerd to know that Photoshop is the undisputed king of image editing. But Photoshop is also very expensive so unless you can use the program to make money, the £643 price tag can be difficult to justify.

While iPhoto is a good alternative, it’s a little lacking when it comes to advanced image editing features. That’s why many photographers have opted for Pixelmator and it’s £29 price tag. Now, with the release of version 1.6, code named Nucleus, this full featured image editor wrapped in a Photoshop-like interface is even more appealing.

After 20 years, Photoshop’s interface has been refined into a very intuitive, for the most part, and workable tools. Pixelmator doesn’t shy away from following many of Adobe’s design ideas. One the left you’ll find a very Photoshop-like toolbox, complete with foreground/background colour pickers and buttons for a quick mash mode. Pixelmator’s toolbox does Photoshop one better, with cool animated icons. This is just one example of the overall professional and cutting edge look that Pixelmator sports.

Pixelmator is document-based, meaning you open documents in individual windows rather than in a self-contained environment like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, iPhoto or Aperture. Like Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, this allows you to work flexibly and arrange your documents and tools however you like.

Pixelmator has a very well developed toolset that includes most of the things you’d expect to find in a modern image editor. Brushes, selection tools, rubber stamp, sharpen/blur, text and more are all available and work just like you’d expect them to. An array of floating palettes give you access to layers, colour swatches, masks, brushes, and a few other odds and ends.

There aren’t any revolutionary tools in Pixelmator, just a good workhorse selection for most of the everyday images editing tasks. For selections, your fanciest tool is the magic wand, while retouching doesn’t go beyond the clone stamp tool.

The tools themselves are smartly implemented and responsive. Pixelmator supports pressure-sensitive tablets for your brush tools so fine retouching and painting is not problem.

One of the greatest features in this release off Pixelmator is speed. pixelmator 1.6 has 64-bit support and make heavy use of the Mac graphics processor. This shows in the program’s great speed and general zippiness. From it’s tow second launch time to its real-time previews of full screen filters, Pixelmator is a screamer, and this pays off when you’re trying to execute a complex edit or effect.

An incredibly useful and simple feature is the Send To menu. Here you can instantly include one image in an email, export it to iPhoto, or upload it to Flickr, Facebook, or Picasa. Pixelmator also ingrates with OS X’s Image Capture program for quicker importing from attached cameras, memory cards or scanners.

For compositing in Pixelmator, you’ve got a Layers palette complete with layer masks and transfer modes, while the Masks palette lets you save any selections that you’ve made.

Pixelmator includes a fairly large suite of effects features. Unlike Photoshop filters don’t preset themselves in a dialog box. Instead, their controls appear in a small floating palette, and the effects are applied real-time to your image window. This is a great way to work, and another perk of Pixelmator’s GPU underpinnings.

The filter selection is very good, with sharpening, distortions, some pseudo-natural-media effects, transition effects (for creating page turns and the like), and more.

It’s silly to compare Pixelmator to Photoshop’s feature set. Simply put, if you want high-end fetters you have to pay high-end prices. That said, there are some things that Pixelmator could really use.

While the Photo Browser palette gives you access to all the images in your iPhoto library, there’s no file browser in Pixelmator, so you won’t have an easy way to browse thumbnails of images outside of iPhoto.

The toolset is good, but it lacks dodge and burn tools, and the program offers no red eye fix of any kind.

The program packs a full assortment of global editing tools. Levels, Curves, Brightness and Contrast, Hue/Saturation, Colour Balance and Replace Colour are all provided, and each present an excellent interface. However, there’s now way to apply these edits non-destructively. You can duplicate your image layer, apply the effect to that and use the masks to selectively apply the effect, but if your edits get to complicated, this technique becomes cumbersome.

Pixelmator can open raw files via Mac OS X’s built in raw engine. So if you can preview a raw file in QuickLook it will open in Pixelmator. However, you get no parameters for controlling the raw conversion. This is a place Photoshop Elements scores over Pixelmator.

Finally, with the Magic Wand tool as your most sophisticated selection tool, you’ll be hard pressed to do much in the way of sophisticated masking and compositing. Hair and other fine details will be difficult, if not impossible to mask well.

Pixelmator has a tremendous amount of charm both for its well-defined feature set, beautiful interface , fantastically fast performance, and low price.

Pixelmator is available exclusively in the Mac App Store.

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Reviewed by Matt on 01 February 2011

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