The Good: Great interface, good range of tools, stable, 16-bit editing, fast, price, vector tools.

The Bad: Vector tools are limited. No PS plugins, limited preferences.

The Bottom Line: A top quality image editor at a remarkably affordable price.


It is undeniably the case that Photoshop is a defining application in modern computing. To describe it simply as a photo editor does not fully encapsulate the far-reaching influence Adobe’s software has had on graphic design, photography, digital illustration, and the apps which cater for these creative disciplines.

But today, when swift edits are the name of the game, history counts for nothing. For this reason, many lightweight editors have sprung up in recent years, aiming to capture the audience that is put off by even Photoshop Elements’ needless complications and unhelpful quirks. One such alternative offering is Pixelmator (£20.99/$29.99), an app that has gained acclaim in some reviews. But what is the LTT verdict? Read on to find out…

Interface

For an app like Pixelmator, there is a difficult line to tread when it comes to usability. Of course, simplicity is vital — it is the primary reason why an app buyer would avoid the standard Adobe route — but a Photoshop-style layout is what users have come to expect.

Pixelmator's interface is clean and clear
Pixelmator’s interface is clean and clear

I think Pixelmator walks this precarious line quite deftly. By default, its tool palettes and windows float above your desktop, instantly providing a lighter feel than Photoshop’s overwhelming visual environment. However, there’s a vertical menu of tools, a list of layers and an effects menu. It is all very familiar, but the starting point is to hide things that aren’t being used, and allow them to be summoned via the top-bar menus, rather than automatically cluttering your view.

The other main impression I get from this interface is an emphasis on user-friendliness. Atop the dark-as-night background, the icons are pictorial, while the previews of effects are animated, and visually self-explanatory. It isn’t the most on-trend look, but it works, and that must be commended.

Toolkit

First, something to note. I approach this review, primarily, with the mindset of a photographer and a web designer. The reason I raise this is because each person’s intended use for Pixelmator heavily influences the judgement of the tools on offer.

The Effects panel makes for easy navigation.
The Effects panel makes for easy navigation.

The Effects panel, for instance, is filled with filters that can tease, tweak and twist a photo into whatever style you desire. The range includes basics, such as various forms of Blur, Sharpen, Distort and Colour Adjustments, right through to the plain wacky. The most interesting thing, though, is that this panel is the hub of the app — no standard adjustment offered by Pixelmator can be found in the menu bar. It means that there are a lot of options crammed into this area, but their organisation into sections (along with the drop-down navigation menu provided) makes finding the desired effect relatively easy.

Most things that a photographer — or former PS Elements user — might want can be found here, including the likes of Curves, colour-specific levels, and Transform. On the design front, there is a specialist splicing tool, which genuinely expedites the image-chopping process by making areas selectable with a click. Even a small batch of vector tools is provided; the likes of Bezier and Line are limited in their abilities, but they are surely a welcome addition to the workflow of most designers.

It's very nice to see vector tools in a bitmap editor.
It’s very nice to see vector tools in a bitmap editor.

Without going through each and every one of these tools in detail, it suffices to say that they all operate in a fairly industry-standard way, and I have encountered no usability issues with any of them. It’s also worth pointing out that these are non-destructive adjustments, and it is possible to edit in full 16-bit colour depth, too.

Customisation

If you’ve ever used Pixelmator’s rivals, you may have seen the sprawling preferences to be found in many of these apps. It provides control, no doubt, but it is also bewildering. Once again, Pixelmator seems to find a steady balance on the narrow line between customisation and complication.

There are only three parts to the preferences area, but they cover the essentials. There is the General settings panel — whether to show labels and tooltips, what the default blank document background should be, etc. — and under the Rulers tab, the colours, sizes and behaviours of grids and guides can be altered.

Far more interesting, though, is the Tools panel. This allows you to rearrange the tools in the floating main tool palette into whichever order best suits your editing needs. This is simply a case of drag and drop, and I think it is a tremendous idea that has been executed perfectly.

The only other thing to bear in mind here is that you can’t use PS plugins with Pixelmator. For many folks, this won’t be a problem, but it does rule out any significant extensibility.

Verdict

Let me get to the important part of this verdict straight away — Pixelmator is every bit as polished as anything Adobe offers. In fact, I would say it is better in the usability department.

That matters, because every image editor at this modest price point will come with limitations. Assuming such apps are equal in terms of their build quality, it is then just a matter of deciding which limitations you can bear.

In the case of Pixelmator, the limitations are the modest array of preferences, the restricted vector tools, and the inability to use Photoshop plugins. Set against that, however, is the useful Splice tool, Curves and the 16-bit non-destructive editing. And the fact that a bitmap editor has vector tools at all. For my needs, that whole equation probably tips the scale in favour of Pixelmator.

However, given the very individual editing requirements of every Mac owner, the fundamental point to take away is that Pixelmator is a top quality app at a remarkably affordable price. Impressed.

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