Pixelmator 3.1 Marble (Mac App Store link) is the latest iteration of an image editing app that's often viewed as the hobbyist alternative to Adobe Photoshop. – but is it now good enough for creative pros who don't want or need the Creative Cloud?
Much attention has been focused on Pixelmator as enthusiasts seek to escape the confines of Photoshop CC subscriptions. Recently, Apple featured Pixelmator as part of its performance demos of the new Mac Pro, so it's no accident that the company has now released a fresh update of the program roughly in tandem with Apple's new flagship desktop Mac. That said, version 3.1 comes very close on the heels of Pixelmator 3.0 FX, whose new features are included in this review.
Pixelmator shares some basic features in common with Photoshop. As a full-service image editor, it has an extensive, Photoshop-like toolbar that offers a slate of traditional, recognizable controls that most photographers need for editing, compositing, and enhancing images, as well as for drawing and painting. The program also offers a wide range of special effects in categories such as Blur, Distortion, Sharpen, Color Adjustments, Tile, Stylize, Halftone, Generator, and more.
Layer styles, liquify tools, and a new image-editing engine highlighted the new features introduced in October 2013's Pixelmator 3.0 FX version, which was tailored to the release of Apple's Mavericks OS. It made creating polished compositions with non-destructive editing tools an easy and smooth experience.
With its enhanced, multiple-display support, Pixelmator offers even more flexibility to open window palettes wherever you want to, and on any display you choose.
The new Liquify tool lets you twist parts of an image, add whimsical artistic detail, or distort images in whole or part with the Warp, Bump, Pinch, and Twirl commands. Click or drag to enlarge, pinch, squeeze, or stretch parts of your images for a grotesque look or to create and enhance unusual details. I found these tools to be fluid with excellent performance, even on an old Mac Pro, as well as on a newer iMac and a MacBook Air. The program's support for both iPhoto and Aperture in accessing libraries, events, and albums within its browser palette is an added convenience.
Pixelmator offers a slate of useful consumer features that Photoshop added over time, such as the healing tool and red eye removal. It even has a full complement of vector tools, which work well, though their capabilities are restricted.
With version 3.1, Pixelmator adds 16-bit performance, which means that you can open and edit high bit-depth files in this version of the program – but saving and converting to 16-bit is reserved for the Mac Pro.
Another new feature introduced in version 3.1 is printed cards, posters, gallery frames, and postcards from the vendor MILK Print on Demand. The ordering process is very easy with step-by-step instructions.
Overall, I found the program smooth and stable and operated as I expected in most instances on a series of Macs that most users would own. The layers palette provided the flexibility to experiment non-destructively with multiple effects and edits simultaneously. The challenges I encountered were related to the program's interface and the effect it has on general usability.
Despite Pixelmator's many fine qualities, there are still challenges in operating the program and interface features that could stand some improvement.
Pixelmator has torn a page from its Adobe counterparts with a dark – in this case stark black – background. Some people like this, but I find it a bit much. It's hard to read tiny type of any kind, and even harder if that type is white on a black background. Adobe offers some limited color scheme choices; Pixelmator should do the same. That said, the colorful, consumer-friendly toolbar icons are a relief compared with the monochromatic beveled look of iPhoto and Photoshop.
For years, Adobe has offered a choice in how to group Photoshop panels together and Pixelmator's independent palettes may well appeal to some users. But for Mac artists who finally reconciled with the all-in-one application frame, reverting back to mandatory independent windows may be an unpleasant adjustment. Then too, Pixelmator's floating palettes are not dockable, which tends to open up even more chaos on your desktop.
The fact that there's no tabbed interface in the main window makes it harder to switch between separate images for compositing. Details like the program's inability to lock a layer can result in some frustrating keyboard-mouse acrobatics.
And while there can be no complaints about 16-bit capability--users have been clamoring for this feature--it seems silly not to have extended that capability to all Macs capable of handling it, as opposed to limiting the coveted feature to the Mac Pro. Pixelmator says it is working to implement 16-bit support for other Mac models for the future.
Photo editing enthusiasts who seek to replace Photoshop with Pixelmator have to accept Pixelmator on its own terms. It's an advanced consumer app that, with version 3.1, gains additional flexibility and features for both consumers and prosumers.
Despite that certain Pixelmator features are reminiscent of those found in Photoshop, Pixelmator is not Photoshop, and it does not pretend to be. However, it will likely please many photography enthusiasts who do not have to work in CMYK or other color spaces or modes, and who don't need video capability or sophisticated Photoshop-style non-destructive adjustment layers. Moreover, photo pros who must collaborate in groups or work in standardized environments still need Photoshop, but most hobbyists probably do not.
Pixelmator 3.1 is a fine upgrade, on top of a recent major upgrade, so if you're running an earlier version of Pixelmator, it's advantageous to install the new version now. If you're running Mavericks or working on a Mac Pro, you'll get a special speed advantage, but most new features in versions 3.0 and 3.1 will benefit all users.