OS X has long been labeled the platform for “creatives,” though in recent years it’s finally becoming known for more than that. Adobe’s Creative Suite is generally regarded as the crown-jewel of digital design, and they’re priced to match.
So what if you’re a cash-strapped creative who wants to find some alternatives to Adobe’s popular suite of applications? Here’s a look at several great options that run at a mere fraction of the cost of a Creative Suite package.
Before we begin, we should identify the core applications of the Adobe Creative Suite.
- InDesign – Page and print layout
- Photoshop – Image retouching and alterations
- Illustrator – Vector graphics
- Dreamweaver – Web development editor
- Fireworks – Graphics drawing and web optimization
- Flash – Animated and programmable graphics
- Premiere – Video editing and creation
- After Effects – Motion graphics and modeling
First, the bad news. Adobe Flash is unique and proprietary enough in nature that in my hunt, no Mac alternatives were found. (Microsoft’s Silverlight may be an option, but then again, it’s an entirely different beast.) So I’m sorry to say, this post can’t help if you’ve been looking for a way to skirt the world of Adobe’s Flash editor. Also, for our purposes here, I’ve lumped Photoshop and Fireworks together, as the alternatives generally blur the lines between the two offerings.
I’m more of the Photoshop persuasion, so I’ll begin with viable alternatives for that application.
With a minimalist interface, Acorn handles (as far as I can tell) all of the core functionality that Photoshop provides. Of course, if you’re a regular PS user, you’ll likely run into some limitations. But at only $49 it’s definitely a cheap alternative. (And if you were one of the nearly 90,000 — at the time of this writing — that took part in the Macheist bundle, you snagged it for only $39.)
If you’re looking for a straight-up Mac-like user interface and experience, Pixelmator is the one for you. Shiny and beautiful, it too is a full-featured alternative to Photoshop, who’s layout is very similar too. Again, there are probably some short-comings for Photoshop users, but as I’ve used Pixelmator for a while, they seem to be holding their own quite well. $59 will get you a gorgeous Photoshop alternative.
Standing for Gnu Image Manipulation Program, GIMP is a longtime offering that originated on Linux. It’s been ported to OS X, and runs wonderfully. The interface is different enough from Photoshop that it may take a bit of getting used to if you’re well-versed in the latter, but it’s still quite powerful and feature rich. Best of all, GIMP is free!
Vector based art is wicked cool, and those who are good with the tools can create incredible work with Adobe Illustrator. Happily, there are several options which are much more feasible from a cost perspective.
- Intaglio by Purgatory Design
I haven’t used Intaglio, but the feature list looks impressive. The user interface appears to be on par with our high Mac standards as well. Priced at $89, it may seem a bit steep, but there’s a free trial to try before you buy.
- DrawIt by Bohemian Coding
This is the first I heard about DrawIt, and I’m really impressed. Very full-featured, and a lovely UI to boot. And at only $38, this app looks to be a real steal if you’re looking to get into Vector graphics.
- Vector Designer by Tweakersoft
I’ve used Vector Designer for a while now, and like it a lot. It’s got a very familiar interface, integrating the OS X media browser and iSight camera as well. At $69.95 it’s not the cheapest, but a great tool with a free trial.
- Lineform by Freeverse
The Freeverse folks put out some great software, and Lineform is no departure from that tradition. I love Lineform. It’s simple yet powerful at the same time…much like yours truly… Anyway. It’s typically $79.95, but for a limited time only, use lineform30 at checkout and get it for only $49.95!
An open-source project, Inkscape can hang with the rest. It is a Unix-based application, so it will require X11 to run in the Mac environment. That’s not a deal breaker, but it’s also not a typically fun to use interface, if you’re into that sort of thing. But it is free, if you’re into that sort of thing.
If page layout is your thing, and InDesign’s price point is out of your range, there’s not a ton of alternatives.
I won’t sugarcoat it. Scribus ain’t all that pretty. And if you’re new to desktop publishing/page layout, it’s not too user-friendly. But it is in fact free, so quit your whining!
- Pages from Apple (part of the iWork suite)
If you’ve bought a new Mac in the last year or so, chances are there was a trial of iWork already loaded, of which Pages is one of the apps. It’s Apple to the core (yeah, that pun was intended), and about as easy as it gets for great page layout work, and comes with several templates to get you started. $79 gets you the entire suite, which includes Numbers (spreadsheets) and Keynote (presentations).
It’s been over a decade since I used Dreamweaver regularly, so I realize it probably does everything including the dishes now. But there’s a plethora (and a half) of options as far as Mac-based WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors are concerned. I’m only covering some of the more popular ones here, but Google it, and you’ll be busy for sometime.
- Rapidweaver by Realmac Software
I tried Rapidweaver a while back and it was a nice app. Lots of features, and very Mac-like is design. There are plenty of themes to get you started, and development truly is rapid whether you’re new or old to HTML design. It will cost you $79 to get this rapid with your designs, though.
- iWeb by Apple (part of the iLife Suite)
If your Mac came with iLife already installed (meaning, you bought it new), you’ve already got iWeb on your system. And it’s free — until the next upgrade comes out, at which point it’ll be $79 for the whole iLife suite. It’s typical Apple, and is super easy to use, with great results and many themes to choose from.
I hadn’t heard of NVU until poking around in preparation for this article. It doesn’t sport a typical Mac user interface, but it is free. Worth a try if you don’t have iLife already, I suppose.
- Coda (by Panic, $99) and Espresso (by MacRabbit, $78)
Neither are WYSIWYG editors, but are so slick they deserve mention. You’ll need to know your way around HTML and other web coding to get the most out of them, but they can make web development a real pleasure, and are awesome-looking to boot.
Movie editing is becoming more and more available to the masses, and I’ll argue, that it’s mostly due to Apple’s consumer-level offerings.
- iMovie by Apple (part of the iLife Suite)
Again, part of iLife, it should already be on your Mac. As with iWeb, the upgraded suite is $79 for all five applications. iMovie is a tremendous tool, and should get any budding video editor’s creative juices flowing.
- Final Cut Express by Apple
Upping the price point a bit, we have a serious mid-level video editor. Final Cut Express brings an interface from its big brother, Final Cut Pro, as well as many of the features. It’s a great solution if you’ve outgrown the likes of iMovie. Final Cut Express runs $199.
This one’s an open-source offering, which means it’s free. The last software release is a few years old, so it’s hard to say how reliable and feature rich it will be in comparison to the likes of Apple’s offerings. But with a $0 price tag you may find it to your liking.
I don’t have any experience with the 3D rendering world, so I can’t speak to the legitimacy of Blender as a 1-for-1 replacement of After Effects. But from what I’ve read, the features seem to cover the core functionality. Better yet, it’s free.
So there you go. Several great alternatives to paying for Adobe’s Creative Suite of applications. Ranging from free to around $100, you can pick and choose what may be most important to you. And with free trials almost across the board, you should easily find the best fit for your needs. Of course, even choosing the most expensive of the options out there, you’ll still fall well under the $1,800 price tag that Adobe asks!
And as always, if there are other alternatives that we’ve missed here, and you think they’re contenders, we’re always glad to hear from you, so please share in the comments.