Pixelmator GPU Powered Image Editor for OS X

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Last month, reinstalling Leopard on my G4 PowerBook broke Photoshop Elements 6, and one reason I’ve been able to procrastinate about the necessary application reinstall (there oughta be a better way, Adobe — nothing else broke) is that Pixelmator is getting so darned good that I haven’t really needed Elements for anything yet.

PSE 6 still offers several high-end features that aren’t supported in Pixelmator — automated panorama merges, group shot merge, cutouts, red-eye correction, advanced black & white conversions, the new Quick Selection Tool, and camera lens distortion correction. However, for most image editing tasks, Pixelmator, a Mac-only Elements challenger by UK-based developers Saulius and Aidas Dailide, is coming on strong. Updates are released every couple of months, with the latest version 1.4 “Sprinkle” being the program’s fourth major update. With this update, a new painting engine, Adobe Photoshop brushes support, a clouds filter, and document presets were added.

“The World’s First GPU-Powered Image Editor”

Pixelmator, claimed to be “The World’s First GPU-Powered Image Editor,” is engineered to tap into powerful OS X native graphics technologies like Core Image, which use your Mac’s hardware video muscle for image processing, as well as Open GL and ColorSync. The relative power and sophistication of your Mac’s graphics support will determine, to an extent, Pixelmator’s performance. If you have a high-performance graphics accelerator with lots of video RAM, you will find real-time responsiveness across a wide variety of Pixelmator operations very lively, but I’ve found the program quite usable even on a 1.33 GHz PowerBook.

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What grabs you when you start up Pixelmator the first time is its user interface: windows bordered in translucent black, black tool palette backgrounds, and colorfully-styled tool icons that magnify and show tool tips OS X Dock-style on mouseover. I found the spectacular appearance a bit distracting initially, but have gotten used to it.

Layers and Smart Palettes

Like Photoshop, Pixelmator is a layers-based image editor that supports linking and blending layers, changing opacity, and creating clipping masks or layer masks to hide some layer portions. You can quickly create layers from photos, other pictures, selections or even iSight input.

Pixelmator’s Smart Palette Hide feature eliminates palette clutter when using adjustment tools or filters, making all unnecessary palettes temporarily dissolve when any of adjustment tools or filters are in play, allowing you to focus on just one image and your chosen tool.

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I especially like Pixelmator’s color correction tools, which allow you to fine-tune color values like hue, saturation,color balance, luminance, color levels, channel mixing brightness and contrast.

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Pixelmator’s Curves adjustment is notably nicer and more intuitive to use than PSE’s. There is also an Auto Enhance command if you want to let the program make the value-judgments with one-click convenience.

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Pixelmator has more than 130 filters and special effects, and supports over 100 different file formats including PSD, TIFF, JPEG, PNG, PDF, EPS, and you can open and save Photoshop files with layers data preserved.

Organizing Principles

Pixelmator doesn’t have anything in photo organization support to rival Photoshop Element’s Adobe Bridge CS3 organizer application (previously only available with Adobe Creative Suite applications) that lets you browse through your hard drive to locate photos you want to open and edit, but you can use Pixelmator’s Photo Browser palette to access images in your iPhoto Library, events, albums, Smart Albums, and your Pictures folder.

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Pixelmator 1.4 requires Mac OS 10.5.5 or higher, is available as a free 30-day demo and can be registered for $59. Version 1.4 is a free update to current registered users.

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