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Media Production on a Budget: Adobe Creative Suite Alternatives

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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 (s adbe) 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.

  • Acorn
    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.)
  • Pixelmator
    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.
  • GIMP
    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!
  • Inkscape
    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.

  • Scribus
    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.
  • NVU
    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.
  • Jahshaka
    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.

After Effects

  • Blender
    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.

22 Responses to “Media Production on a Budget: Adobe Creative Suite Alternatives”

  1. Mink Tea

    Ok, this might sound a bit ghetto, but for awhile we we’re stuck without After Effects or Motion in our offices… so we used Keynote.

    It sounds ridiculous, and I won’t deny that it isn’t. But in pinch it’s workable.

    Currently one of our remote content unit workflows consists of a Macbook, with Final Cut Express and Keynote for the lower thirds, segment titling and such… just export a Animation with the Alpha on and it’s surprisingly quite useable. And cheap!

  2. @Rob – as mentioned in the article (and comments) the alternatives mentioned for Photoshop tend to blend the lines between PS and Fireworks. There were no outright options for just Fireworks, that I was able to find.

    @CVBruce – Thanks for taking that one. PDF Pen and OS X’s Preview are both pretty fair Acrobat alternatives.

  3. CVBruce

    Good point Mathew. I’ve been using PDFpenPro from SmileOnMyMac. It does just about all of the things that I would do in Acrobat Pro. I might also add the Preview on Leopard has picked up so much functionality that many times Acrobat is unneeded.


  4. Mathew Ewert

    You didn’t mention the one application that’s part of the Creative Suite that is the only truly important one for me: Adobe Acrobat. Together with the QuiteImposing plugin, in my case.

  5. Chris Magee

    @VitaminCM: Just checked out Notepad++. Looks good, but does not do everything Coda does. Coda has built in FTP, a full power CSS editor, terminal and built in ebooks on HTML, CSS, Javascript and PHP.

    I use Coda constantly and love it — it was well worth the money spent, IMHO.

  6. Don’t forget alternatives for Lightroom –
    iPhoto – you probably already have it, but is primitive especially for workflow and RAW management
    Picasa – Free, about the same as iPhoto
    Aperture – $$ but still lists for $100 less than Lightroom. Aperture gets you better integration with iLife and media on the mac in general and some prefer its workflow to Lightroom, although Apple is slower for RAW camera support updates than Adobe. I ended up with Lightroom as Aperture does not support my camera that was release in the middle of last.

    The others, like Bibble, tend to be in the same general price range as Aperture/Lightroom.

  7. I just switched over to a MacBook Pro about a month ago. For the most part I love it. My biggest gripe is the price of some applications that have a very limited utility. Coda? $99? It’s a text editor. Notepad++ has everything that Coda does and it’s open source.
    Adobe always gets knocked for being expensive (rightly so), but I’d rather pay $150 for Photoshop Elements + Premiere Elements than $99 for a text editor.

  8. @David: Nick mentioned in the third paragraph: “Also, for our purposes here, I’ve lumped Photoshop and Fireworks together, as the alternatives generally blur the lines between the two offerings.”

    @Zachary: Nick did mention Espresso.

    People, please read the article first before commenting. ;)

  9. Another budget alternative to InDesign on the Mac is “Swift Publisher” from BeLight Software. “The Print Shop” by Software MacKiev is also an option. And Stone Design’s “Create” is a Canvas-like product from the NeXT days that continues to be updated for Mac OS X.

  10. CVBruce

    NVU says that the last release, V1.0 June 2005, would be the final release and points to Kompozer. Kompozer was last updated in July 2006. So neither product is in current development.

    Another suggestion is Amaya, which was last updated in March 2009.

    Rapid Weaver and iWeb may both be great products, but they appear to lack one function that was very important in my case. Neither one of them can import an existing website from the web. If you are taking over maintenance on an existing site, you need this capability. GoLive, DreamWeaver both allow site import.

    It is important to note that Amaya, DreamWeaver, GoLive, iWeb, Kompozer, and NVU are all WYSIWYG editors, while BBEdit, Coda, and Espresso are more like code editors. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

  11. Where are the Fireworks alternatives? It’s the only Adobe app I use, and would love to know of something else out there that is comparable. You list as it as part of the suite, but don’t list it in your rundown…

  12. Thanks to both of you for setting the record straight – not having experience with After Effects this was clearly my weak point of the post.

    @John – great point with Kinemac – I’ve got it via the MH Bundle, but haven’t taken a look at it yet.

  13. Jakub Foglar

    Blender really is not a replacement for After Effects, it is a real 3d application for modelling and stuff, while AE is for compositing this together and adding visual effects (although it can handle some basic 3d)

    Not blaming author, he said he isn’t into 3d. Just adding info.

  14. For After Effects alternatives, I’d suggest Motion (part of the Final Cut Studio bundle, so out of almost everyone’s price range), and also Kinemac, which was part of the MacHeist bundle.


    Blender isn’t a suitable After Effects replacement, after effects is basically photoshop with a timeline, 3D camera and non destructive filters

    Blender isn’t even close to its functionality