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How to build your own Adobe Creative Suite with cheaper Mac app alternatives

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Though Adobe’s Creative Suite(s ADBE) is still the top choice in creative software by professionals, for individuals and smaller businesses Creative Suite may not be affordable, especially if they only need one or two tools included in the set. CS6’s Design Standard suite costs $1,299, and is composed of Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign and Acrobat but will cost you roughly $500 each if you buy them individually. Luckily, much of the core functionality you will find in each of Adobe’s products is available in alternative products for a much lower price.

Adobe Creative Suite Priced Individually

Through apps mostly available via the Mac App Store,(s AAPL) you can decide which components of the software set matter most to you and build up your own custom suite over time to meet your creative needs.  Here are the best alternatives I’ve found that offer similar functionality to what is available in each of Adobe’s products.

Acrobat to SmileOnMyMac’s PDFPenAcrobat to SmileOnMyMac’s PDFPen ($59.99, Mac) Possibly one of the best apps on the Mac is PDFPen. Like Apple’s Preview application that comes with OS X, you can annotate and add signatures to your PDF documents. Looking beyond annotations, you can scan documents directly into PDFPen and use its OCR feature on the scanned in text to make the scanned document editable. Being able to edit a PDF document directly, not just annotate it, and saving changes to it as a PDF document is another important feature PDFPen has. Exporting the document to Microsoft Word(s MSFT) is a recently added feature that is also very useful. There is a Pro version ($99.99, Mac) that adds the ability to create interactive PDF forms, which allows you to add text fields, check boxes and radio buttons, as well as add submit buttons to your forms.  It is also one of the few apps on this list that has an iOS companion app ($4.99 iPhone, $14.99 iPad) with which you can share your PDF files with your iPad and iPhone via iCloud.

Photoshop to PixelmatorPhotoshop to Pixelmator ($14.99, Mac) By now it’s no secret that Pixelmator is one of the favorite apps on OS X for many. When you think of Photoshop, you think more than just applying filters to your images; you want to edit them. With its multilayered support, you can easily touch up and enhance your images with Pixelmator.  Many of the same tools that Photoshop users have become accustomed too are here too, like the smudge, sponge and brush tools.  Pixelmator also comes with some basic vector tools that may be all that you need from a full-featured vector editing tool like Illustrator.  For most of your day-to-day image editing needs, and at the current low price point of $15, it is hard to beat Pixelmator.

Illustrator to Indeeo’s iDrawIllustrator to Indeeo’s iDraw ($24.99, Mac) If you have not worked with a true vector drawing tool then you have been missing out on being able to make some really crisp and sharp graphics. Indeeo’s iDraw comes with a decent library of shapes to choose from and supports PDF and SVG import/export.  This means that you can import professional shapes from sites like VectorStock and iStockphoto and tailor them to your needs.  For shapes that are not included in iDraw’s library, you will find the pen tool up to the task of drawing your own set of custom shapes.  The gradient editor is more than adequate and you can edit and modify your paths with ease.  About the only feature that is great to have in Illustrator is the ability to automatically trace a path around an existing graphic — an important feature if you happen to inherit a library of graphics that you need to modify and resize to a higher resolution.  iDraw also has an iOS companion app ($8.99 iPad) that can be a useful as well.

InDesign to Belight’s Swift PublisherInDesign to Belight’s Swift Publisher ($19.99, Mac) When it comes to page layout editors, what you are looking for is one that comes with plenty of pre-defined templates to choose from; this one has 180 different templates.  It also has the ability to create additional templates.  With Swift Publisher, you can create professional-looking brochures, fliers and newsletters.  It has a large clip art library, many different shapes to work with and a decent layer editor that allows you to work with multiple layers within your documents.  It also has some convenient features like the ability to quickly center objects on the page with the touch of a button — something that makes Swift Publisher a better choice as a layout editor over alternatives in the App Store like Apple’s own Pages app.

Premier to TechSmith’s CamtasiaPremiere to TechSmith’s Camtasia ($99.99, Mac) If you are looking for a quick and easy movie editor, then look no further than iMovie (free, Mac). If you want something a little more full-featured, then consider stepping up to Final Cut Pro X ($299.99 Mac). But if you are looking for a tool that will help you create screen captures then Camtasia is the best tool that will deliver everything you need to make a professional-looking video.  Some of the included features with Camtasia, like the tilt and restore animations, will bring a level of professionalism to your online screencasts.  Besides being a great screen-capturing tool, its included video editing tool is also easy to use.  Definitely consider this one if you are not splicing together a feature film.

Audition to Amadeus LiteAudition to Amadeus Lite ($24.99, Mac) Of course there is Garageband (free, Mac) and LogicPro ($199, Mac), but if you are looking for a something with a simpler user interface for dealing directly with an audio file, then Amadeus is what you need. Zooming in and out and scrolling through an audio file is straightforward.  It even comes with full support for Apple’s Audio Units,  plug-ins that can be used to process audio.  There is a Pro version ($59.99, Mac) that adds multi-track editing, batch processing and some audio repairing features that enable you to remove some of the background noise from your recordings. As a free alternative, you may also and to try out Audacity (free, Mac).

DreamWeaver to Realmac’s RapidWeaverDreamWeaver to Realmac’s RapidWeaver ($79.99, Mac) With the dawn of technologies like WordPress, Drupal and online hosting providers like SquareSpace, the need to create a website from the ground up for many has almost become a forgotten art form.  RapidWeaver includes 45 different themes that you can use to help kickstart your website development without having to learn how to code HTML and CSS.  RapidWeaver has more of a traditional WYSIWYG document editor feel to it than a traditional HTML low-level development tool.  It really picks up where Apple’s now-abandoned iWeb application left off.  Another great alternative to consider when editing HTML and CSS files on the Mac is Tumilt’s HyperEdit ($9.99 Mac) if you are looking for an editor more appealing to developers.

Flash to Aquafadas’ MotionComposerFlash to Aquafadas’ MotionComposer ($149, Mac) While MotionComposer is not available on the Mac App Store, I was able to pick up a license as part of a bundle from MacUpdate and I’m glad I did. This tool brings the same animation effects that you’d get in Apple’s Keynote and helps you publish them on your website.  MotionComposer will create both Flash and HTML5 animations from the same project.  You get to decide which format you want to publish on your site.  It can also integrate your animations into your iBooks Author document.  If you are just looking to add a little animation to your website, then this is the tool to get.  An alternative to Flash in the Mac App Store that you may also want to consider is Tumult’s Hype ($59.99 Mac), it too can output your animations as HTML5.

Provided you have a clear idea of what you are looking for, shopping for individual apps may be a much more economical route to go.  There are times when you are participating as part of a creative team that you must support the input and output formats of the tools your teammates are using.  This is especially true when you must hand off your artwork to a publisher or printer that requires a specific file format. When this is the case, you must purchase the tools that your team supports.

None of these apps listed are complete replacements for such development shops, but these alternatives will get the job done in smaller or one-person creative teams.  And at these prices, each one of these great software titles are definitely worth the investment.

41 Responses to “How to build your own Adobe Creative Suite with cheaper Mac app alternatives”

  1. Peter Loader

    Odd that you don’t mention Quarkxpress. It’s still a viable alternative to Indesign and users can currently upgrade any previous version of Xpress 3 and onwards for less than three hundred dollars. By the way version 10 is just around the corner!

  2. IBeMe

    Adobe has lost my business. I’ll stick with CS6 for as long as it’s practical to do so, but I’m already looking for viable alternatives. Similarly, I’ve ditched MS Office for OpenOffice and I haven’t regretted the decision.

    Microsoft has managed to make itself irrelevant, it looks like Adobe is headed down the same path. Good-bye and good riddance.

  3. simon

    “When it comes to page layout editors, what you are looking for is one that comes with plenty of pre-defined templates to choose from” … No you’re not! I would never use a pre-designed template for any of my work and no serious creative would.

    “It has a large clip art library.” … Are you serious? Again, not something any serious designer would even touch!

    If these are the two main functions you are looking for then you might as well use Microsoft Word!!

    • omalansky

      Yes, it’s strange that the author of this piece is talking about replacements for powerful, professional applications, yet is looking at the subject from the perspective of relatively unskilled home users who never had any need for Adobe’s expensive software in the first place.

  4. Very interesting subject, I am leaving Adobe’s subscription model, as I do not need to update my software every year, I have purchased CS5.5 and will use this till it dies or Adobe makes it incompatible to read legacy files. I would be interested in hearing about alternative PC compatible software, any chance of bringing that to the table?

  5. Azrael Group

    The real problem with Adobe renting out the software comes from the fact they have painted a big target on them for hackers. We have seen it with Valve, LinkedIn, Playstation, and countless other pay to play companies. Adobe will now have monitor and maintain all the billing information that now has become a desirable target to hack. Frankly, I question Adobe’s ability to keep my payment information private.

    Another issue I worry about is companies that make products to extend Adobe products. Filter Forge, CSS Hat, SiteGrinder, and Machine Wash come to mind. We all have customized workspaces, some are very subtle, others are unrecognizable. So what happens to their business model? Will they also move to subscription service?

    There is something to be said for owning something outright. They first toyed with this subscription model with Muse and Edge, new products with an uncertain future. Now with far lower prices to use the entire suite of software, It seems to me that they could have afforded in the past to offer their products at a much lower rate, and created add-ons to purchase.

  6. BobRockefeller

    My main Creative Suite tools are Photoshop, Illustrator and sometimes Fireworks. On the surface, the “obvious” replacements are Pixelmator, iDraw and Sketch.

    But that still leaves some holes.

    Pixelmator can’t edit 16-bit images and does not have the lens correction, noise reduction and panorama stitching abilities of Photoshop. The good news is that I can do 85% of what I need to do for photos in Aperture.

    iDraw can’t import/open Illustrator files. That’s a REALLY big deal if you need to open files you’ve made using Illustrator in the past or are working with other creatives who do still use Illustrator.

    Sketch can’t import/open Firework’s editable PNG files. Same issues there as iDraw. But also, it can’t save (reliably) in SVG format – something I use more and more for vector graphics to get “retina” display quality on websites.

    Having said all that, I’m on the last month of my Creative Cloud subscription at the $29.99 per month price. I’m not looking forward to the $49.99 I’ll have to pay if I stick with it; not to mention that I’ll be hostage to whatever Adobe wants to charge for that next year, and the next. I only own Photoshop CS5.

    During this month I’m trying to switch my workflow to Pixelmator and iDraw. I’ve saved a number of my more recent Illustrator project images in SVG format for iDraw. I’ll see how it goes, how much trouble it causes and what gaps I just can’t fill. For example, I’m using a trial version of PTGui Pro for creating panoramas.

    If any of you have any tips or tricks that can save me some aggravation in advance, please share!

  7. adrianoconnor

    Sketch and Inkscape need a mention. They are probably the two most capable tools out there for replacing PS/AI/FW. Inkscape works less well on Mac, but is great on Windows and Linux.

    Also, Slicy is useful for exporting PSD layers, if you’re getting resources from a designer and just need to export them. Doesn’t work so well with PSDs that contain advanced stuff (smart shapes with effects and whatnot), but neither does Pixelmator’s PSD import.

    However, there’s no two ways about it, if you’re a graphics pro, you’re probably going to need PS – they’re big, slow and expensive, but they’re the best, and that’s why we pay for them.

  8. Darryn Lowe

    I don’t think you could compare RapidWeaver to DreamWeaver for anything other than basic blog creation but for a much cheaper option Flux 4 is a very powerful editor and a very simplistic GUI editor for about $169.99(NZ).

    • Steven Harte

      I suggest you research Stacks 2 and the HUGE amount of third party Stacks developers that can make RW a robust web creator that can produce a vast arsenal of web features very easily. Your comment suggests you only have a rudimentary awareness of the RapidWeaver potential.

      However, right, Flux 4 is a great alternative yet lacks good documentation on how to harness all it’s potential. Another possibility is Freeway Pro for Mac OS.

      As a 10+ user of DreamWeaver, there are easier, better solutions. Not so for Photoshop or InDesign.

  9. Michael W. Perry

    Many of these choices hinge on how often you use a product. I do book layout, so InDesign, with its wealth of time-saving features, is well worth the price. I rarely edit pictures, so my three-versions back edition is Photoshop is all I need.

    Also, keep in mind that there are quirks in all these applications. I prefer the nimble PDFPen Pro to the ungainly Acrobat for editing PDFs, but, as I recently told Smile on My Mac, PDFPen is a ‘boss app,’ fine for editing a PDF, but frustrating when you want to use it to display a marked up PDF to edit a document in another app. For that, Adobe’s free Reader app is much better.

    I’m more concerned about how Adobe is handling Muse than any other app. I’d love to use it to maintain my business website since it works much like InDesign. But I can’t buy it and that single app isn’t worth the online fee.

  10. smilespray

    As a media professional who has used Adobe products since the late 80s, the main story for me is that independent products have gotten to the stage where you can use them for “real work” without having to fire up Adobe’s CPU and memory hogs.

    This should be much larger worry to Adobe than pricing itself. When your core users switch over and start advocating alternatives, you’re up the creek.

  11. mike.orez

    For Dreamweaver you have much better alternatives. Dreamweaver is software for Professionals while Rapidweaver is focused for the non-professionals. Rapidweaver makes it possible for “everyone” to create websites.

    As alternatives for Dreamweaver I would rather see (because WHO actually works in the non-code view?):

    MacRabbit’s Espresso
    Coda 2
    Textmate 2

    Much better, more advanced and up to date with plug-ins than RapidWeaver!

    Also PS/AI –> Gimp/Inkscape … Which are free and have more features.

    • omalansky

      Who works in the non-code view? Are you serious? Having to write HTML to create web pages actually makes about as much sense as having to write Postscript to create a simple flyer. When desktop publishing liberated graphic designers from their reliance on code-driven interfaces, the geeks must have resolved never to let the same thing happen to web publishing. But there is absolutely no inherent reason why web designers should have to write a single line of code. If that’s your thing, fine; but you clearly live in a very small bubble.

      • Steven Harte

        As a professional web designer, omalansky is right. My credentials are I know HTML, CSS, GoLive, Dreamweaver etc. RapidWeaver is brilliant as a low priced package (get Stacks 2+ of course) that enables both novice and pro to make sophisticated sites fast and with all the bells and whistles you could want.

        I admire the web developers that can use Notepad or whatever to handcode. Definitely leaner and meaner code.

        But omalansky is right, you don’t have to be slotted to that technique to produce great web sites.

  12. It’s been a while now I’m using Pixelmator and iDraw instead of Photoshop and Illustrator, and I’m fine with them… it did just cost me 40 bucks and it’s more than enough for me and for what I’m doing with.

    Now, even if Adobe would drop their product price to the exact same price, I’d still stick with Pixelmator and iDraw because of their better design… at least it feels like Apps made by and for Mac… definitely not something I had with Adobe products.

    My 2 cents,

  13. iamnoskcaj

    I also think the notion if writing off the monthly/annual subscription is short sighted. The implied value in “ownership” may be overstated (and we know its not really “owned” by users anyway). With hardware and software rapidly changing, especially on Macs, maintaining modern versions of professional production software like this becomes even more important. I have easier ten boxes of old adobe suites or apps, and guess how many of them I still use? Zero. Assuming you make a living off using part or all of the Creative Suite (along with your other tools) even the highest price option is still a value. When it comes to larger shops, I realize that becomes pretty pricey, but I’m pretty sure they still have institution and volume pricing outside of creative cloud for that. Anyway… As a freelancer I happily signed up for creative cloud, as I rarely bought the whole suite at once… And ended up with piecemeal versions that didn’t always play nice. I can run it on Macs or windows (gasp), and move from one machine to the next without trouble…and I never have to mess with discs or codes. Furthermore, they opened up their entire suite of applications, along with lots of new in-development stuff, to creative cloud members. Many apps I would never have considered buying due to price. They even included TypeKit (which I had previously subscribed to… But now get for free).

    I want to be clear about something: I’m not an adobe apologist. I’ve been using their software since ( illustrator and photoshop and then page maker) since the 80’s, and professionally from the mid 90’s forward. But I was a very vocal critic of their pricing, bloat and performance…and slow change, as well as for flash and in general, their poor adoption of web standards). Along the way I tried and purchased many alternatives…some that are quite good, and even better in some ways… but professionally am I going to use them everyday? For most of them the answer is no. They take things almost far enough and then fizzle out. Some may be good for personal use…and some may be good in the hands of a professional who understands how to work around their shortcomings. But overall Adobe has stood the test of time… in spite of their nasty, custom widgets/toolkit (for easier cross-platform compatibility), and in spite of the bloated nature of the core suite, and in spite of their avoidance of web standards for so many years. I’m sure there’s lots of smart people working there. If you look at some of their new web focused apps that are coming out, we can see the beginning of a new adobe (check out edge code, inspect and more and if you’re a creative cloud customer, download and play… There’s more but I’m typing on my phone away from my desk and don’t want to look them up.

  14. iamnoskcaj

    No offense but this list is pretty lame and not very well researched. Does the author actually use these tools, or is this article a link bait that took 20 minutes of googling to write? One of the examples is an app that stopped development in 2008. Good job. There are much better Mac code editors out there. But the whole list is kind of half baked. “What you really need in a desktop publishing app is lots of pre designed templates??” LOL. Design professionals, or even people just learning, hardly need that. Maybe posers or people who know not of what they speak.

  15. I personally prefer ScreenFlow to Camtasia… and Motion 5 is great and cheap for animation.

    The one thing about Adobe products is if you are living in that Adobe ecosystem then all the software works good together, but trying to work out of that ecosystem is a bit of a pain. I quit using Adobe products after CS5, I haven’t looked back since.

    Nice review.

  16. I use CS6 and love the programs, and they are all first rate programs. I own them. I will probably continue owning and upgrading, but I’m not happy with their pricing options. All the options pretty much force you to buy the entire suite.

    Its like buying a new car… which usually is unpleasant to most. They should find a way to make it a more pleasant experience.

    • Bill K

      Canvas was awesome. It was a bit buggy but also way ahead of its time. I remember it had it combine image editing, vector editing, web and layout editing in one program back in 2000. And did all pretty well. Even had features like stroke gradients and vector effects like Blur years before Adobe did.

  17. I agree with Graphic Converter being an indispensable tool. I keep finding more uses for it every time I use it. But it competes more directly with Adobe’s MediaEncoder which comes with most Creative Suite Bundles as a sort of included utility application.

    On its own, Graphic Converter is not an alternative for any one of the core Adobe applications as it does not have the main functionality listed above. Pixelmator just seems like a much better fit compared to Photoshop.

  18. Since I first learned about it before 2000, I have been using the very good Graphic Converter (Lemke Software) to edit my photos. It is free-to-try and costs $25.95 to upgrade or $39.95 to buy. It’s currently on version 8.5.3.

  19. Adobe, Autodesk, and Quark have become big bloated software companies with even more bloated software packages, I don’t need a subscription fee every year for no improvement in the program.

  20. You missed the announcement that Adobe’s lowered their prices very significantly by going to a monthly fee for the Creative Cloud. If you have a valid serial number it’s $30 a month to get access to pretty much everything Adobe sells.

      • I do hear what you are saying about software subscriptions, but that is a different discussion when it comes to the merits of buying vs renting software. The context here was that you can pick and choose which creative features you really need, and begin to build your own suite of tools over time. It assumes ownership is desired.

        If you think about it, at the end of the first year, you could own more than half of all of the alternative apps listed here for the same amount of money you would pay out in a subscription model (even when paying the discounted student rate). That is of course if you find you need more than half of all of the apps listed here.

      • davecates

        Geoffrey I hear what you say about your article and subscriptions but, you failed to even mention the subscriptions as an option with CS.

        I think that if a person or small business is making their living by using these tools then for $50 per month they ought to be able to afford that or else, have they actually got a business in the first place?

        You also get what you pay for. Adobe through their subscription model have added several new applications and rapidly updated others.

        That’s a real bargain to me! :)

        • Franklin

          Never mind the fact that a monthly subscription is, like, $30 if you own a version of CS from the past 5 years. Not one of the apps you’ve listed is a decent substitute for the CS; FCPX is the closest thing to a Pro app you’ve come up with, and even it’s a joke compared to PPro CS6 (which isn’t exactly great shakes either, if we’re being honest).
          If you want to screw around making videos of your cat for Youtube, or Photoshopping (“GIMPing”?) your buddies onto hilarious backgrounds, then you’re all set. Those people really have no need for the Adobe suites in the first place…
          The majority of my income is made on the backs of the Adobe suite; while I don’t really agree with forcing customers into a subscription-model, I can’t complain too much. I’ve happily been ponying up a few hundred bucks a year for the upgrades; the subscription model won’t really change that — it’ll even save me a bit of money.

          I know that it probably isn’t a completely fair statement to make, but it seems to me that the people complaining the loudest about this switch are people who weren’t paying for the software in the first place…

          • omalansky

            Definitely not a fair statement. A very narrow-minded statement is closer to the truth. There are many highly-skilled creatives who do not earn their living with Adobe software, and for whom the cost of yearly upgrades (or yearly subscriptions) would be a financial burden. As far as I’m concerned, Adobe has declared war on their customers. Let the battles begin.

            • Steve

              I predict Adobe will backtrack but not before losing a ton of customers permanently and too late to dampen new work on Adobe replacement products.

          • Bill K

            You’re completely wrong about the loudest people complaining. I’m one of those people and I’ve been paying for upgrades to CS for years, and I’m not alone. What happens if you lose your job, should you still have to worry about paying a fee, or would you feel better knowing you owned the software? What happens when Adobe decides to raise the “rent” on its more popular programs, or all of them, because they have no real competition? I’m glad there are alternative apps out there now, because creatives will find a way to be creative even without Adobe.

  21. I’ve used Adobe, Aldus, Go Live, Quark, Macro Media, et al software since 1986 to today as a graphic design for print and digital work.
    But this year, with the changes in how Adobe sells its products, I am VERY open to the idea of a competitor to come in and shake it up. Adobe’s legacy products have bloated up with too many features most people do not use, making the interface a confusing combination of old methods with stuff nobody uses.
    The exception is InDesign. But it too is starting to suffer from bloat.
    I welcome some intense competition against Adobe. But as long as these alternatives are more about templates and non-pros rather than simplicity and power needed by professionals, I feel stuck with owning slowly outdated CS programs. No way I will subscribe to CS unless the multi year cost of “renting” is significantly cheaper than owning. Even then, what if a designer/filmmaker does work for a company and then changes jobs. Many hundreds of hours of work needed for their creative portfolio will be lost since, they or a new employer no longer rent the machine that can read it!