Last October, I wrote about my frustrations with Fireworks CS4, and the search for decent competitors to Adobe Software. Photoshop has many alternatives, and Illustrator has a handful, but nothing else seemed to cater for the mix of vector and bitmap editing that is Fireworks.
I recently tried both Photoshop and Illustrator again for icon creation, and Illustrator in particular irritated the hell out of me with it’s pixel preview artefacts (still not fixed from CS3). Before I get a sackful of comments from diehard Photoshop fans, please believe me when I say that Photoshop is not the right tool.
That post did point to 3 possibilities however: Acorn, Drawit and Opacity. I didn’t include Inkscape, not because it’s bad, but I’m looking for better integration with OS X than Adobe products, and Inkscape feels like a step further away from that. Linux and Windows users will find that it feels more at home for them.
Why this post took so long
In order to trial these applications properly, you have to use them in anger. That is, on something real. However, the approach and workflow of any new tool is going to be different. Commands won’t be in the same place as you expect them to be, or even named the same. There will be different ways of achieving the same end goal, and getting used to all these takes time.
When you’re up against with deadlines, it’s never the right time to go through that process. So you end up the tool that you know, that you will enable you to deliver on time with confidence. Times that by three, and you’ll know why this has taken so long to write.
Disclaimer: No app can be perfect, and it takes a lot of time to trial them and understand their approach. It could be the these apps do have the features that I’ve claimed are missing, but there’s only so much time I can give them all. Do point out if that’s the case.
I’ll be using this app for website designs, icons and interface elements, so some of the key things that I’m looking for are:
- Pixel snapping. I must have the confidence that when I draw a vector object it’s dead on, no decimal points in either the dimensions or the positioning.
- Vector editing. A broad term to mean being able to add strokes, fills and different types of gradients.
- Boolean Operations. Which is apparently the posh term for what I’m more used to calling ‘Pathfinder’, making a new shape by subtracting, adding or intersecting two vector paths.
- Text Controls. It must be able to set leading and kerning, but ligature support would be good too.
- Multiple States. States and Pages are features in Fireworks that I use lot. I love being able to store multiple versions of a design (different pages of a site design, resolutions of an icon, a series of icons etc.) in one file. A similar function would be wonderful.
- Export to png, svg, eps, .ico,.icns and pdf.
There are more requirements (taken for granted things like layers) and nice-to-haves, but these are the core dependencies.
For the sake of a starting point, I set a basic task of drawing a button with rounded corners (set with a value), transparent stroke, inner highlight, linear gradient with transparent colours and an outer shadow. I also chose to overlay the word ‘Waffle’ to test kerning and ligatures. Like this:
Let’s see how they all fared (click the larger screenshots to see the full image)…
I found Acorn’s layout beautiful, intuitive and well thought out. In fact, it was my favourite (with DrawIt a close second). One of the turn-offs of Adobe software are some of the non-native UI decisions, but Acorn embraces modern Mac UI design with vigour. These things matter!
Acorn allows the basic vector drawing abilities that you would expect, such as editing and positioning elements (particularly vector shapes) numerically with x,y,w&h values. It also has that wonderful feature of taking screenshots with each window on a separate layer.
However it’s intention is primarily a bitmap editor, and was missing functions like:
- Gradient fills
- Guides (although these will be in Acorn 2.3!)
- Ability to apply a stroke to the outside or inside of a shape, as well as centred
- Boolean operations
- and so on…
So this was a far as I could get without converting the shape to a bitmap:
That’s a score in items 1,2 (partially) and 4 (partially). I could export to .png, but that was it. I was able to alter kerning overall and manually between pairs of letters, but I couldn’t find support for ligatures.
You may wonder why I include Acorn in the alternatives if it doesn’t fulfil enough of the criteria? Well, it’s a bloody good image editor, and it’s lack of vector capabilities may not be an issue for everyone. It also has the bitmap editing features that the other choices here lack.
It’s clear that Acorn’s priorities are elsewhere, but the basis for a fantastic competitor is there. Whether it makes commercial sense for Gus to take it that direction only he can tell, but I would love to see Acorn’s vector capabilities expanded. If you do too, please write to Flying Meat Software, as I’m sure if there was enough demand and constructive suggestions, he would consider it.