Not-Adobe: Design on the cheap

When I upgraded to a MacBook, I didn’t bother installed Adobe CS2. It’s a PPC app, it takes forever to launch, and I really don’t use it all that much, although I do enjoy using it since I know it so well.

Since then, I’ve been looking for alternatives to Adobe’s apps that work well, and are reasonably priced. Unfortunately, there’s nothing out there that matches the power and usefulness of Adobe’s suite. (Quark vs. InDesign notwithstanding) But there are some good applications if your requirements don’t precisely match Illustrator, Photoshop, etc.

Also, if you don’t want to deal with the X11 stuff, there’s been a total explosion of new graphics programs for the Mac which are not as broadly feature-filled as Photoshop or Illustrator, but in many ways give Adobe a run for its money.

Image Editors

Nothing matches Photoshop’s abilities for color correction, but there’s many apps that come close. The biggest weakness is that many of these programs use CoreImage filters, which are simply not that good for color adjustments and touch-ups. (There’s no equivalents to Levels or Curves).

The Gimp is a popular open-source Photoshop equivalent. Personally, I prefer GimpShop, which is about the same as The Gimp, but it’s been modified to act more like Photoshop. It runs in the X11 environment, so you won’t be fooled into thinking it’s a native Mac application. (Although it has a MacOS X application launcher so that you can associate file types with it, drag and drop, etc.) It does most of what Photoshop can do, and has pretty good color correction tools. Whether you use one of these other apps or not, I recommend keeping The Gimp around purely for the color adjustment tools, which are unmatched by other apps.

Pixelmator is about as close to Photoshop as you’ll get in a native Mac program without buying Photoshop. Photoshop-like interface with more style, I guess. Opens and saves in pretty darn near every format, thanks to the imagemagick libraries.

Acorn is an awesome tool for “normal” graphics tasks, and has a totally new and intuitive, simple, interface. It does some impressive higher-end effects and adjustments using Core Image filters (the same basis for all these other apps’ filters, so they’re about the same if you’re rasterbating).

DrawIt is hard to explain, but it’s a drawing and painting program that’s very interestingly and intuitively designed. Think of it as iAdobeCreativeSuite or something. While its bitmap abilities are limited, they’re aided by the addition of CoreImage filters, so you can actually get by with most simple adjustments. Since it’s greatest strength is illustration, I’ll leave it be for now.

Painter X, from Corel, which is a very powerful image editor and natural-media painting program which is pretty expensive but very, very, good. Of course, if you’re buying Painter, you can probably afford Photoshop.

ArtRage is a natural-media painting program, a la Painter (but much cheaper), which is totally designed for graphics tablets. It’s fullscreen with a simple and hide-able palette setup that makes it a total dream for just sketching stuff out. It also has a very cool rulers setup where you can create a virtual physical ruler to ensure that you draw a straight line when that’s important to you. It’s also available in a “Starter Edition,” which is free but has fewer tools and no layers. If you have a tablet, there’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t have the starter edition on your Mac.

Illustration

I’m a fan of vector drawing apps, and there’s some incredibly good ones on the Mac, outside of Adobe’s stranglehold. As a long-time fan of Freehand 3.1, I’m happy to report that there’s tons of apps which can equal, if not exceed, that storied program.

Lineform from Freeverse is a very intuitive and straightforward vector program. It has wonderful features for free drawing, with artistic strokes and all kinds of other good stuff.

Intaglio is a powerful but somewhat confusingly designed drawing program. It supports precision drawing and has lots of interesting tools, but it is sometimes frustrating due to some odd interface design.

DrawIt, which I mentioned above, handles vector as well as raster art, and really is at its best in that environment. It has a very simple and intuitive pen tool, and makes it simple to combine raster and vector art as well as text. Where it falls short is in precision: It has no rulers and you can only specify document sizes in pixels. This is a real shame, as the program feels like a welcome resurrection of SuperPaint. I can only assume that this is an intentional design decision, as the program is at a fairly mature version 3.

Inkscape is to Illustrator what The Gimp and GimpShop are to Photoshop. It’s a solid, open source vector drawing program. Like Gimpshop, it runs under X11, and for that reason I really can’t recommend it when there are many native alternatives that are easier to use and, in their own way, more powerful.

Page Layout

I haven’t tried many page layout applications, so I’ll keep this to a quick summary. All are variously underpowered compared to InDesign, but all of them could get the job done. MacKiev makes The Print Shop , Apple’s Pages (part of iWork) , Swift Publisher and Scribus (which is pretty capable except that it’s built in ugh Java).

My personal recommendation? DrawIt is dead simple to use, and also does vector, so if you don’t need precision drawing, I recommend it highly. If you do a lot of bitmap “production” work (resizing, saving in different formats, etc.), Acorn is definitely worth a look. Pixelmator’s pretty, but it suffers from being a Photoshop clone that’s simply not as good. If you want the power of Photoshop, start up X11 and run Gimpshop. Then for pure illustration, you have ArtRage and Lineform, both of which will aid any artist with a pen tablet.

Really, for $150 or so, you can get the basic capabilities of Adobe’s suite and really have some advantages in ease-of-use and some very nifty innovative capabilities. It’s worth checking all these apps out if you have the time and see what you like most. I still need to look more into page layout, so watch this space for updates!

Written on December 11, 2007

Nik's Picks: ProdMe, an actually USEFUL Dashboard widget

Full disclosure: I hate Dashboard. I have found very few widgets that do anything useful for me, and having them invisibly off in some weird dashboardy land bugs me, too. It pretty much limits me to widgets that I use infrequently enough that I don’t want them in front of me.

However, I just found a good one. ProdMe is a widget that beeps at you. It can be hourly chimes (a la MacOS 9), an egg timer, or an alarm clock. It can also notify you via Growl.

There’s lots of times that you need a timely reminder. In my case, it’s usually to check on a database restore or an exceptionally long software install/update. I just go to Dashboard, tell ProdMe to bug me in 30 minutes, and in 30 minutes I get a noise and a Growl notification reminding me to check on the server in question.

Very handy for those one-off reminders that you’d rather not burden iCal with. As for it being off in Dashboard-land, well, who cares? It’s a set-and-forget kind of thing, so it belongs there out of my sight.

Written on November 28, 2007

Ubiquitious Mac Automation

I often find myself wanting to make my Mac do something even when I’m not there. It could be something as simple as “reboot” or something more complex, like, “Add this task to OmniFocus”. Unfortunately, unless my Mac is up and running and accepting remote connections, there’s no way I can do this.

Or is there?

One obvious answer is to set up mail rules that shoot off AppleScripts. When an appropriately formatted messages comes in from the right sender(s), the script runs, and you’re all set to go. This approach has the advantage of being either close to real time (if Mail’s up and running, it works) or asynchronous if Mail’s off – the actions will fire off when you next check email, if your computer happens to be off.

Another option is to monitor various internet feeds to create similar results. I’ve written about Proxi before, and it remains one of my favorite tools for automating my Mac. One thing it can do is monitor network resources, such as RSS feeds, Twitter accounts, Mail, Skype, iChat, etc. This, it turns out, is the key to handling this need for remote automation.

By monitoring an RSS feed, you can set it up to check Gmail (which publishes an ATOM feed of your mail), a blog, or anything else, and have it fire off a script with some or all of the values passed by the feed. One very cool use of this ability is to set up script-firing Gmail rules by just having Proxi parse the ATOM feed and then activate scripts when certain conditions are met. This gives you the best of both worlds: Gmail’s powerful web-based interface, and the integrated goodness of Apple’s Mail program.

Another great tool is Twitter. Twitter’s main purpose is to share little snippets about what you’re up to with the rest of the world. But Twitter can also be used as simply an online notepad. It integrates with both SMS and IM clients, so it’s easy to contact, and you can even use a service like Jott with it, so you can phone in a “tweet” to your Twitter account.

Proxi has a Twitter monitor, so if you set up an appropriate Twitter account, you can have Proxi take action on incoming tweets, just like it can with GMail’s RSS feed.

Lastly, Proxi can monitor iChat and Skype and fire off scripts based on behavior in those apps. (iChat also has some of these capabilities built in if you’ve upgraded to Leopard) This can be an excellent way to have instant access to your computer from a remote machine.

What have I done with this? Well, I set up a Twitter account that feeds directly into OmniFocus so that I can capture a new task anywhere (via the web, SMS, IM, or the phone – thanks to Jott) and rest assured that when I next turn on my Mac, Proxi will pick them up and dump them into my electronic inbox.

Written on November 27, 2007

Leopard Trick: Spaces Keyboard Shortcuts

When you’re zoomed out to the “all spaces” view, you can drag and drop windows from one space to another to rearrange things. Here’s some keyboard shortcuts to improve upon this feature:

If you hold down the “Command” key while dragging a window, you will move every window of that application within the current space at the same time. (e.g. Every Safari window in the current space will move together, but Safari windows in other spaces with not)

If you do so while holding down the “Shift” key, the window you drag will move to the same location on the screen within the new space. (Especially handy for full-screen windows)

The two keyboard shortcuts can be combined to move all windows of an application to the same location in a new space.

You can also scroll through spaces using your scroll wheel or your two-finger-trackpad-skills while in the all spaces view.

As with all the zoomy eye-candy features of MacOS X, if you hold the shift key down while switching spaces or viewing all spaces, it will do so in slow motion. Oooh!

Written on November 25, 2007

iMovie '08 Library Compressor

This is a simple program to reduce the size of your iMovie 08 library.

I love iMovie ‘08. I know, I know, it has less whizzy features than iMovie '06 does, but darn it, it’s so darn fast and easy to build videos. I can create a whole hour-long movie in about ten minutes! (Not a very good one, of course – but none of my movies are very good.)

Part of why it’s fast is that it keeps all my clips on hand, ready and willing to be part of my latest (crappy) movie. Unfortunately, all those barely-compressed DV clips take up A LOT of space. (About 10 GB/hour of video!) This application will compress all the DV files in your iMovie library to save huge amounts of disk space! Using Apple’s H.264 compression technology, you can shave 70% off your library space with *minimal* loss of quality.

**UPDATE:** v1.2 works with SetFile installed in /usr/bin as well as in the default /Developer/Tools directory.

This is a simple applet, just double click it, select your chosen compression settings (from a pristine copy that shaves off 10% of the file size to a clip that’s 93% smaller than the original, and only suitable for posting on YouTube), and let it work its magic. Your library will sweat off the pounds, and your original raw DV files will be set aside to be archived, thrown away, or whatever you want to do with them.

Note that any projects which use your DV-formatted clips will need to be rebuilt pretty much from scratch, as the clips they reference will no longer be in your library. You may want to export those projects before compressing your library.

This does not work with iMovie '06, which can only use DV/HDV formatted video for its projects.

This applet is released free of charge, and you’re welcome to modify it and do what you wish with it, provided you give me credit if you release a version with modifications.

### System Requirements
* A Mac capable of running iMovie '08 with at least some DV videos in your events library.
* [Quicktime Pro](http://apple.com/quicktime/). The standard version can’t export video. Sorry.
* [Apple Developer Tools](http://developer.apple.com/). In order to set the creation date of the exported file, you need the SetFile command-line utility that’s installed with the developer tools.

Written on November 16, 2007

iDisk improvements in Leopard

In Leopard, iDisk syncing creates a sparse disk image for the sync instead of a standard read/write image. This has the huge advantage that your iDisk sync file doesn’t have to be 10 GB in size, but is instead only as large as it needs to be in order to hold all the files on your iDisk. Very nice.

Written on November 1, 2007

Leopard Saved Search Irritations

Having faster and more powerful saved searches is great, but I wish they worked a little more consistently.

In the Finder, they show up in the sidebar. That’s great, they’re easy to find and access. However, they’re difficult to browse because they only show up in list or icon view. No column/browser view (my preferred way to quickly navigate folders).

Now in Open/Save dialogs, your saved searches don’t show up in the sidebar. Instead you get your media browser (for all those times you want to open an MP3 in Word!). But try this: Navigate to ~/Library/Saved Searches/ in an Open/Save dialog and you will now be able to open/save using items in your saved search. Better yet, they show up in column view.

Now, for your last trick, take any saved search from your Saved Searches folder and drop it onto the sidebar with your other folders in the “Places” section. Now that saved search works just like before, but it is also instantly accessible from open/save dialogs.

Sometimes I feel like Leopard was put together by a committee that had no actual designers or usability experts at the meetings. Just a bunch of random crap thrown on the wall, some of which is great, and some of it is just plain terrible.

Written on October 31, 2007

Create Complex Searches in Spotlight

You can do complex boolean searches in spotlight’s search field by including parenthesis, AND, and OR statements. Unfortunately, a lot of metadata is not available via Spotlight’s keyword searches, but is available via the Finder’s search window as “Other” criteria. Luckily, you can add boolean operators using the Find window and an undocumented trick.

If you hold down the option key while clicking the “+” button in the search criteria (it will change from “+” to “…”) to add a boolean operator (any of, none of, all of) and can nest these operators and other criteria as deeply as you want to.

The new version of Spotlight is also quite a bit faster when dealing with these complex queries, so you can go nuts.

If you’re wondering, the search shown above will find any files that either have a red or orange label or which are neither folders, aliases nor documents that have been opened in the past day or modified in the past week. I use this search as a “Current Projects” folder.

Written on October 30, 2007

One-click to open folders from the Leopard dock

In the Leopard dock, any folders become annoying “stacks.” If you want to open the folder, you need to either open the stack and click the “open in Finder” button, cmd+click it and then open the now-selected folder in the Finder, or right click and select “open in Finder.” Any ability to get to a folder with just one click has been removed.

To get around this, you can make an alias of any folder and put that alias on the dock. The alias will now open with just one click.

It will not, however, display its contents as a stack or otherwise do anything other than open or be a drag target. Still, that might be preferable.

Written on October 30, 2007