Photoline Review: A Truly Great Photoshop Alternative

Photoline IconI’ve been looking for alternatives to Photoshop (and Illustrator, but I digress) ever since Adobe apps started refusing to launch if they couldn’t phone home (i.e. around 2001).

Since Adobe introduced product activation, I’ve been searching for something I can just license and install on any machine I use, the way I can with a lot of indie products (e.g. Silo, Cheetah, and Unity).

Well, my search is over, and if you’re like me, maybe yours is too.

Photoline is a Mac (and Windows) image editing program that is clearly intended to be a complete Photoshop replacement. Its user interface is pretty similar to Photoshop’s (although less polished, to be sure, and prone to the occasional untranslated piece of German).

If you can’t stomach using a program that uses scrollbars as numerical input widgets, you may find Photoline intolerable (some of its dialogs have definitely been whacked with the ugly stick). Oh, and for such an excellent graphics program, it has one of the most lamentable icons I’ve ever seen. That’s about all the bad stuff I have to say about Photoline though.

Photoline Screenshot 1

Here’s what Photoline does that a lot of wannabe apps don’t:

  • Pixel accurate drawing and selection tools
  • 16-bits per channel
  • CMYK and Lab color
  • Full masking support
  • Fully editable text layers with proper typographic controls (such as kerning and paragraph spacing)
  • Shape layers with solid bezier tools
  • Layer effects (drop shadows, etc.)
  • Noise
  • Difference Clouds
  • HDR image support (including creating HDRs from multiple source photos)
  • Image slicing, image maps, and animation tools for web designers
  • Useful web export tools with presets, previews, file size info, etc.
  • Recordable Macros

Photoline’s user interface won’t win a beauty contest against, say, Pixelmator, but it’s fast, tidy, extremely functional, and rock solid.

Here’s what Photoline does that even Photoshop can’t match:

  • Useful named presets for most filters
  • Ability to name and save your own presets for most filters
  • Text (paragraph and character) style sheets
  • Launches in less than 1s on my MacBook Pro
  • Costs about US $90 (59 Euros)
  • Doesn’t phone home on launch
  • No product activation

Photoline Screenshot 2Photoline also supports most of the bitmap graphic file formats you’re likely to care about – check the image at right for a full list.

Photoline has excellent file format support. Combined with its fast launch time, you might find yourself using it instead of GraphicConverter and Preview, too.

There are a few annoyances. Photoline’s user interface is neither very Maclike (it has a ton of floating palettes, which it tastefully drapes around the edges of your screen) nor an obvious clone of Photoshop’s. You won’t discover that your knowledge of Photoshop’s keyboard shortcuts is very helpful, and some functions have been renamed for no good reason (e.g. “Levels” is called “Histogram Correction”). Often, however, I was surprised when I found things different but better in Photoline.

For example, Photoshop’s noise tool — which is incredibly useful — hasn’t changed much since Photoshop 1.0. You get two kinds of noise, and you can decide whether you want monochromatic or colored noise. (Hint — you almost never want colored noise.) Similarly, Photoshop’s clouds tool — also incredibly useful — hasn’t changed much either.

Photoline has a single tool that does both jobs, can be configured to do almost anything either of them can do and a lot more besides with continuous adjustments, and has presets. My initial disappointment at not finding an “Add Noise” filter turned into delight at discovering a much better thought out alternative (and it produces “nicer” looking noise, too).

Photoline Screenshot 3

Here is the Clouds tool (it does everything Render Clouds and Noise do in Photoshop, and then some). Note the named presets and the before/after view with slider.

There are obvious interoperability issues. Photoline isn’t written by Adobe, so it doesn’t understand the deep inner workings of PSD and PDF and AI files, which means you won’t be able to seamlessly replace Photoshop in an Adobe-centric workflow. Similarly, when you save to PSD, Photoline doesn’t know how to convert its text layers into Photoshop text layers (so your text will get rasterized).

Photoline does, however, tell you exactly what you will lose when you save in different file formats (something Photoshop is less clear about). But for cases where you’re mainly working with bitmaps (and not trying, for example, to import complex illustrator designs), Photoline is a very solid Photoshop replacement, and a fabulous image editor which you can launch in a fraction of a second. Just its launch time has me hooked.

Did I mention it launches in less than a second?

Photoline offers a 30 day free trial, so don’t take my word for any of this! The only limitation I’ve found is that you need to wait 10s after it launches before you can start working (which prevents you from enjoying its best feature). Try Photoline today.

Summary

  • Fast, powerful, stable, easy (for experienced Photoshop users) to use
  • It’s not very pretty (prettier than GraphicConverter — what isn’t? — but uglier than Pixelmator or Photoshop)
  • More capable in some ways than Photoshop, but limited interoperability with Adobe workflows
  • Free 30 day trial with nothing major disabled (just 10s wait after launching)
  • Costs 59 Euros ($90 or so at time of writing)
  • More expensive than Pixelmator, Acorn, or Iris, but a heck of a lot more useful; more Maclike and considerably more stable than Pixel.

Comments

39 Responses to “Photoline Review: A Truly Great Photoshop Alternative”

  1. Jake on January 20th, 2008 10:08 am

    Can I not just get Gimp for free and do all this? I am not a graphic expert but Gimp can do everything that I need it to. Plus it’s FREE! Thats just my two cents.

  2. Tonio Loewald on January 20th, 2008 11:36 am

    Why are you using OS X when Linux is free? Usability perhaps? Ease of installation? You prefer to get things done than tinker with a half-finished product?

    There’s your answer.

  3. John Nack on January 20th, 2008 12:34 pm

    FWIW, Photoshop doesn’t “phone home” on launch, and connecting to the Net has never been a requirement. It *is* required that you activate the product once following installation. You have 30 days to do so, and you can do it by phone if you really want to avoid any network traffic for that purpose. And that’s it. (There’s a separate, unrelated issue concerning some Adobe apps (not Photoshop) and the minimal network traffic they generate; I’ve explained it on my blog.)

  4. Lutz on January 20th, 2008 4:39 pm

    Hello Tonio,
    it looks like we were writing on a PhotoLine review at the same time. Mine is not as professional however, and based on the windows experience; if you are interested have a look at:
    http://www.donationcoder.com/Forums/bb/index.php?topic=11915.0

    I will add a link to your review to my post. OK?

  5. Nascar on January 20th, 2008 9:49 pm

    Photoline looks pretty good for the low price. Even Adobe’s lower end graphics editor Fireworks is like $300 dollars. I am going to give this a try to see if basically does everything I need in a simple graphics editor.

  6. Tonio Loewald on January 20th, 2008 11:07 pm

    John Nash:

    I don’t know about Photoshop, but Illustrator 10 will hang on launch if it can’t talk to Adobe’s servers (if you’re completely offline it launches — I guess it pings the server, if it’s there then it expects a reply). It’s exceptionally annoying.

    Product activation (which I believe was “inherited” from Macromedia) is intensely annoying for those of us who used to install Adobe (or Macromedia) apps on two different machines and use it on one (at a time). I am guessing this was a violation of the EULA, but — frankly — who cares? It’s one more thing that makes me want to use software from indie developers who treat their customers decently.

  7. Tonio Loewald on January 20th, 2008 11:16 pm

    Lutz:

    By all means — and I’m glad you’ve linked your review.

  8. John Nack on January 20th, 2008 11:17 pm

    If Illustrator 10 is hanging for you, it’s for some other reason. Once it’s activated, it doesn’t ping the activation server again. As for the call to “2O7.net,” as I say that’s unrelated and is covered on my blog.

    Why is product activation annoying? Does it impose a practical burden, or do you just not like the concept? I don’t especially like it either & would rather spend engineering cycles on other work, yet I have a big problem with people stealing the intellectual property of others.

    You mention wanting to install the software on two different machines, running just one copy at a time. Not only is that perfectly fine under the terms of the EULA; the behavior has been supported since day 1 of activation.

  9. Tonio Loewald on January 21st, 2008 2:09 am

    John:

    Illustrator 10′s behavior has nothing to do with your blog post which, I believe, pertains to new behavior adopted post the Macromedia merger. I accept your explanation of it and think you did a great job of defusing this potentially embarrassing issue.

    I’ve had Illustrator 10 (and the other CS1 apps) hang on startup many times, and sometimes generate an error to the effect that they couldn’t contact Adobe’s servers. I don’t know if this is technically “phoning home” — maybe they’re just checking for updates. Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted what’s going on, but that’s my experience, and the problem is solved by disconnecting from the internet. (This is also a workaround for Adobe’s old network copy protection which graphic designers used to use to run multiple copies of a single license on a LAN — I’m not referring to this, which is perfectly legitimate anti-piracy behavior.)

    AFAIK Illustrator 10 requires no activation. I’ve been installing it on my new machines by dragging from backups since 2001. But it does seem to phone home on launch if it can.

    I’ll try the second install of CS3 again — great news (and news to me).

    That said, Photoline still launches in a fraction of a second :-)

  10. Geoffrey Heard on January 21st, 2008 5:08 pm

    Hello Tonio

    Excellent review. I’m another Mac user who came across PhotoLine 32 and loved it despite the interface. In my case, I am a long time and continuing Canvas user frustrated by the lack of development of Canvas’ image editing mode (and then the termination of its development on Mac — but I am sticking with Canvas X and working around the known bugs). I use PhotoLine to complement Canvas, which I use for vector graphics, DTP and website building.

    Canvas continues to be developed for Windows, by the way.

    Did you try Layers > Convert Layer Type > Vector Graphics in PhotoLine? Yes, the familiar switching among raster modes has converting to vector added. Try posterizing a picture, then doing that. THEN see what you can do! Wow!

    Also worth noting — when you add effects to type in PhotoLine the type remains editable and the effects are live, so when you make changes to the type, the effects apply.

    My approach PhotoLine 32 was the opposite of yours. I am a lowish end professional users of image editing. I wasn’t wanting to replace PhotoShop, I was wanting to extend/update the image editing capabilities of Canvas (probably about P’shop 3 level). I wanted to avoid Photoshop which is far too complex not to say expensive for my needs.

    PhotoLine 32 was far and away the best of the budget priced alternative I found — in fact, the only one which met professional criteria — and oddly, the somewhat unconventional interface has worked to advantage — searching through it has helped me actually extend my image editing horizons.

    My PhotoLine 32 review, written for and published by “PC Update” in Australia, from the point of view of a pretty low end user, is here: http://www.marketnow.com.au/PL32_Review_for_PC_Update.pdf

    I’ll take the same liberty as Lutz, by the way, if I may, and give a link to your review from mine. In fact, the fact that both your and lutz’s reviews are out there now prompts me to build a proper web page for mine. I’ll get that done real soon!

    cheers
    geoff

  11. Terrence D. on January 23rd, 2008 1:38 am

    For those of you just starting to switch over to Photoline from PS or PSP there’s a nice cross-reference list of available commands that will help you to sort out what commands and tools are equivalent, or in many cases much better in Photoline.

    http://www.geocities.com/advanced_pser/graphic_editor_cross_reference.htm

    This list is a little outdated. It doesn’t look like it’s been added to for about a year. None of the newer features of Photline are even mentioned. Like the 33 new adjustment-layers. The “custom” one is nice to have, you can design as many of your own adjustment-layer types as you desire. Also, many of the features that neither of the other programs have is even mentioned on that cross-reference list. I suppose so that Photoline wouldn’t make PhotoShop and Paint Shop Pro look worse than they already are.

  12. Harry on January 23rd, 2008 3:16 am

    I know very little about vector or bitmap based imaging programs – but I recently had to edit a photoshop format file and found that photoline was the ONLY “low end” vector-enabled program that would open my file while keeping the layers intact. (incidentally, Pixelmator is nice, but doesn’t have vectors)

    The following programs all rasterized the image into one layer (and i tried to both “open” and “import” the image on all of them):

    - lineform
    - vector designer
    - drawit
    - intaglio
    - easydraw
    - nakedlight

    So, it was a relief to come across photoline, which opened it just fine AND has vector abilities.

    Now to cancel my 1gb download of Adobe Illustrator… which I was planning to try next.

    Phew.
    From a niche funcionality perspective, I

  13. Tonio Loewald on January 29th, 2008 8:55 pm

    Great to see this program getting some exposure. I actually exchanged emails with the developer (over a minor bug I found — fixed within 48h by the way).

  14. Detlev Tesch on February 3rd, 2008 2:42 pm

    Thanks, Tonio, for this review!

    I am starting do do some web site development etc. on my own for my site. I am still using iWeb, which is a nice and easy to use app, but since I don’t have .mac publishing is just a bit cumbersome.

    Now I had found a few nice tutorials for creating great stuff with photoshop but the PS price tag I find quite unattractive, since I guess I don’t need all of that functionality.

    Then I stumbled upon Photoline via google. Glad to say I can read the German material (since I am German ;) but still, being pretty unexperienced in these matters, I did miss a good introduction, to find out if it is a good alternative to PS.

    Thanks to your review I am now convinced that it will do for me what I need. And the price tag is VERY reasonalbe, I think.

    So, Thanks again. You helped me out here :) )

    Detlev

  15. Tonio Loewald on February 3rd, 2008 4:32 pm

    I might add that the latest version (14.10) has fixed all the cosmetic problems with Photoline’s UI. Now that’s impressive.

  16. PSDTuts - Photoshop Tutorials and Links - Top 5 Alternatives to Photoshop For Mac Users on February 10th, 2008 3:18 pm

    [...] forums don’t appear to be very active. Macapper does however give them high ratings and there is a Photoline Review there. Photoline has a few features where it may edge out Photoshop that are pointed out in this [...]

  17. 'ILLEGAL on April 14th, 2008 10:32 am

    None…

    None…

  18. Tonio Loewald's Blog » Article » Photoline Revisited on May 5th, 2008 6:53 pm

    [...] Photoline before as the first true Photoshop alternative I’ve come across, and I wrote a generally glowing review for MacApper a week or two back. I made a few critical remarks, mainly concerning cosmetic issues [...]

  19. OSX Photoshop Alternative Round-Up on May 30th, 2008 4:36 pm

    [...] Here are some of the features that it offers that a lot of it’s competitors don’t from MacApper. * Pixel accurate drawing and selection tools * 16-bits per channel * CMYK and Lab color * Full [...]

  20. ArsGeek » OSX Photoshop Alternative Round-Up on May 31st, 2008 7:38 am

    [...] Here are some of the features that it offers that a lot of it’s competitors don’t from MacApper. * Pixel accurate drawing and selection tools * 16-bits per channel * CMYK and Lab color * Full [...]

  21. ArsGeek » OSX Photoshop Alternative Round-Up on May 31st, 2008 7:38 am

    [...] Here are some of the features that it offers that a lot of it’s competitors don’t from MacApper. * Pixel accurate drawing and selection tools * 16-bits per channel * CMYK and Lab color * Full [...]

  22. bert on June 11th, 2008 11:44 pm

    can i use photline to do vectors? and how ?
    do you have any site that offers tutorials?
    thank you.

  23. Julian Smith on January 4th, 2009 12:48 am

    I have only just discovered PhotoLine, and am delighted with it. I find myself in the absurd situation of owning two legal copies of C3 Photoshop, neither of which can be activated because my frequent upgrading of hardware has gone through the allowed number of activations. While I can understand Adobe’s fight against the pirates, I regard a program I have bought and paid for to be mine to use on whatever machine I install it on, and have no intention of applying for a further license. They’ve lost me forever.

  24. Photoshop Alternatives Revisited at Tonio Loewald’s Blog on April 12th, 2009 12:29 am

    [...] reviewed Photoline for MacApper more than a year ago (when it was at version 14.10 or so — it’s since received a major [...]

  25. chris walsh on November 24th, 2009 3:49 pm

    Great review – very helpful…I’m downloading it right now. Having just come over to a MacPro after 20 years of MS/Windows, I was sad to leave open source Paint.net behind with the windows platform. Completely agree about the importance of launch time — something Adobe will never fix. Usually I just need a quick tweak to an image (crop, level, etc), and the Adobe launch hang feels interminable.

  26. Kaye on March 10th, 2010 10:52 am

    Thanks for the GREAT review… This is really an informative post…

  27. occ on March 28th, 2010 9:17 pm

    Just found Photoline myself. Definitely the best Mac pixel-pusher I’ve used — for a platform that has such a history of graphics-orientation, it kinda amazes me that Photoshop is still so far from its competition — except this.

    Someone mentioned GIMP — I love GIMP, but its absolutely unusable in OSX. You’re forced to run it under the much-loathed X11 “front-end”, which basically makes it look (and work) like crap. The dialog boxes try to fake an X setup, so you end up with a battle between GIMP’s widgets and OSX’s…not to mention the general sloppiness that comes from not writing FOR the platform (windows flicker, maximize doesn’t work right, resizing windows will make the tool buttons disappear, crap like that). I’ve gone so far as to try multiple hacks for compiling GIMP through Cocoa, which is a little better, but…

    But I digress. Photoline is probably better than GIMP. If they want to truly win more customers, my suggestions:
    ..nicen up the interface, as mentioned in the review
    ..this may be me, but I’d say change the name. “Photoline” just says “clone”, and “clone” says “not as good”. “GIMP”, of course, is even worse as a name ;)
    ..and advertise this, dammit. I’ve had this Mac (my first) for a year, and I’ve managed to try abotu 15 image editors before I found this. Spread the word!

  28. Top 5 Alternatives to Photoshop For Mac Users | Doso on April 30th, 2010 9:44 am

    [...] don't appear to be very active. Macapper does, however, give them high ratings and there is aPhotoline Review there. Photoline has a few features where it may edge out Photoshop that are pointed out in this [...]

  29. Carlos Pat on September 2nd, 2011 2:48 pm

    Thanks a ton; from all of us.

  30. Geoffrey Heard on September 2nd, 2011 9:31 pm

    Since I wrote 2-3 years ago(!), PhotoLine has gone through two (or is it three) upgrades — each of them each of them adding solid functionality. It is now on v.16.52. Rock solid. Runs st warp speed on my 2010 MacBook Pro with OS X.6.8. Choice of 64 bit, 32 bit, 32 bit + Rosetta!

    Have a look at pl32.com now. Still not the prettiest interface in my opinion, but I’m happy to trade that for the outstanding functionality which continues to improve.

    Have a trawl through the user forum for discussion of current capabilities.

    Cheers, geoff

  31. Easy Healthy Recipes on December 19th, 2011 10:15 am

    I am thinking of getting photoshop for myself but after reading this post, I will reconsider!

  32. Geoffrey Heard on December 19th, 2011 11:53 pm

    And now it has just been released at v.17.0.1. See it all at http://pl32.net. More major image editing improvements, including:
    Simple Browse
    Selective Color Correction
    Remove Object
    Improved Selection with the new Quick Selection and Border Matting tools
    … and much more …

    Still running at warp speed. Still a small download. Still offering 30 days dully featured free trial, and still priced ludicrously low.

    Cheers, geoff

  33. 007 on April 17th, 2012 2:38 am

    Does Photoline have levels, curves, channel mixer, and adjustment layers? If so, can levels and curves be adjusted freely like in PS? Also, is the color balance adjustable seperately for shadows, middle tones, and highlights? Thanks in advance!

  34. Geoffrey Heard on April 17th, 2012 4:14 am

    Yes, 007, all of that and so much more that if you take the 30 day free trial http://pl32.net and work full time at it, you’ll likely still be finding new stuff at the end!

    With the color balance you can also chose to preserve or change luminosity.

    Cheers, geoff

    PS: I’m just a user of the PhotoLine.

  35. jack on May 16th, 2012 9:58 am

    Spend the whole weekend with PhotoLine 17.50.
    I’m flabbergasted! What an incredible program, extremly powerfull and works like a charm on OSX.
    Highly recommended as an alternative for PS,it has all the tools PS has and then some more.
    Everybody please buy it and spread the word.

    Jack.

  36. Cheryl on November 14th, 2012 3:35 pm

    Thanks for this review , I’m trying to find a photo programme that does kaliedescope… I tried gimp and I found it a pain to use… I can’t afford ps so thanks for this… I may well download it if I can find out the answer to my quest… I’ve been looking for a programme that does this for my mac for ages :) (I’m a new convert to a mac! ) thanks for any help you or your readers can give me !

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