Review: Pixelmator for iPad out now, a desktop-class photo editor for a mobile device

Note: The app is still rolling out worldwide. Check back soon if the links don’t work for you!

Announced during Apple’s October event, Pixelmator for iPad ($4.99) is an important stepping stone in the iPad’s history. The Mac app is regularly featured by Apple as an exemplar app in the Mac App Store and it is clear Apple wants to use Pixelmator as a ‘trophy’ app in the same way. No doubt this app (aside from games) is one of a handful that will directly benefit from the A8X performance gains.

I tested the app on an iPad Air, although the app technically supports all the way back to iPad 3, even some operations on the Air felt slow. I would be a bit cautious if you intend to install it on one of Apple’s older tablets.

As a 1.0 release, the depth and breadth of this app is staggering. There are a myriad of effects, painting brushes, color adjustments and other features to help edit and create images. The vast majority of the Mac app’s functionality have been ported across to the iPad with a touch-friendly interface, including advanced editing options like layer styles. There are also some template options that aren’t currently included in the Mac app to appease the ‘Photo Booth’ selfie crowd.

Read on for 9to5Mac’s full review of Pixelmator for iPad …

The main Pixelmator UI takes much inspiration from Apple’s iWork suite of apps. The ‘Get Started’ dialog looks almost identical to the first-launch experience of Pages, for instance. Pixelmator features the same gallery view of documents, which emulates the Home Screen behavior of drag-and-drop to create folders. This grid shows documents that reside in Pixelmator’s iCloud container. The + menu can import from iCloud Drive, iCloud Photo Library or from the local Camera Roll.

Be prepared to tap these menu items a lot.

The main canvas UI also takes many cues from Keynote. The primary toolbar uses the same ‘Format’ inspector as the iWork apps, alongside the memorable add, settings, sharing and help menus. Tapping each icon opens its respective popover with options. The contents of the ‘Format’ menu vary based on context and your current selection and is where you spend most of your time. Once again, with the controls you are not going to be a surprised by what you see if you have used iWork before. In fact, when using this app, you start to forget that this app isn’t made by Apple at all. Even the app icon is scarily similar to iPhoto.

I like the structure of Apple’s iWork apps. Most third-party developers apps have shunned the iWork navigation in favor of other custom control flows but I’m not really sure why. In many ways, this is great. If you are familiar with Pages or Keynote, you will be very at home with Pixelmator. The developers have even replicated Apple’s yellow tooltips UI if you need additional guidance.

Unfortunately, this design approach breaks down in the edge-cases when Pixelmator hasn’t mimicked Apple’s implementation completely. For instance, you can’t one finger rotate images or bunch layers into a group to move multiple items at once. As it looks like iWork, you expect these things to work, but they don’t … which is disappointing. Most of these are ancillary annoyances but one key omission is the lack of a ‘constrain resize’ gesture. This was a frustration on several occurrences during testing, as I could not find a way to resize a rectangle in proportion (ie: a square shape) without manually fiddling both axes.

Naturally, adopting the iWork UI also means you adopt its flaws. In landscape, I think the inspector popover would be better presented as a persistent sidebar. Right now, in both orientations, you have to endure an extra tap to open inspectors when you switch objects. In portrait, this is fine given the aspect ratio but something better could be made for landscape orientation. This seems like an obvious improvement for future updates.

Overall, I think the iPad interface is great. Although I feel like I’m tapping excessively, everything is straightforward and logically laid out. It is much less overwhelming than the Mac app which presents multiple onscreen panels simultaneously. The iPad experience is one context at a time, in procession (either through a popover or a modal view). Vitally, this is consistent across the app. A vast array of different image operations are handled by the same, familiar, navigation patterns. So, what are these features exactly?

Adjustments fit into four main categories; effects, color adjustment, painting tools and retouching tools. Effects and color adjustment apply to the selection — blurs, bokeh, vignettes — whereas the brush-based tools are selective based on your finger touch.

Effects

Effects show small previews along the toolbar — tapping on each applies the effect above. Some effects have parameter settings that appear when you tap through, but others are more basic. Over time, I’m sure Pixelmator will add more customization options for each of the effects to match the desktop counterparts.

Pixelmator for iPad makes heavy use of this rotary dial UI element, acting as both a color wheel and a slider. You can quickly move your finger in circular motions to ramp up effects with momentum, similar to an iPod clickwheel. As mentioned above, selecting an area first before entering the effects mode will constrain the effect to just the desired selection, otherwise it will apply to the whole layer. In this example, I used a freeform selection tool to separate the foreground moss from the background and only colorize the foreground moss to a purple shade, leaving the rest of the image unaffected.

Retouching

Retouching options are brush based, so you trace your finger over the affected areas to apply the effects. This encapsulates the saturation, desaturation, red-eye, smudge, and repair adjustments. Each tool is presented in a pleasant grid view, just tap to swap between tools. The iconography is flat and basic to fit iOS 8’s wider aesthetic, but are well-balanced to maintain the feeling of sophistication a pro app should have.

I was impressed with the repair tool. You just highlight a screen portion and it uses surrounding content to remove the offending region. This works better than you would expect it would, but obviously it’s not flawless. I think the best way to characterize its accuracy is to say I was surprised at the output. The team say it uses the same repair engines that Pixelmator for Mac introduced in 3.2. It does take a good chunk of processing time and is one of the few instances where you have to wait for progress bars to complete.

Painting

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Alongside the photo editor elements, Pixelmator also includes an array of brushes and shape tools so that you can actually draw works of art onto a blank canvas. Pixelmator includes support for pressure-sensitive Wacom Bluetooth styli, which is probably recommended if you want to do serious painting. Lacking one of these, I tried to make a pretty picture in ten minutes. You can see the results in the slideshow. Combining some shape layers and freeform brushes, I made a decent landscape very quickly. For a novice artist, I was happy with the resultant image and convinced that someone with better drawing talents could create fully-fledged art pieces with this app.

Color Adjustments

This is what most serious photographers will use the most, to tweak color balance and hues. When opening color adjustments, a new sidebar docks to the side of the screen. You can adjust white balance, color temperature and even manipulate a color curves graph directly, adding control points as necessary. A live histogram is also presented showing an accurate up-to-date graphical representation of the photo’s colors. This mode is very competitive with desktop apps in terms of its feature set and I can see professional users download Pixelmator just for on-the-go color correction.

Templates

Pixelmator includes a variety of template options which aim to create throwaway things like quick collages and basic greetings cards. The collages and framed images are templates that are primed for quick upload to Instagram or . Unfortunately, there is currently no way to adjust the masking when you replace the template images with ones from your library. This means attaining perfect compositions is impossible. Still, it’s meant as a quick feature and it certainly delivers in that  area. The templates are pure Pixelmator projects underneath, so you can still add text and other layers on top if you want to customize the appearance in that way. Whether these novelty features are appropriate for a professional photo app is a different question entirely.

Export

Once you are done creating your images, you can export with a tap. You won’t be surprised to find out that the dialog replicates iWork once again. Pixelmator lets you send the raw Pixelmator file format directly, or export to Photoshop, JPEG and PNG file formats. The latter of these will flatten your image layers before sending, obviously. You can save the image to the Photo Library, back into iCloud Drive, or export to another third-party app.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Pixelmator for iPad is a great addition to the platform and shows how much the iPad has matured since January 2010. The main problem I have with using Pixelmator day-to-day is how to get pictures into the iPad for editing in the first place. If you are taking pictures on a DSLR, it’s still easier just to import the snaps straight to a Mac and manage them there. Right now, Pixelmator for iPad is best used in conjunction with your iPhone camera. Take pictures on your iPhone, edit them on your iPad, all synced though iCloud Photo Library.

Regardless, at $4.99, Pixelmator is almost an impulse buy as it is so cheap. It’s very full featured and a no-brainer if you already own Pixelmator for the Mac as the app supports all modern Continuity features, like iCloud syncing and Handoff integration. It’s not a gimmick: real people could take advantage of this app for a long time. Pixelmator for iPad is a quality product that could easily be justified at twice its price, especially given Pixelmator’s reputation of consistent updates on the Mac. Everything is super responsive on an iPad Air. I can’t wait to see how it performs on the iPad Air 2. Expect to see Apple feature this app heavily in its new iPad commercials.

You can download Pixelmator from the App Store for $4.99. Find out more information at the developer’s website.

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25 Responses to “Review: Pixelmator for iPad out now, a desktop-class photo editor for a mobile device”

  • OGenius says:

    October 23, 2014 at 4:17 am

    Pixelmator for iPad is definitely going to be a huge success! It will replace iPhotos on iPad for sure. Thanks for the great review Benjamin!

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  • Taste_of_Apple says:

    October 23, 2014 at 4:18 am

    Great review.

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  • Scott (@shamwich) says:

    October 23, 2014 at 4:21 am

    Waiting for it to hit the Australian App Store. So excited to try this out – any word on image size limitations? RAW processing? I’d love to keep my D600 images full res..

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    • Benjamin Mayo says:

      October 23, 2014 at 7:01 am

      No RAW in this version.

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    • geojenkins (@geojenkins) says:

      October 23, 2014 at 7:16 am

      There is no raw support that I can find. In the past I was able to use snapseed to open raw files then into after light but trying that with pixelmator gives you an error. Nikon Raw file from camera connector directly to iPad air.

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      • Scott (@shamwich) says:

        October 23, 2014 at 7:31 pm

        Thanks Guys – Glad this has been confirmed – looks like I”ll need to continue to shoot JPG+RAW ^_^

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  • beyondthetech says:

    October 23, 2014 at 4:38 am

    Why they couldn’t make it a Universal app or at least support the new iPhone 6/6 Plus is bewildering and disappointing. After all, the resolution of the 6 Plus is bigger than the resolution of the iPad 2 and iPad mini 1G.

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    • gen0music says:

      October 23, 2014 at 6:07 am

      The 6+ screen is no different than the 1080p screens most designers use, and yet you would never catch a graphic designer trying to edit photos on his phone.

      Except for one big issue, the 6+ uses pixel division, and internally renders at 1242 × 2208 to make you feel as if the screen is much bigger than it actually is (by shrinking non iOS objects). Using a pixel scaling OS for image editing means that Pixelmator would be much slower on the 6+ and as it’s the first phone to do so it also likely means a lot more coding is needed to make things compatible.

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      • David Hsu (@devHsu) says:

        October 23, 2014 at 6:57 am

        This. Also the fact that A8X is about 55% faster than A8 in CPU, a LOT faster in GPU (150% improvement over A7 compared to A8’s 50%), and comes with 2GB of RAM.

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      • charilaosmulder says:

        October 23, 2014 at 7:26 am

        No, the 6+ doesn’t shrink objects, it enlarges them compared to the orther iPhones by 6% or so. Why? It has a slightly lower point density than 163ppi, which is then trippled to 1242×2208. The result: more screen real estate than on iPhone 6 (but not as much as it should’ve been) AND slightly larger screen elements. The internal 1242×2208 is then downscaled in sharpness to fit the 1080p screen (but this last step isn’t changing the size of on-screen objects at all).

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      • beyondthetech says:

        October 23, 2014 at 8:41 am

        While that’s fine and good, remember that this app is designed to be compatible on on ALL iPads that support iOS 8.0, which includes the iPad 2 and iPad mini 1G.

        Just like that famous photographer’s motto, “the best camera is the one you have with you,” and while I don’t plan on moving all my photo editing sessions to an iPhone 6 Plus, the ability to be able to do it when I need to makes all the difference in the world.

        Even if it would be “much slower on the 6+” as you say, I can’t imagine it would be any slower than someone using Pixelmator on an iPad mini with the A5 processor. The 6/6+ has the 64-bit A8 processor similar to the latest iPads, and only the iPad Air 2 has the expanded 2GB of memory.

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  • Callea (@CalleaTr) says:

    October 23, 2014 at 5:19 am

    …”The main problem I have with using Pixelmator day-to-day is how to get pictures into the iPad for editing in the first place. If you are taking pictures on a DSLR, it’s still easier just to import the snaps straight to a Mac and manage them there….”…

    You can easly import images into iPad with Apple Lightning/USB or Lightning/SD adapter.

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    Reply

  • iSRS says:

    October 23, 2014 at 5:30 am

    Glad to hear it is supported on my (showing it’s age) iPad 3. I will likely not install it there permanently, but I have been using Pixelmator since long before the Mac App Store, and gladly paid for it again when it moved to the MAS (A quick check shows it was in the first group of apps I bought from the MAS on January 6, 2011). Their support team has always been helpful and quick to respond. This App is a no brainer to buy.

    Keep up the great work, guys and gals!

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  • Štěpán Pazderka says:

    October 23, 2014 at 6:01 am

    Pixelmator on iOS doesnt load up iCloud files which there. It is stuck. Seriously… when will iCloud “just work”?

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  • Greg Furry (@gfurry) says:

    October 23, 2014 at 6:17 am

    Not all features including retouch are not available on anything except the iPad air and air 2. Found that after I bought it just for the retouch feature which I found out isn’t available on the iPad 3.

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    • iSRS says:

      October 23, 2014 at 6:29 am

      good to know. I am really just considering my purchase a “thanks for making great software I use every day” type of purchase. This company is great, IMHO

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  • DubDJ says:

    October 23, 2014 at 6:34 am

    Downloaded earlier and loving it so far, first thing I noticed was how very Apple-like it was. It looks like iPhoto or Pages just as the above mentions. Really well made app, for repair, image resizing and filters alone I’d pay for this. I’ve paid less than €20 and got a great Mac and iOS image editor. Love Pixelmator!

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  • charilaosmulder says:

    October 23, 2014 at 7:32 am

    Here’s something weird:

    The app looks and feels EXACTLY like the iWork apps, it has an icon that is very much like the iPhoto for iOS icon (which from now on doesn’t exist anymore). The website is an extraordinary clone of Apple’s website (just look at what happens when you play a video, but there’s much more). The apps are extremely well integrated into iOS & OSX using many of the core technologies. Apple even featured Pixelmator on the new Mac Pro webpage.

    This all makes me think Pixelmator somehow belongs to Apple. It’s like they got acquired but I somehow missed it.

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    • giskardian says:

      October 23, 2014 at 9:55 am

      Steve Jobs hated Adobe ever since they draged their feet on porting their apps to OS X’s native Cocoa. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if Pixelmator got special treatment from Apple including technical help.

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      • giskardian says:

        October 23, 2014 at 9:55 am

        “dragged”. I wish we could edit posts!

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  • virtualstorm says:

    October 23, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Available in Canada. Downloading it right now. Thanks for the heads up

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  • ctyrider (@ctyrider) says:

    October 23, 2014 at 10:48 am

    That is a nice app (and the price is right), but a Mac is still an infinitely better platform for any kind of serious image editing. This is just another attempt to shoehorn iPad into something it’s not really good for.

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  • thud (@thud) says:

    October 23, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Huge fan of the Mac version, so this was an insta-buy for me even though I’m still using an iPad 3. Runs surprisingly well given the limitations of the device – very usable for me. Impressed once again by the Pixelmator team.

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  • Israel Anderson (@israelanderson) says:

    October 23, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Please release for iPhone 6+

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  • webzpinner says:

    October 24, 2014 at 7:03 am

    Best app ever! Loving it.

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  • Review: Pixelmator for iPad out now, a desktop-class photo editor for a mobile device