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Vector app alternatives

Best All-Around Graphics App Since Freehand!

Post and discuss about other good vector graphics applications.

Best All-Around Graphics App Since Freehand!

Postby Tom Fulery » Sun Apr 10, 2016 6:00 am

Like many former Freehand users, I rejoiced with the release of Affinity Designer. But frankly, it's a long, long way from being another Freehand. It's a beautifully designed app, but there is so much it doesn't do yet..

I never thought I'd say this, but I've found a graphics app that I not only like as much as Freehand but which actually surpasses it in almost every way. It's called Photoline. A few years ago I glanced at it but dismissed it as just another pixel editor.

Big mistake!

Recently I ran across it again & this time I looked more closely - and came away truly astonished at its power, simplicity & versatility. Not only does it do practically everything Photoshop does, but its SVG vector graphic capabilities are in most ways equal to or actually surpass Freehand's. And it's WAY simpler to use than Illustrator or Inkscape!

Photoline 19 has to be one of the best-kept Mac secrets ever; a fully professional graphics workhorse that's the easiest, most versatile graphics app I’ve used since Freehand bit the dust. It runs flawlessly on OS X, & costs about the same as renting Photoshop for 3 months.

Photoline's UI may not be as elegant as Affinity's, but It does vastly more, including multi-page layout with extensive text-handlng features like text-wrap, text-flow, ligatures, etc. It seamlessly works with both pixel & vector graphics. I'm not sure as to its CYMK capabilities, but I wouldn't be surprised if it does 4-color prepress too.

This is a full-on sophisticated professional program, so it's not for beginners. But the learning curve isn’t terribly steep & it's pretty easy to pick up if you have experience with vector graphic apps like Freehand. It's developed in Germany, so the terminology & operations may seem a bit unorthodox at first, but it's not hard to figure out. As with most graphic apps, experimentation is key to learning to use it. It only took me a few days to have it down & the effort was WELL WORTH IT.

Photoline’s spartan but extremely customizable interface provides a range of advanced, fully customizable tools, filters, effects, brushes, KB shortcuts, layer & mask modes, a comprehensive SVG drawing mode with envelope distortion, perspective, 3D, HD image-tracing, comprehensive multi-page layout features, 32 & 64-bit modes to use Photoshop plugins, dozens of import/export formats & a LOT more. Photoline can also host & run other apps to utilize their features. And it does all this in a very clean 63 MB (Adobe bloatware it ain't!).

As of this writing, the dollar is high, so Photoline can be had for only about $60. A steal, considering all that it does. And there's a full-function 30-day trial version, so you don't risk anything to check it out.

To download the current version, go to
Tom Fulery
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Re: Best All-Around Graphics App Since Freehand!

Postby FFH Mark » Fri Apr 15, 2016 11:09 pm

I am not aware of Photoline but this is a good review. We posted your review to Facebook today and heard good response so far. A little confused about the vector side of this as it seems to be like Photoshop rather than FreeHand/Illustrator. Would you explain the vector aspect of Photoline more? Is SVG the only vector output? EPS? PDF?
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FFH Mark
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Re: Best All-Around Graphics App Since Freehand!

Postby Herbert » Sat Apr 23, 2016 9:06 am

I switched to Photoline almost three years ago now, and I have seen this application grow.

The photo editing is literally on par with Photoshop - its layer stack is arguably superior to Photoshop. Photoline has a number of unique features in this regard:
- a layer's opacity can be set from -200(!) up to +200.
- any layer can be set to any image mode and any bit depth (monochrome up to 32bit per channel). These layers can be freely mixed. The background layer decides the final output format.
- transformation of bitmap layers is by default non-destructive (well, this is not unique to PL).
- any bitmap layer can be any physical size, and be colour managed individually, if required.
- most filters are available as live adjustment layers.

Other useful features are:
- photoshop plugin compatible. NIK, Topaz, FilterForge, etc.: they all work.
- built-in parametric texture generator

As for the vector functionality:
- parametric objects: circle/ellipse (also serves as arc tool), square/rectangle, rounded square/rectangle, polygon, rhomb, parallelogram, free style stars, flowers, grid, spiral, vector object (preset library shapes), ruler, rays, charts, and placeholder layers.

Where applicable, the parameters for objects generated with these tools remain live: select the object at a later stage, and switch to the tool which was used to create that object, and the parameters can be edited.

This only works if the object in question was not changed on a vector level.

- vector distortion and warp effects: these remain live, and are accessible in the effects-->distort menu. After applying a distortion, the object remains vector, and the settings are non-destructively accessible in the layer properties.

- anti-aliasing may be controlled at a document level, and/or on a per layer basis.

- vector layers can be aligned to the pixel grid at a document level, and/or on a per layer basis.

- view of document in pixel mode, or "illustration" resolution-independent mode. This only works if no effects are added which rely on pixels to work.

- layers, including vector layers, can be cloned/instanced (called a virtual layer). Any change to the original layer updates all the instances in your document IN REAL-TIME. This allows for symmetry effects, mandalas, etc. Each instance may be individually transformed.

- all the usual base vector editing tools are available. But some of these work differently from the norm: for example, to convert a straight segment into a curve, the user must click with the convert vector points tool on the segment.

- the edit vector points tool can drag curved segments. No need to control each point's handles individually.

- gradients can be controlled and edited directly on the canvas for vector objects. Switch to the edit vector points tool to access this option. Right-mouse click on the gradient for additional options, including a nice cubic interpolation method for far smoother looking gradients with multiple colour stops. The gradient widget also snaps to points and segments, btw :-)

- smart snapping

- a lot of alignment options for objects! Distribute layers, align to top bottom, center, both centers, move to a selected border of the active object, and more.

Alignment of multiple objects in Photoline can be controlled by a reference object. In Photoline one layer of multiple selected layers must be the active layer. This means multiple objects can be easily aligned to one object.

Alignment is possible to page borders, to guides, and between guides.

- pressure sensitive vector drawing. And the option to view the curve of any stroke, and control the stroke width with a curve editor.

- arrow ends, custom line patterns, stroke outside, inside, center position, stroke star/end settings, and line join sharp, straight, rounded.

- gradients, patterns, and textures can be applied to both the stroke and fill separately.

- all adjustment/filter layers and layer effects can be applied to vector layers. This may convert them to bitmaps depending on the adjustment, of course.

- non-destructive vector distortion effects: outline warping (based on preset or custom shapes), free roughen, angled roughen, central roughen, zigzag, twist.

- all layer transforms are non-destructive for vector objects - including perspective distortions.

- good text capabilities. Open type control is still missing. Ligature control works on Macs, not on Windows (due to poor OS support).
Two types of text frames: clicking with the text tool on the canvas creates a dynamic text frame, which automatically adjusts its size based on the content (super handy). Dragging a text frame creates a fixed sized one, which must be manually resized to display overflowing content.

- threaded text columns across pages possible (although a bit awkward to use in comparison to dedicated DTP applications. YES: Photoline offers a document mode for multiple page documents. No spread functionality, though: must be handled manually.

- text on path. Many options.

- text objects may be converted to vector via the layer properties: just select "vector" in the layer type dropdown menu. Conversion options: single path, as shown, single characters.

- super handy trick: when rotating, skewing, or scaling multiple selected objects via the layer properties, each selected object transforms INDIVIDUALLY.

- booleans for vectors: union, intersection, difference, exclusion (XOR), and cut.

- non-destructive morphing (blending in steps) for two or more vector objects

- vector shapes may be added in an existing vector layer. It is possible to split a vector layer's shapes into multiple vector layers, or combine shapes into a single vector layer. Do realize shapes in one vector layer all share the same stroke and fill properties.

- external vector files can be linked to and placed with placeholder layers.

- bitmap layers can be converted to vector layers. Simply switch layer type in the layer properties. Options are limited, though. I do my conversions in Inkscape (and lately) in the open sourced OpenToonz (which has a superb bitmap-->vector converter, and exports to SVG!).

- vector layers can be optimized (reduced in complexity) with a simple slider.

- vector outline conversion option (convert stroke to outlines).

- simple non-destructive 3d extrusion effect with one light source

- spot colours

In the latest beta versions (available to registered users) a number of excellent vector related options were added:
- true vector fills! With various settings on controlling the pattern type.
- fills can consist of any content now.
- on-canvas widgets to control the fill and stroke pattern/texture. One of the best I have seen so far. It is a pleasure controlling pattern and texture fills and strokes in Photoline now.
- any layer or group of layers can be embedded in a placeholder layer. This is a comparable feature to smart objects in Photoshop.

As for vector file import and export:

- full PDF export, and vectors/text remain vector. Also for multiple pages. PDF/X3 and PDF/X1a are supported as well.

- PDF Proof view mode.

- PDF import.

- Adobe Illustrator (PDF) import. These files can also be placed as embedded placeholder layers (or external placeholder layers).

Unique: these embedded AI files can be directly opened and edited in a new windows in Photoline - just like smart objects in Photoshop. They can also be converted to regular layers in the main document.

As always, AI import may not support all features. That is just a fact of life. As long as Illy-specific features are expanded, it usually works fine.

- simple EPS import is supported out of the box. For extended support, the ghostscript dll must be copied to the Photoline installation folder.

- vector export formats: SWF, SVG, EMF, WMF, Calamus, DXF, GEM, HPGL, PDF

- vector import formats: AI(PDF), SVG, EPS, DXF, ps, clp, emf, wmf, cgm, cmx, cvg, gem, hpg, hpgl

- the SVG import and export is more than excellent: I and other users sent all sorts of problematic files to the developers in the past year, and they fixed all issues we encountered. I can now open SVG files which are problematic even in InkScape.

Photoline offers one more unique feature: it is possible to create application links to other design software, and send a layer, or the entire document (or nothing) to external applications.

For example, whenever I am in need of more complex vector editing, I send that vector layer or group of vector layers to Inkscape, edit the vector objects, and save. Switch back to Photoline, and it automatically updates the vector layers with the edits. And the link remains live! Which means I can keep on editing, and saving updates the result in Photoline.

This also works for bitmap layers. Any layer can be sent to other software, edited, and sent back to Photoline. Round-trip editing! This is a brilliant feature of Photoline.

Anyway, I hope this list of vector related features gives everyone here a good overview of its vector editing. Photoline really combines excellent bitmap editing with very good vector tools. Do not expect all the bells and whistles of more modern vector illustration software - but the combo Photoline<-->Inkscape round-trip editing makes for a quite powerful vector editing duo. And Photoline's vector editing tools are way ahead of, let's say, Photoshop.

There are many more features which combine bitmap and vector editing. For example, layer masks in Photoline are regular layers. Use a group of vector objects as a vector layer mask for other vector objects. Going one step further, you could use a vector layer mask to mask a vector layer mask, which in turn is a mask for a vector layer group. And these layer masks can be cloned/instanced and re-used in the layer stack!

Compared to Freehand, the following features are missing for me:
- master pages (which can be worked around with virtual layers)
- perspective grid
- library symbol panel with instances updating in the document when the original is changed (again, virtual layers serve as a work-around, but still)
- find and replace function for attributes.

Otherwise, it is pretty much all present in Photoline. Except that Photoline is also on par with Photoshop in terms of pure image editing (no 3d or video options).
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Re: Best All-Around Graphics App Since Freehand!

Postby Aspensound » Thu May 18, 2017 8:31 am

Hi Herbert, and thanks for your great news about Photoline. I just read your comments about it and also downloaded it and took a first sight. Couple of questions for you, about vector mode: is there keyline view? is there paste inside possibility? is there possibility to change document view pixels to millimeters? also about fonts is it possible to see fonts size as points?
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Re: Best All-Around Graphics App Since Freehand!

Postby Aspensound » Thu May 18, 2017 9:35 am

I found how to change pixels to mm, inch, points, ets. Just ctrl-click on the field which you want change. Eg. "Document 254 x 210", ctrl-click the "x" between numerals and voila, change your desired unit.
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