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Vector app alternatives

Photoline - a comparison with Freehand

Post and discuss about other good vector graphics applications.

Photoline - a comparison with Freehand

Postby Herbert » Thu Jan 16, 2014 9:30 am

A long time ago I used to use and teach Freehand. I still miss it today. I never got along with Illustrator that well, and tend to work in other vector apps. About 18 months ago I happened upon Photoline: an obscure image editor that at first glance I felt it would not be even worth to install, but decided for a quick test run, and turned out to be an unexpected (positive) surprise.

Some might be interested in Photoline's vector capabilities. While vector drawing is not necessarily its primary focus, it is quite good, and may be a nice replacement for some. I have used it extensively for vector screen work (mainly mobile game design - laying out huge levels with hundreds of layered objects) and photo work. Also some cmyk printing.

Photoline is Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign in one package, albeit with caveats here and there. Some of the workflow is completely different to any other package out there - in a good way. Having said that, there are some glaring omissions as well. But more about that below.

1) Vector drawing in PL takes a slightly different approach compared to most. I like drawing in PL, though some of the workflow patterns take some time to get accustomed to.

a)For example, converting a line segment into a curved one involves using the Convert Vector tool, and clicking on the line segment, rather than the anchor points. Then the Vector Points Edit tool can be used to not only drag the anchor points and the handles to affect the curve, but also the line segment. Holding down <shift> keeps the tool from affecting the neighbouring curves, if you like.

This tool also support single handles. Click on one segment, and only handles for that segment are added.

b) Vector objects reside on their own vector layer. PL supports vector, bitmap, text, virtual, file (latest beta), and group layers. Layers can act like layer masks.

This means there is no "copy inside" option, because it is not required. Create a vector shape, and use it as either a clipping layer, or a vector layer mask. The difference with Photoshop is that these remain "real" vector objects that are output like vectors.

c) the anchor point and handles size is much bigger than in Freehand - which is, I feel, a good thing - they are much too small on a 27" 2560x1440px screen, and difficult to grab.

d) gradients are completely live, and the gradient controls are automatically activated when the vector editing tool is selected.

e) while in vector editing mode, clicking on another vector layer allows you to edit that one.

f) while auto guide mode is active, you can align to vector points and segments of other objects.

g) with multiple anchor points selected, holding down <alt> moves only the anchor points, while leaving the handles behind.

h) live vector objects are supported. Rounded box tool, ellipse, star tool, Rhomb, flower, ruler, charts, rays, grid, parallelogram, polygon - after drawing one of these, live parameters become available in the tool settings. These can be changed at any time, though at some point the "link" will be broken (for example, when manually editing the anchor points). The only drawback is that to change the parameters, the user has to select the exact tool that was used to create that particular object, and only then will the parameters be accessible.

i) the knife tool is (too) simple. This definitely could be improved. Just click, and the path is split. No dragging. No additional options.

j) great svg import and export. Also great eps import with the ghostscript DLLs (both 32 and 64bit) copied into the hlp folder.

h) easy boolean functions, but very different workflow: select two or more vector layers, and right-mouse click the layers to access them.

i) vector layers can easily be split and merged by selecting the objects/layers and right-mouse clicking - select the merge or split command.

j) paths can be automatically closed when drawn. Or kept open.

k) vector control points are hidden after grouping. There is no highlighted selection, though.

l) selection can be either group-based or layer based. Holding down <ctrl> switched behaviour, depending on the default set by the user in the tool options. Objects obscured by other objects can be deep-selected by clicking on the same spot multiple times. Caveat: in PL the user must first select before an object can be moved. There is no select & drag object in one action.

m) cloning and duplicating objects can be done in different ways. One of the most powerful options is to copy objects by creating a virtual layer - an instanced clone. These clones can be used anywhere: on pages, in other virtual layers, as layer masks, and so on. When the user edits the source layer all the instances update in real time.
There is also an option to use a stamp brush with which you can paint with any PL file, and "animate" the brush, i.e. based on layers rotate through the layers while painting. This, however, is a bitmap based only option.

n) non-destructive distortions for any kind of shape are also available. This is comparable to the distort tool in Freehand. Interestingly enough a live Liquify layer is also compatible with all the layers, including shape layers (which do become rasterized at that point).

2) Bitmap features
Photoline's image editing features are about on par with Photoshop (yes, really!). Imagine having all those options available and most of those functions can be applied indiscriminately to either bitmap or vector layers. Vector shapes are, by necessity, of course rasterized in some of these cases. A couple of things stand out (compared to Photoshop):

a) any layer can be any image mode: rgb, cmyk, Lab, greyscale or monochrome. This is independent from the file's main image mode. You can freely combine and mix layers and objects in any mode. All bitdepths are supported: 8 bit per channel, 16pbc, and 32bpc.

This means the user can introduce a cmyk image in the layer stack, while working with rgb objects on other layers. And each can have its own bit depth.

b) full layer blending, with opacity settings from -200(!) up to +200(!). It's the only application I know of that allows for this type of blending. This also works on vector layers.

c) Photoline allows as many layer masks per layer as the user wants. These can be freely combined into groups and even subgroups. 16bpc layer masks are also supported in the latest beta. Vectors and bitmap layers can be combined in any way you want.

d)Virtual layers can be used and re-used anywhere you wish, including layer masks.

e) bitmap layers can be converted to vector layers.

f) full adjustment layer and layer effects are supported. All of these can be applied to both bitmap and vector layers. There are no limits in this regard.

3) File Handling
a) export of selected layers to most file formats.

b) a new placeholder layer that allows the user to import external files in layouts. The connection is live, which means that if the user updates the external file, Photoline automatically updates the content in realtime.

c) classic photoshop filter support

d) external application link that allows most external image applications to work as a "plugin" in Photoline. For example, a layer can be sent to Gimp, edited there, and saved. The content is automatically updated in the PL file.

e) the only image editor that allows import of full layered EXR files out of the box.

f) 'Bridge' like Browse module

g) full raw image support

h) web export includes latest WebP file format.

i) Photoshop import keeps a large amount of adjustment layers intact while importing.


4) Text & Document Handling
Pretty much standard DTP tools.
a) inline graphics are supported

b) text can be set on any path or shape - many extended options. Very simple in use: select the text tool, and click on a path. That's it.

c) text can flow in any shape.
d) classic text frames.

e) no multiple columns option

f) master pages are not supported directly, but virtual copies are supported - which means the user may create a master page with source layers and content, and these can be copied to the other pages in the document. When the master page objects are changed, all the instances change.

g) pdf export.

h) multiple page document mode and a picture mode. In document mode any size of page can be added. Pages are displayed one by one in the view (unlike Freehand). Pages can be labelled. The page palette is rather rough, but functional.

i) guides manager palette. When copying pages, the guides are copied as well. Guides can be linked to the current page, even/odd and all pages.

j) every individual bitmap layer can have its own size, position, scaling, dpi/ppi and anti-aliasing setting.

k) baseline grid for text supported.

l)very handy: a document list palette shows all open documents.

m) each page can be opened in its own window, if required.

n) character and paragraph styles are supported. Rather rough around the edges again.

5) Other Handy Things
a) calculations in fields are supported

b) Deleting a page deletes its contents

c) Bitmap paint tools comparable to the older Photoshop. Photoshop brushes are supported.

d) the interface is quite configurable, and offers a choice in 'darkness' level. Three sizes of icons.

e) full colour management, proof mode

f) easy to use live gradient tool.

g) middle mouse button pans the view. Scroll up and down zooms (if set in the prefs)

h) file browser panel. Drag and drop (multiple) files in your document.

i) IPTC/EXIF browser/editor

j) action editor, and batch functionality

k) simple 3d tool like Freehand - but all controlled inside a dialogue box.

l) print markers support. Bar code editor.

m) language can be switched between German, English, French, Italian, Chinese.

So, what are the MAJOR CAVEATS of Photoline compared to Freehand?

1) No spot colour/spot channel support! Aaarghh! Bit of a deal breaker for many users. I am hoping the devs can be convinced to add this support.

2) No symbols. Virtual layers are quite helpful, but it would be nice to have real symbols support.

3) No find and replace. Not for text, not for properties.

4) No "real" clone tool. There are workarounds, but a real clone tool would be welcome.

5) No Bezigon tool.

6) Typography options in Freehand are still better: no hanging interpunction, missing word spacing controls, no keep lines together...

7) No pantone colour swatches. Yes, you read that right - too costly for the two developers. Photoline does read all sorts of colour swatch library formats, but you will have to get those from another source. Don't forget, a license only costs $79. It is understandable.

8) No Freehand import.

9) Colours do not update globally.

10) Since no spot colours are supported, a tint editor is also out of the question for now.

11) No overprint setting?

12) no vector brush tool.

Conclusion: a very powerful image editor with quite good vector tools, and quite reasonable DTP functionality.

The only major drawback that is holding Photoline back for print jobs, is the painful lack of spot colours and channels. Secondly, the vector tools could be improved here and there; personally I prefer the basic vector tools in Photoline over those in Illustrator. They work faster.

In the last 18 months I have requested at least 12 features that were implemented by the developers (sometimes within a week!). I am hopeful the devs will be able to implement spot colours, spot channels, and spot colour management in a future update.

The devs seem to be quite open in how the vector tools should function. I already asked for a couple of changes in the last year, like snapping and selecting other vector objects with the vector tool - they were all implemented.

This is the only application I know of that tries to combine professional image editing, vector drawing, and DTP in one single package. It is convincing in certain aspects, and less in others. I've grown to love it, and things can only improve. The developers have proven to be very reliable, incredibly supportive, and I was able to give Photoshop the boot.

Pricing is very reasonable at 58 euros (about $79), and updates at a mere 29 euro. Beta versions are coming out every three~four weeks. (yes, I am aware the website looks pretty bad - do not judge a book by its cover :-)
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