by Joe Gillespie — May 1, 2004

I have no idea what a 'Gimp' is but computer users of a UNIX persuasion will recognise that it as the name of an open source (read 'free') graphics editor that is often compared to PhotoShop for its range of features and abilities.

'Open source' means that the source code is available at no cost to anybody that wants to download it, use it, modify it, use it to fill empty hard drives – whatever. The point is that it is not a ready to roll program, it has to be 'compiled' before it can be used - think of it as 'ready to cook' rather than 'ready to eat'. For people who use UNIX, this is par for the course. For a lifelong Mac zealot like me, it's like being served up a dead chicken on a plate instead of a Chicken Madras.

When I saw that somebody had released The Gimp in a 'just add boiling water and stir' package, I though I'd have a look.

Before you can use MacGimp, you have to install X11, a UNIX windowing system – so that you don't have to do everything from the command line. That is a free download from Apple and I figured out how to get it up and running without too much difficulty. Running OS X soon knocks all notions of 'The computer for the rest of us' out of you!

Opening MacGimp for the first time was like stepping out onto the surface of an alien planet – and the gravitational pull was different too. Menus were attached to windows instead of being in the menu bar. In fact, there was one menu bar on the tools palette and another on the canvas window. Weird!

The tools palette has recognisable icons, and tooltips to explain them when you don't. The trouble is that they are in no particular order. They are not grouped or arranged into logical sequences, just thrown down like tools on a garage floor. Trying to select any of them proved to be equally haphazard. It took two or more clicks on any of them to activate them, then a contextual menu appeared underneath giving a plethora of tool options.

Exploring the rest of the features, it was clear that a lot of work had gone into the program, it had everything you would expect from a serious graphics editor but then many of the same features turned up in different places which is rather disorientating. That, coupled with icons everywhere, even in the menus, made the program look over-complicated, obviously to appeal to people who fail to see the benefits of elegant simplicity.

When I got used to the fact that the 'open' dialog wouldn't show me any of my 'ordinary' Mac folders or anything in my 'files' hard drive I started thinking 'UNIX' and moved some photos into folders where they could be accessed. UNIX has this wonderful habit of trying to protect users from their own stupidity without recognising its own.

Opening an 18 Meg JPEG file from my digital camera took a very long time. Playing around with the photo made me appreciate Photoshop even more. Everything I tried to do was sluggish, unintuitive, and with few exceptions, didn't provide a live preview of what I was going to get. It took many applications of 'unsharp mask' and subsequent undos before I got what I was after.

The plug-in filters were generally slow to load and use and seemed to me to be aimed more at the 'hobbyist' market rather than at people with serious work to do. It's somewhat paradoxical that a program can be both very complicated to use and have a beginner's 'old photo' filter!

Forgetting all the 'features' and the programming prowess, how does the program stand up in use? Well, I can best describe it as like driving an old banger with a slipping clutch and a gearbox that wore out years ago. It takes several tries to get it into gear. Rough! gimp line

The quality of drawn lines is very poor. Diagonal lines appear to be stepped and blurred rather than smooth and anti-aliased.

MacGimp setting

The quality of typesetting is equally lacking. Compared to Photoshop, or just about any other graphics program I've seen in the last ten years, this just can't be taken seriously.

But then, I hear you say, it's free, what do you want for nothing? Well no, it's not free actually, not for well-heeled Mac users anyway. charge $29.95 for the downloadable 'package' or $49.95 for a CD-ROM to circumvent the 'compiling' part. The download contains an installer, which does its job, but there's no documentation whatsoever, not even a simple Readme file. Emails to the company to request help or the promised receipt remain unanswered after more than two weeks. Not very impressed!

Talking of help, MacGimp's Help menu provides a very helpful - 'You haven't installed the help browser', message, 'do you want to use your web browser?' That didn't work either needless to say. No 'help' is no help at all.

It's another World. I just can't understand why anyone would want to go to so much effort for so little reward. It's like scaling a craggy mountainside and getting to the top to find that there's no view!

If you can't afford Photoshop or Fireworks, get Photoshop Elements. It's cheap, painless and produces high quality results.

MacGimp 2
Features red bar80%
Ease of Use yellow bar25%
Value for Money green bar10%
'Must Have' Factor blue bar10%
Price $29.95 download, $49.95 physical - Mac OSX
Summary Cheap, but not necessarily cheerful and still way too expensive. Digg Technorati Blinklist Furl reddit Design Float