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The classic app: Pixelmator

The app that put desktop-grade image editing in your pocket, long before anyone thought that was possible

In this entry in our series on classic apps, we explore an image editor with ambition – and interview one of its team to dig into the app’s origins.

Pixelmator for iPhone, in 2015

Pixelmator for iPhone, in 2015

What was Pixelmator?

The original Pixelmator arrived for Mac in 2007. Aiming to build on the platform’s technologies and provide an affordable, contemporary take on image editing, it was akin to a streamlined Photoshop with snazzy new garb. Seven years later, a version arrived on iPad. A mere seven months after that, it was on Apple’s smartphone.

Why was it a classic?

Ambition and usability. Image editors until then had on iPhone mostly been about fine-tuning photos. Pixelmator gave you a slew of tools, including a full layers system. Additionally, the app was tuned to the smaller screen. Sure, it could get a touch cramped, but you nonetheless got an unparalleled mix of power and efficiency.

Pixelmator for iPhone in 2023

Pixelmator for iPhone in 2023.

Where is it now?

Pixelmator continues to evolve and add new capabilities to help you be creative. It remains a bargain, too, when you consider how much it costs compared to comparable desktop fare.

Visit the Pixelmator for iOS website or get Pixelmator ($9.99/£8.99) from the App Store.

Q&A: a brief history of Pixelmator

We speak to Pixelmator team member Andrius Gailiunas about the app’s origins and high points.

Why did you bring Pixelmator to iPhone? Even now, the idea of a full-fat layer-based image editor on a small device feels ambitious.

Andrius: This was around the time universal iPad and iPhone apps appeared and it seemed like a huge advantage for us to be on all the main Apple platforms – even given the challenges regarding screen space. It felt like a natural and logical step.

Pixelmator for Mac, way back in 2007

Pixelmator for Mac, way back in 2007.

How do you go about reworking Pixelmator for iPhone?

Pixelmator started out on the Mac, but we’d already solved many challenges in bringing it to touchscreen devices with the iPad release. One fun fact there: our initial design had a skeuomorphic style inspired by the original Mac Pixelmator. But then, iOS 7 appeared and we saw that we needed to, erm, change a few things to say the least!

When later bringing the app to iPhone, it from our perspective, weirdly enough, appeared easier to ‘downsize’ an iPad app to an iPhone one, rather than the other way around.

When refining the app for iPhone, what did you have to be mindful of?

At the time, iPhone app interfaces were text-heavy – buttons like Undo/Redo and the names of tools were text-based. On the smaller screen, this posed challenges, and so we had to bring in iconography to fit the things we wanted. We also decided to support landscape orientation – which was surprisingly difficult, but it all worked out in the end!

An early version of Pixelmator for iPhone, showing off some brushes

An early version of Pixelmator for iPhone, showing off some brushes.

What were the biggest challenges in the iPhone version – and your biggest successes?

For an app like Pixelmator, the biggest challenge was – and to some extent still is – memory limitations. This results in the layer and image size limits we have in the app. For a time, it looked like we wouldn’t be able to bring the Repair tool – quite possibly the most magical tool in the app – to the entire line of devices we wanted to support. However, we managed to optimize the algorithm to make it work – and the inclusion of this tool might have been its biggest success!

How has Pixelmator evolved over the years, and why?

It has continued to become more powerful alongside iOS devices becoming more powerful. We’ve added a range of incredible features like the Quick Selection tool and, recently, the machine learning-powered Select Subject feature, which was our first Pixelmator for iOS feature fully powered by machine learning.