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Free Adobe Software Alternatives

Adobe is the creator and purveyor of the most widely used professional graphics programs world wide – by their own estimation, over 90% of creative professionals use Photoshop. A professional ecosystem has grown around Adobe products, making the transition to alternate software packages problematic. No wonder graphic artists are left with the sinking feeling that, when it comes to productivity and workflow, Adobe is the only game in town, and they are at the company’s mercy when it comes to pricing and software licensing.

There are a few free alternatives to Creative Cloud. Although none can offer the large complement of tools or ease of integration of the Adobe products, there’s little downside to checking them out. Below are some free alternatives to Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign which have gotten the highest user ratings we could find, and a synopsis of what reviewers are saying about them.

Photoshop Alternative

GIMP, or the GNU Image Manipulation Program, has been around since 1996 as an open source image editing program. In the intervening decades, it’s gone from a basic image editor with cheesy effects (oooh, a fire filter!) to a robust photo manipulation and image creation program. While it can’t offer as full a range of tools as Photoshop, it does have a large number of functions. Those include some familiar (and necessary) features, such as filters, customizable brushes, layers and layer masks, retouching tools (such as cropping, noise reduction, color adjustment), Bezier curves, and animation options. GIMP also supports a large number of third-party plugins. Because it’s an open source software, it’s constantly updated with new releases.

The only complaint which users consistently report is that the interface feels cluttered (a common complaint with open source software). GIMP doesn’t have as many features and can’t integrate seamlessly with Creative Suite. However, overall it gets high marks from both users and editorial reviewers (read TechRadar and FinancesOnline reviews).

InDesign Alternative

Scribus gets high marks as a free desktop publishing program. Since the interface uses frames and layers, it will be immediately familiar to InDesign users. Features include dynamic page layouts, ICC color management, and export to interactive PDFs. Scribus supports both CMYK and spot colors (although for licensing reasons not Pantone), and users can generate color separations. Scribus also uses XML for its file format, rather than binary. That means tech savvy users can use a simple text editor to read files, and even analyze and repair corrupted files. It’s hard to find negative reviews of Scribus; TechRadar declares it could replace InDesign, and user reviews on SourceForge give it 4.7 out of five stars.

Other than the absence of Pantone color libraries, there are few reported downsides to the program. Scribus can’t support InDesign, Quark Xpress, or other proprietary desktop publishing files. Another con that a couple of reviews listed was “lack of print feature.” No explanation was provided for that complaint, but from digging around the Scribus forums, it appears that printing directly from the program causes problems. Instead, users reported that exporting to PDF generated files suitable for printing.

Illustrator Alternatives

Unlike Photoshop and InDesign, there is no one alternative to Illustrator that both offers a robust set of tools, and (for Mac users) is easy to install. So for an Illustrator alternative, we have two options: one with a full suite of tools, but buggy to install on Mac OS (Inkscape), and another which is browser based, but has a limited tool offering (Vectr).

Inkscape keeps getting mentioned as a plausible alternative to Adobe Illustrator. From lackluster reviews only four years ago, Inkscape is now receiving high marks in user reviews. It boasts a full suite of editing programs, including drawing, shape, spiral, path, text, mesh gradient, and pattern tools, and it permits transparency effects and gradients. Inkscape is compatible with SVG, and can import a wide variety of file formats, including EPS, JPG, PNG, and BMP. It can export PNG and vector formats. The program is cross-platform, with versions downloadable for use on Mac, PC, and GNU/Linux operating systems.

Despite the high user reviews, editorial reviews are mixed. While a number of reviews (such as TechRadar) contend the program is a good competitor to Illustrator, a PC Magazine review stated it’s not an adequate solution for graphics professionals. One complaint users have about the program is its slow processing speed, particularly when many filters are being used. The program’s long menus and many options can also cause a problem on small screens due to a cluttered interface. Also, tech support is only available by submitting support tickets. This can be particularly irksome for Mac users, since the program needs to be installed via Macports.

While Vectr can be used both via a downloadable app and within a browser, it doesn’t yet offer a Mac version of their downloadable app. (The program also doesn’t offer a Firefox-compatible version of the brower version of the program, but states that one is “coming soon”.) If you’re Mac user, you’ll need to create a free account with Vectr and click the “Use Online” button on their homepage to get started. (You can play with the program without creating a user account, but you won’t be able to save your work.)

The program gets high marks for its ease of use, short learning curve, attractive interface, and comprehensive tutorials. The tools and functions are limited compared to Inkscape, but include element, text, color and gradient, and manipulation tools. Because the work is stored in the cloud, Vectr permits users to collaborate online with other users.

Other than its limited suite of tools, Vectr has few negative reviews. One user reviewer on Capterra complained about ads that appear at the sides of the workspace (one of the costs of using free software). There are a few downsides to working with the browser-based version of the program. Depending on how robust the Internet connection is, the program can be slow or glitchy. Users also dislike not being able to save work to their desktop; projects need to be finished online and then exported for printing and sharing. Lastly, some users are irked by needing to work online which requires an Internet connection. Overall, taking into account Vectr’s limitations, reviewers seem to be very happy with the program. It gets four out of five stars on Capterra, and Finances Online gives it a 8.6 out of 10 rating.