Alternatives to Adobe CS3

So, you need to finish up a design project that requires the image-editing capabilities of Photoshop along with the vectorized lines of Illustrator, and it needs to be animated in Flash with documentation in a PDF. However, you blew your budget on bling and a sweet alpaca-skin bongo set.

Take your head out of the microwave. There is indeed a way to save your project and your wallet from the $2,500 price tag of Adobe Creative Suite 3. You just have to be a bit...creative.

Photoshop is arguably the most powerful and certainly the most well-known of the Adobe set. Heck, the term "photoshop" is now a slang verb that describes altering an image. The program's popularity is well-deserved, with an array of features that is mind-boggling. Unfortunately, that incredible feature set comes with associated bloat, and Photoshop is quickly becoming the military tank of image editors: yes, it gets the job done, but no, the job description should not include cruising down Highway 101.

Paint.NET straddles the middle ground between The GIMP and simple photo editors. (Credit: CNET Networks)

We've got two great, free alternatives to Photoshop. First, Paint.NET utilizes the Microsoft .NET Framework to create a stable, lightweight app with nearly every major function the home user could want, from a Lasso tool to Gaussian blur. The interface is completely familiar, with the added benefit of translucent panels that make it easy to see what's going on when the windows get cluttered. Paint.NET doesn't yet support RAW format, however, which certainly limits its range.

If it\'s not in The GIMP default interface, there\'s likely a plug-in for it. (Credit: CNET Networks)

The second major image editor far more closely rivals Photoshop in features and functionality, if not in appearance or price. The GIMP is a freeware editor that started off in Linux and was eventually ported to Windows, boosting its audience and popularity. It seems to include almost everything that Photoshop does: channels, layers, masks, more than 100 filters and effects, tabbed palettes, RAW support, editable text tools, and color operations such as levels. And if the feature you're looking for isn't in the main program, chances are very high that someone has created a plug-in for it, including digital printing. Though the GIMP may be more difficult to install and start using than Photoshop, it takes less time to get it up and running once you've got it set the way you like.

Inkscape aims to create an open-source client that\'s compliant with XML, SVG, and CSS standards. (Credit: CNET Networks)

Photoshop is not the only design juggernaut with a free analog. The tools in Illustrator, everybody's favorite vector-graphics software, also can be emulated without too much fuss. Enter Inkscape. It's not the only one of its kind, although it seems like it at times. Many of the now-essential tools found in its competition show up here, including paths, text, markers, clones, alpha blending, transforms, gradients, patterns, and grouping. The app also supports Creative Commons metadata, node editing, layers, bitmap tracing and direct XML editing. It does all this, and more, without an enormous system footprint or any installation fuss.

Much like its siblings, Adobe Acrobat does its job well, except that it, too, can become a black hole for system resources. If you're looking for a good PDF reader, Foxit PDF Reader has been a favorite, deserving of its popularity. It opens PDFs from the Web quickly and without hanging our system, not even for a few seconds. Adobe Reader has improved recently, but it can still take some time to load.

Primo PDF works by adding a \'Print\' option to your existing software. (Credit: PrimoPDF)

PrimoPDF is a great PDF maker for similar reasons. It's lightweight with a small footprint and easy to use. Primo installs as a "Print" option in every program you've got, so you can create a PDF using anything from HTML documents in Firefox to images in Paint.NET. Simple PDF publishing doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.

Last up for today, let's look at Macromedia's--correction, Adobe's Dreamweaver. Though Dreamweaver is the acknowledged leader in the field (besting Microsoft FrontPage), there have been full-featured Web development editors floating around since the early days of the Web. KompoZer, built on the NVU architecture, is a good free option that is beginning to approach the functionality of Dreamweaver.

KompoZer\'s three-tier toolbar is intuitive yet powerful. (Credit: CNET Networks)

The interface is different than Dreamweaver's, but it should still feel familiar. Major editing buttons live in a three-tier toolbar at the top of the program that includes a one-click Publishing icon as well as one-click buttons for Image insertion and Table and Form creation. Font tweaks like Size and Style live in toolbars just below for easy HTML editing. A Site Manager, including File tree, is anchored on the left, although it can be collapsed. We didn't notice any screwups when playing with the WYSIWYG function. Running lean and mean lets KompoZer compete more than adequately with better-known competitors.

As the cost of high-end graphics editing software shoots up, and digitally produced art continues to improve in quality, it's going to be increasingly difficult for starving artists to acquire the tools they need. These apps show that not only can those tools be made for free, in many cases they run better than the expensive pay-for-use industry standards.

Tomorrow, I'll take a look at some free alternatives for Flash, Premiere, InDesign, and other apps in the Adobe Creative Suite.

Update: Read the second part of Roll your own Adobe CS3 for free.