Adobe CS4 Photoshop and Illustrator Review (Verdict: Kick Arse)

I've spent more than a month working with Adobe Creative Suite 4 Master Collection. I'm impressed. It pushes the envelope again with new tools and enhancements that will save a lot of time.

Apart from using a text editor, I spend most of my work time in Facebook Illustrator and Photoshop, which I've been using since I was in college back in 1748 or 1994—I can't remember. Until a month ago, I was happy with both programs in their Creative Suite 3 incarnation. Sure, they aren't perfect, but they are fast in my 24-inch iMac, and they have all the features I wanted. Or so I thought. I didn't find myself wanting anything more than a few fixes here and there, maybe just enhancements to this or that other tool, like transparent gradients in Illustrator.

I thought that CS3 was pretty much unbeatable for most of the bread-and-butter stuff that I or any other illustrator or photographer can do. As it turns out, CS4 adds enough feature punch to make the upgrade worth it.

The damn tabs

Let's get this one out of the way now. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with any of the programs in CS4 except for one thing: The new absolutely horrible tabbed user interface, an idea full of good intentions but poorly executed, to the point of being bad for your workflow.

How Adobe engineers thought this was going to be useful to anyone, I don't know. Every person I've seen working in Photoshop has different windows open, at different sizes, in different places and even spawned across multiple monitors. This is needed to move things around from one document to another, to clone, or just compare images. Sometimes I end up having ten or twenty different documents open because I keep working with several projects at the same time. If you look at my workspace, it may seem anarchic to you, but it's not for me. Mentally, I organise things how I like them to be, optimised for my workflow. And then, I surf through all of this windows melee at lightning speed using Exposé on the Mac.

The new tabbed interface—which is similar to the tabs in programs like Firefox or Safari—screws all this. Sure, they try to provide tools to emulate the anarchy described above. You can even drag and drop objects using spring-loaded tabs. But when you have a lot of documents open and you run out of tab space, the thing stops working well, giving you a useless chevron pop-up to the left of the tabs (like it does in web browsers). It does a bad job with tiling too—although I don't use tiling—since it will split the image in whichever way it wants, leaving some images grouped with others if the number of tiles is shorter than the number of documents.

And then, on top of it being a mess in both Windows and Mac OS X, there's an extra problem for Mac users: Photoshop doesn't respect Exposé, which allows me to change work documents in a fraction of a second in the clearest and most instinctive way possible. So why try to fix what didn't need to be fixed? Simply put, you can't organise images in the same way that you organise linear web pages. The fact is that the tabbed interface doesn't work well and, in the Macintosh, it doesn't solve any problem that wasn't already solved with the Mac OS X interface.

Fortunately, this complaint has an easy solution: You can turn the tab feature off. In Illustrator CS4 too, which suffers from exactly the same problem. I exclaimed "So long, sucker!" after twenty minutes of using it and, quite frankly, I don't know why the hell it comes turned on by default—specially for people with previous versions of the Creative Suite.

Deep changes

I love Photoshop. I know that newbies get pale at the sheer enormity of this program, but it has grown with me during more than a decade and using it is like breathing—even while there are aspects of it I never touch. The new Photoshop CS4 tries to make things a little bit simpler by reorganising the menus a bit, cleaning house and making them neater. It also provides new palettes, like the masks and adjustments palette. All the little changes will make sense to the experts and make it a little bit easier to those who are not so experienced.

But the changes in Photoshop CS4 go deeper than this. To start with, the Windows version has full 64-bit support. For many users this won't provide any big performance advantage (although any second saved counts when it comes to image editing). But for anyone using really big images for print, the 64-bit support will bring a clear performance advantage because of the larger memory space CS4 provides on Windows. If you just work with images out of professional DSLR cameras, however, don't worry much about this. All the benchmarks I've seen only show a performance advantage with extremely large images.

The other deep change, one that will be noticed by everyone, is the OpenGL support in Photoshop. Everyone with any decent video card, that is. I don't mean a 1GB monster GPU. The humble 256MB ATI Radeon HD2600 included in my 24-inch iMac does an amazing job at keeping things smooth as hot butter. The bigger and more badass your graphic card is, however, the more documents you will be able to keep accelerated in OpenGL. In my iMac, the limit is seven images.

New pixel magic

The GPU acceleration results in some nice tricks. When you zoom deep in an image you now get a pixel overlay—which oddly reminds me of the old school programs like the old PC Paintbrush. The panning is animated, so when you use the hand to move the image, accelerating and lifting your finger from the mouse, the image will sightly hover with the inertia until it stops. But the coolest thing is rotating the image for painting. If you have used Painter, you know that the canvas can be rotated to adjust the image to your drawing angle, much like you do with a piece of paper.

The rotating is not a real rotate command. You just do it as you need it, on screen. When you invoke it, a compass appears on the screen. Since OpenGL treats the image as a texture on a 2D plane, the rotation is non-destructive and the image quality is amazingly good, as nice as a real rotate. I wish this rotate view feature was also available in Illustrator.

Both Photoshop CS4 and Illustrator CS4 offer new ways to access old things in a more streamlined way.

In Photoshop, new tool palettes give access to adjustment layers and masks functionality. The new "save to web" is good too, with a refreshed, more condensed interface. There are also new options for old tools that would be very useful in day-to-day operations, like the localised cluster option when you make a colour range selection. This allows you to select areas in an image not only by hue similarity but also taking into account the distance from the place in which you click to sample the colour. Or the quick and dirty Vibrance tool, which will allow Dick Tracy-lovers like me to boost the punch of every single image without having to go through a playing with levels, saturation fiddling in selected areas and colour curves.

However, perhaps the most spectacular of the new Photoshop tools is the content-aware scale, which will be a great timesaver, especially when you have to modify images to fit a particular layout and you don't have a lot of room to play at cropp ing. This tool is simple: Make a selection you want to protect, select the image, scale in any direction you want (vertical, horizontal, or both axis) and watch as the image scales leaving the protected area (almost) intact. Here's an example:

Original image, 763 x 463 pixels

Scaled image, 1026 x 463 pixels.

As you can see, the furniture is left untouched, while the rest of the image scales horizontally. Everything is smoothed out and looks good. At least, good enough to only require a few retouches and, certainly, good enough to fit into your layout. Previously, you had to make a selection, scale the background as good as you can, carefully fill in the blanks with the clone stamp tool, fix the artifact with more cloning, and lose some hair in the process. With the content scaling, you'll be able to save a lot of time, only requiring a bit of retouching to make things look great.

3D painting

This part is completely new to Photoshop. 3D painting is nice. In fact, it's fun. While it's not as sophisticated as other tools I remember (it has been a long time since my Maya and Bodypaint days), it's easy and straightforward. The 3D rendering engine, on the other side, is bad. Very bad. Horrible. There's no way anyone can use this to include 3D graphics in your 2D work. So if you are looking to render anything in 3D with Photoshop CS4, look elsewhere.

New vector voodoo

In Illustrator CS4, the changes are also many and worth the upgrade, at least for me. There are small ones—like the clean-up program's interface has been cleaned up. Things that bothered me before, like the filter menus with duplicated personality, are gone, all merged into one neat Effect menu—to the big ones, like the new Blob tool (a godsend for anyone who likes to draw, rather than pull and push vector lines), the transparent gradients (oh yes!), and the long-awaited (but old Freehand trick) multiple artboards (YES! YES! YES!).

All these are extremely useful and will save a lot of time to any Illustrator user. Actually, the transparent gradients are a fundamental element to create more complex artwork more easily. They basically allow you to treat vector gradients as you treat them in Photoshop, including transparency. In fact, they are better than Photoshop because the interface allows you to change them on the art itself, without having to use a panel.

The Blob tool is great too. It's basically a brush that unifies all strokes as one single object. Previously, using the normal brush, if you tried to draw freehand you will end with a huge spaghetti monster. This was almost impossible to manage, requiring you to either make groups or outline strokes and then merge them—which obviously is a pain in the arse. With the Blob brush, however, Illustrator CS4 will automagically outline and join all brush strokes into a single, easy to manipulate object.

I would buy this upgrade for the gradients and the blob tool alone. But the final touch that makes this worth it to me is the support for multiple artboards, perhaps the most awaited Illustrator feature of all time. I still remember Freehand fans telling me how they hated Illustrator because it didn't support multiple pages like Freehand did. I wouldn't go as far as "hating" but I felt the pain every time I had to do a multiple-page layout, having to jump to Quark (argh) or PageMaker (the horror). This is not needed with the new artboards feature. You can create up to one hundred pages, which is more than enough to manage any brochure or multiple-page art you can imagine.

The icing on the cake is the new smart guides and alignment, which basically allows you to precisely set the position of objects in relation to other objects and any of their elements, without having to set guides manually. Paraphrasing Alice, the new guides are intelligenter and intelligenter than the previous ones.


I can't try the rest of the applications in the Adobe Creative Suite 4 Master Collection with the depth I can use both Photoshop and Illustrator, but if these two—and Bridge CS4—are any sign of what to expect from the other ten apps in the package—and from what I've been able to read in reviews of After Effects, Premiere, InDesign, or Flash, it seems they are as good—the collection is completely worth the $US2,500 it costs. And definitely worth the $US900 of the upgrade. If you are a Photoshop and Illustrator maverick, go for the Design Collection upgrade. If you use these programs professionally, the investment will returned very quickly on saved time alone.

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