GCN LAB REVIEW

Adobe's big production

Creative Suite 4 adds cleaner interfaces, 64-bit capability

It’s hard to put a price on something that’s unique.

GCN LAB TEST

Adobe Creative Suite 4

Pros: Industry-leading applications with better performance and improved integration.
Cons: Will require hardware and operating system upgrades for many users; indvidual application prices are relatively high.

Features: A
Ease of Use: B
Value: B
Price: $999-$2,499

Although some of the applications in Adobe Systems’ Creative Suite 4 still face competition in the marketplace, no set of applications challenges what the company delivers in its Creative Suite. Indeed, the major programs — Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Acrobat and InDesign — are industry leaders.

So rather than addressing how the components stack up against the competition, our review of Creative Suite 4 will help existing users determine whether the new version of the suite warrants an upgrade. That’s a tough question to answer because users’ needs vary so much. The Master Collection of this comprehensive suite has 11 applications and a half-dozen utility packages. We will highlight the most significant enhancements to the major applications.

Adobe Creative Suite 4 screen shotThe most noticeable improvement to the suite overall is the harmonization of interfaces among applications. Previous versions had some standardization among applications that had long been under Adobe’s umbrella, such as Photoshop and Acrobat. But more recent acquisitions –- most notably Dreamweaver and Flash –- followed the beat of a different drummer. With Version 4.0 of Creative Suite, the interfaces have more in common. The only major program that doesn’t appear to have had much of an interface makeover is Premiere, the video-editing program.

In addition, many of the major applications can now take advantage of 64-bit operating systems. Photoshop CS4, After Effects CS4, Premiere Pro CS4 and Soundbooth CS4 all support 64-bit operations. Assuming your computer has a 64-bit processor and runs on the 64-bit version of Windows XP or Vista, you can expect a 10 percent to several hundred percent improvement in performance, depending on the amount of memory beyond 4G you have installed and the size of the files you’re working on. However, 64-bit support is not yet available for Mac users, and Adobe has not set a date for providing such support.

Most of the suite’s individual applications have also been enhanced with an array of new features and capabilities.

Photoshop CS4

Apart from its new 64-bit capability, the most significant enhancement in Photoshop is an array of tools and features for 3-D image editing.

The new tools make it easy to wrap 2-D images around 3-D shapes, such as cubes, cylinders, pyramids and spheres. You also can apply a variety of effects — from speckles to opacity — and paint on the 3-D images using any of Photoshop’s extensive editing tools.

Other new tools let you rotate canvases without rotating the image, rotate the image without rotating the canvas, build composite images, and resize composites while automatically rescaling components. You also can move image objects along animation paths — a capability that begins to take Photoshop into the realm of Flash.

Of course, those powerful image-editing tools are hungry for memory and processing power, so you’ll want to consider moving to 64-bit computing to take advantage of them. We found 3-D processing to be frustrating when running the program on 32-bit Vista with 2G of system memory.

Photoshop features dozens of other new features and capabilities, including auto-blending of images and auto-alignment of layers. A new Adjustments panel applies corrections — such as brightness or hue and saturation — to an image in separate layers so the underlying image is not affected until you flatten.

Adobe InDesign CS4

At first glance, the improvements to InDesign — Adobe’s page layout program — are not as remarkable as those in the new version of Photoshop. But that’s mostly because the enhancements in InDesign are more focused on ease of use than on new tools.

We were particularly pleased with two new features: the Live Preflight utility and Smart Guides. The former automatically checks for potential processing errors while you work on a document and alerts you when it encounters any. In its basic configuration, Live Preflight checks for problems such as overlapping text frames. However, you can customize the utility to check for other properties, such as embedded or linked graphics that don’t meet a minimum level of resolution.

InDesign’s new Smart Guides automatically pop up as you move an element on a page and let you know when it is aligned with other objects. That feature, which you have to try to fully appreciate, is a time-saver that would justify the upgrade price for some users.

InDesign also has a conditional text option that works much like Photoshop’s layers. You can conditionally insert text into a layer and show or hide it with a single click when preparing to print.

Dreamweaver

The primary improvements in Dreamweaver, like those in InDesign, focus on ease of use. At the top of the list is the new Live View mode. Anyone who has ever designed a Web page will greatly appreciate that feature. When you click on the Live View button on the toolbar, you’ll get a preview of what the page will look like in a Web browser without having to loading the page in an external browser. Although you can’t make changes in the Live View window or Dreamweaver’s design view, you can make changes in the code window and refresh the Live View window to see the results. It’s not quite seamless WYSIWYG editing for Web page designers, but it’s close.

Adobe also has greatly enhanced Dreamweaver’s code-hinting capabilities for JavaScript and Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language.

More than the sum of its parts

The other applications in CS4 have received lesser, though not insignificant, enhancements. For example, Illustrator finally lets users have multiple art boards in a single project. Flash has several new tools that make it easier to create animations.

Meanwhile, Adobe has put a lot of effort into making Creative Suite’s various parts work together better. And it’s not just a matter of evolving each application’s interface to allow more intuitive carryover from one program to another.

For example, a new service called ConnectNow lets you share your screen from Creative Suite applications with as many as two other people in real time. Like other Web-based conferencing systems, ConnectNow lets you share and annotate your display and use chat messaging. The system also offers integrated audio, file sharing and remote control of participants’ computers.

In addition, Adobe has enhanced the sharing of objects among the suite’s applications. For example, you can drag objects directly from Photoshop and drop them into a Dreamweaver file. You also can open layered Photoshop or Illustrator files in Fireworks.

The bottom line

With Creative Suite 4, Adobe delivers best-of-class products in nearly every niche of digital document, Web, image and sound production. And the latest version of the suite offers better performance — at least for those working in 64-bit environments — and better integration.

Discouraging words are rare when it comes to Creative Suite 4, but we have a few.

First and perhaps unavoidably, most of the applications in CS4, as in earlier versions, are extremely slow to load. We often wondered if we had failed to click the mouse button before the program finally popped up.

We also found installation to be a slow and disruptive process. You can’t get any other work done on your computer while you’re installing CS4.

And as noted above, many users will need expensive upgrades in hardware and operating system software to take full advantage of Creative Suite’s new capabilities.

Finally, we’re skeptical about Adobe’s marketing plan for Creative Suite. We welcome the fact that Adobe offers various bundles of applications at prices significantly lower than the total cost of individual applications. For example, the Master Collection carries a list price of $2,499, but buying all the applications individually would cost more than $6,000. Of the six Creative Suite collections, the least expensive is the Web Standard edition, with a list price of $999. Nevertheless, some users might find that to avoid paying higher prices for individual applications, they have to buy a suite that includes applications they don’t need.

Adobe Systems, 800-585-0774, www.adobe.com

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