Hands on: Adobe Creative Suite 4 review

23rd Sep 2008 | 06:17

Hands on: Adobe Creative Suite 4 review

Adobe CS4 is the best graphics suite ever released – as long as you can run it

Before the end of the year, the full Adobe Creative Suite 4 product should be launched.

PC Plus magazine tested a feature-complete beta of CS4 to find out if the new version will be a milestone - or a millstone around Adobe's neck.

Photoshop CS4

It's no secret that despite the 21 other apps in the Adobe Master Folder, Photoshop is the flagship product in the new CS4 line. The new photo editing tool has four main innovations, making it an impressive upgrade.

The first innovation is it now runs in 64-bit mode. Keep in mind that you need to have the 64-bit version of Windows Vista or Windows XP, as well as a 64-bit processor, and it won't hurt to have at least 8GB of RAM too. 32-bit apps can only access 4GB of RAM, but some workstation computers can support up to 32GB.

According to John Nack, an Adobe Product Manager who blogs at http://blogs.adobe.com/jnack, 64-bit memory addressing improves performance by about eight to 12 per cent for most operations. However, when dealing with extremely large images (say, a four-gigapixel image), he says that performance can be as high as 10 times that of a 32-bit app.

The second innovation is new Pixel Bender support (formerly known as Hydra), an Adobe technology that allows Photoshop to access your high-end graphics card directly. The HP DV7 uses an Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT 512MB adaptor, so the Pixel Bender support is important because Photoshop can swap memory in RAM and use the graphics card for graphics rendering, giving a one-two punch that speeds up every filter and editing function.

We'll save the detailed benchmarks for a proper review, but suffice it to say that Photoshop CS4 is much snappier than Photoshop CS3. We tested CS4 on an HP Pavilion DV7 high-end notebook with a 2.8GHz dual-core processor, 4GB of RAM, Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit and two 300GB drives. We used a 10,000 x 15,000 image that was 430 MB in size.

A complex fresco filter that takes several minutes on CS3 took only 20 seconds in Photoshop CS4. Most filters – including a basic blur and unsharp mask – were instantaneous. Liquify filters, new layers, artistic brush treatments and image resizing took only a few seconds.

The third innovation is a brand new interface that's a departure from even the previous release. It doesn't follow the typical Windows Vista or XP conventions and hints at a day when Adobe will move their powerhouse apps to the web.

Finally, Photoshop CS4 has several new editing features. You can now rotate the canvas without rotating the image, select parts of an image in the Refine Edge dialog box, use new multi-channel and abstract colour channels and implement tweaks to the dodge and burn tools that improve the effect on colour saturated images.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS4

Premiere Pro is the only application in the Master Collection suite for CS4 that was not upgraded with the new interface.

New support for hard disk-based (what Adobe calls 'tapeless') video cameras is supposed to be a key feature, but we could not get Premiere Pro to work with a JVC Everio GZ-HD6U camcorder, either in terms of recognising the device as a capture medium or reading the files directly from the hard disk drive on the camera.

Adobe is likely working out the bugs on camera support, but we did expect the leading feature to work out-of-the- box. New encoding options for portable devices and a separate batch-encoding program called the Adobe Media Encoder are nods to the mobile and web markets who are constantly shooting video and want to take it on the road or upload to YouTube.

These tweaks reveal that Premiere is trying to appeal to the budding videographer.

Adobe InDesign CS4

The flagship page layout program for professional designers, InDesign CS4 also benefits from a facelift: it's now much easier to navigate around the screen.

Palettes are more streamlined (they even ghost out when you move them around) so that options are just one or two clicks away. For example, on the new Preflight dialog box, you can quickly scan through any colour or font treatment issues. Preferences for the dialog box are not buried in a general window but can be found right on the dialog box itself.

There's also a new conditional text option that works remarkably similarly to the layers in Photoshop: you can create one document for web and print and then hide or show individual elements with just a radio click.

Smart guides that help you line up objects, task-based workspace views, an amazing 'rotate spread' option and SWF support, including export to Flash, are all key enhancements.

Performance in InDesign seemed about 20 per cent faster than the CS3 applications during complex chores such as re-paginating a long document.

Other big applications

With all the fanfare over Photoshop and how it can now access a girth of RAM on 64-bit machines, the other apps in the Master Collection suite play a 'me too' role. However, they also run in 64-bit mode, use Pixel Bender to access your GPU and feature a new streamlined interface.

Dreamweaver CS4 now provides a powerful Live View feature. This is absolutely amazing for coders who work in JavaScript and other languages because it approximates browser compatibility. In our tests, Live View worked flawlessly when emulating Internet Explorer and only had marginal positioning errors when used to emulate Firefox.

New Photoshop Smart Objects save a tremendous amount of time in workflow production. You can drag-and-drop them directly into Dreamweaver, encouraging dualmonitor use like never before.

Dreamweaver also adds Adobe AIR support for creating rich web apps. Think of it as the PDF for the web: applications can be fully developed for use in a browser in the same way that a rich document can be formatted as a PDF, without concern over program compatibility.

Adobe Illustrator CS4 finally adds multi-artboard support, which means that it has inched a bit closer to being a page layout tool. You can now view multiple pages of a document in all shapes and sizes. Illustrator also adds a new blob brush for creating artistic-looking objects. Its performance on a 64-bit computer with 4GB of RAM was phenomenal.

Long-time Illustrator fans will know that there is sometimes a pause or stutter when rotating, resizing or even just moving very complex objects around the screen. Even when using a sample Japanese menu with hundreds of lines of text and graphics, adjustments in Illustrator CS4 were instantaneous.

Flash CS4 – a tool for creating web animations – benefits the most from the new Adobe CS4 interface shift. There is now far less clutter found on the screen, and you can step animations by adjusting objects incrementally rather than using keyframe animation (where you make adjustments to each frame). Flash also supports more 3D animation-editing tools, inverse kinematics and Adobe AIR support.

After Effects, Fireworks, Contribute and Soundbooth have all been updated with a new user interface design and features that unify CS4, making each application more powerful. Overall, CS4 is a major milestone because it's the first legitimate, powerful graphics suite to run in 64-bit mode. It points to a future where memory addressing, graphics utilisation, fluid design and technically superior features will rule the desktop.

As a final caveat: we should remember that the power of the desktop may yet be overshadowed by the extreme flexibility of web apps. And when that happens, we'll get to start all over again on the continuum towards cloud computing and online data warehousing.

First published inPC Plus 274

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