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Just when you thought the software industry had settled into a cynical routine of annual don’t-need upgrades, Adobe hits back with an update to its professional vector-graphics package Illustrator that defines the expression ‘must-have’. Its Web features have been brought bang up to date, a whole load of great new functions have been tucked in, and the long-overdue vector transparency support finally makes its appearance – and jaw-droppingly good it is too. Starting with the Web, Adobe has usefully added ‘pixels’ as one of the document measurement units, and now made it impossible to mix CMYK and RGB colours erroneously in one document. You can also change the page outline size on the canvas – perfect for creating pixel-accurate graphics and banners. Perhaps best of all, there’s no longer any need to export your artwork to an external Web-graphics package for generating size-quality optimized bitmap versions. Adobe has simply stolen the visual optimization dialogs from ImageReady (part of Photoshop 5.5) and stuck it in Illustrator as a ‘Save for Web’ command under the File menu. A nice touch is the actual ability to work in a pixel preview mode in which Illustrator impersonates how your vector graphics will appear after rasterizing to bitmap. If you were tempted to try Macromedia FreeHand 9 for its built-in ability to export layers to animation frames in Flash SWF format, note that Illustrator 9.0 does the same thing, complete with a ‘Release to Layers’ function. Illustrator’s Flash export options are not quite as comprehensive as FreeHand’s but as near as dammit. Illustrator could go one better as it has support for plain, animated and interactive SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) format right from within the program. But the big news of Illustrator 9.0 is transparency, something that users have been demanding for years, if only to keep pace with other illustration packages. Since PostScript does not itself provide for transparency, most of Adobe’s competitors have busked vector transparency by allowing it on-screen and then rasterizing the affected areas when saving. Adobe’s approach is rather more unusual, so clever in fact that the company has applied for patents on the technology. Illustrator 9.0 effectively reproduces your artwork when printing or exporting to EPS as a combined vector-&-raster image without touching the original. You can even set the bias between vector-&-raster conversion on a sliding scale according to your preference. The result is that transparency is not just a special lens effect but an integral property of any object in your artwork, whether a vector object, group, gradient, pattern, texture, text or bitmap. Changing the opacity setting of an object does not affect its editability. A new Transparency palette makes the whole thing foolishly simple and perfectly intuitive to use. Associated with this is the ability to use objects as cut-out masks over other objects or layers. Again, anything can be a mask, including live re-editable text and art-brush strokes. After experimentation, we even found that we could import airbrushed bitmaps from Photoshop and use these as Illustrator masks. Having made it possible to play with transparency almost without restriction and without affecting the integrity of the underlying vector artwork, Adobe has extended this support to special effects. You can now apply bitmap filters, including blurs, to your vector artwork and still be able to edit it as vectors afterwards. A new Appearance palette lets you build up these live effects, changing their settings and undoing individual effects at any time. Also included are Photoshop’s live drop shadows and glow effects which, like all the others, can be applied to text as well as graphics. And this just scratches the surface of new features included with the upgrade. Of the many valuable additions in Illustrator 9.0, the most noteworthy is possibly the re-jigged Layers palette, which now allows logical nested layers and provides thumbnails just as in Photoshop. We also like the Styles palette for storing graphic styles just as a page-layout package stores character and paragraph styles: you can then apply the styles to other objects or groups with one click, and then update all instances of a style in one go at any time. Also worth shouting about are the new Selection and Direct Selection lassos that help enormously when trying to pick out particular objects buried in complex artwork. We must congratulate Adobe for finally bringing Illustrator’s interface properly in line with its other applications. Not only do Illustrator and Photoshop’s native file formats support each other’s layers (including transparency), you can maintain live editable text between the programs. Illustrator files can pop straight in and out of LiveMotion too, which is a major bonus for Web animators. Illustrator 9.0 can open and save to all previous versions of the program, while the file format of this latest release is apparently based on the PDF model. We had a go using Acrobat 4.0 to open a file saved in Illustrator 9.0’s native format, and were knocked for six to find that it works. To be brutal, there are still a few items still awaiting Adobe’s attention. For example, Illustrator is still a single-page program (ludicrously, despite being PDF-native, you can only open one PDF page at a time), and there’s still no History palette. We also wish something would be done about combining the Colour, Swatches and Gradient palettes in some way. But the treasure trove of enhancements that have been provided are enough to get us excited for a while yet. Illustrator 9.0 is better than we expected and more than we could have hoped for.