• Price: £516 plus VAT . upgrade £159 plus VAT

  • Company: Adobe

  • Pros: Faster performance; Variable-width strokes; Natural media-style painting; Perspective Grid drawing; Web-ready text anti-aliasing; Pixel Grid alignment; Tight Flex and Flash Catalyst integration.

  • Cons: Perspective Grid doesn’t honor appearances or match object perspectives; Second, obscure step required for Web-ready text anti-aliasing; Longstanding feature requests ignored.

  • Our Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

New features in Illustrator CS5 include variable-width strokes, the Bristle Brush, the Perspective Grid, anti-aliasing text for the Web, Flash Catalyst integration, and better performance. Together they make Illustrator CS5 a compelling upgrade.

But it’s far from perfect. The Perspective Grid feature didn't behave as I would have expected, text anti-aliasing doesn’t work without a second, secret option, and many requested features were ignored.

Stroke revival

Among the most noticeable improvements in Illustrator CS5 are those applied to the painting system. These include variable-width strokes, stretch control for brushes, brush corner control, enhanced dashed lines and arrowheads, and a new tool, the Bristle Brush.

First among the new features is the ability to vary the weight or thickness of strokes from start to finish. To make use of this new feature, begin by creating a path—open or closed—and assigning a stroke color to that path. With the new Width tool selected, hovering over any place in the path’s stroke presents a small diamond that can be dragged outward to increase the width of the stroke at that point, or inward to decrease the thickness. The new thickness will taper down (or up) toward the ends of the path or the next corner anchor points, which will retain the path’s original thickness.

Each stroke may also have multiple width points, enabling subtle or dramatic oscillation of a single stroke. Thus it’s simple to create robust, variable weight strokes with a natural, not stuttering feel. You can even save stroke width alterations as profiles that can be applied from the Stroke panel to other paths. One complaint with the variable-width stroke ability is that isn’t applicable to all brush strokes. Plus, if you apply a brush stroke to a path, the variable-width disappears.

Brushes did get some serious love in CS5, though. Art and pattern brushes have long suffered with the handicap of being equally distributed along their paths. Now you can define which parts of a brush get stretched and which don’t. For example, with a banner brush, not only the middle of the brush would stretch to fit a long path; the decorative ends would also stretch, suffering unsightly distortion. In the Brush Options dialog, you can now specify that the ends of a banner (or other) brush don’t stretch, that they remain the same no matter how far the middle section of the brush art or pattern stretches to fill the path between the protected ends.

 

Stretch control for brushes enables you to define areas of a brush that don’t stretch while other areas do all the stretching to fill the length of a path. At the top is a standard banner brush included with Illustrator. Notice that the entire brush artwork stretches to fit the length of the path. Below that, the same banner brush has been set so that the ends do not stretch.

A new Bristle Brush tip mimics natural media painting while remaining vector. Creating a new Bristle Brush lets you begin with either round or flat brushes in one of five styles each -- point, blunt, curve, angle, or fan. From there the brush can be completely refined with options for bristle length, density, and thickness, paint opacity, and stiffness. The results of painting with Bristle Brush brushes are astoundingly natural. Illustrator won’t yet replace Corel Painter for lifelike, natural media painting, but then again, Painter doesn’t paint in vector.

Brush cornering is also greatly improved in this version. In places where pattern brushes round corners or wide angles, or where path segments of different lengths meet (for instance, in a rectangle with long and short sides), how the brush pattern traverses or joins at those points can be precisely controlled to avoid awkward collisions or empty space.

Similar refinements were added to dashed lines to enable them to look better, to avoid stuttering at path angle changes or where path segments of different lengths meet. Precision scaling of arrowheads that were formerly locked into sizes proportionate to stroke weight completes the refinements of strokes and brushes.