Illustrator CS review

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Now this is what we call an upgrade. Photoshop CS was
an impressive upgrade, yet its focus on workflow and productivity didn’t leave much room for new tools that would get your creative juices flowing.

Illustrator CS, in contrast, is an old-fashioned upgrade that just gives you some new graphics and type tools to play with. It’s got eye-candy, in other words.

Admittedly, some of those new features are long overdue, and they still have some rough edges, but Illustrator
CS proves that this ageing illustration tool still has a bit of a spring in its step.

In fact, the first thing you’ll notice about Illustrator CS is that it’s quite a bit faster than its predecessors. It’s hard to put a precise percentage figure on the speed improvement, but it just generally feels smoother and more responsive, especially when opening and redrawing large, complex files.
In the past, when opening or zooming in on a complex image, Illustrator would laboriously build it up, layer by layer, object by object. Now it takes a brief pause – just a second or two – and then pops the complete image into place. Redrawing performance is much faster and smoother, so you can scroll around an image, or use the Hand tool to move it around without Illustrator slowing down to a crawl.

Illustrator’s improved performance is welcome, and – as some of its new tools require a bit of horsepower to work efficiently – necessary. The most eye-catching new feature is the addition of a number of new 3D tools. Adobe has generally avoided 3D graphics over the years, allowing rivals such as Canvas, FreeHand and CorelDraw to pull ahead in this area.

Illustrator’s new 3D options aren’t exactly dazzling. However, they work well and – apart from a few niggles – they’re easy to use, so you can have a bit of fun experimenting with them.

There are three main options – Extrude And Bevel, Revolve, and Rotate – contained within the 3D submenu inside the main Effects menu. They all work in basically the same way. You first select an object (or multiple objects – one nice touch is that all the 3D tools can work with multiple selected objects), and then select the option you require from the 3D submenu. This opens up a dialog box containing an image of a 3D cube that acts as a representation of the object you’ve selected in the main Illustrator workspace. You can then apply the required 3D effect by manipulating this cube in the dialog box.

This is where we hit our first minor flaw, which is that the Preview button inside the 3D dialog boxes is turned off
by default. Working without the preview is pretty pointless, so you have to remember to turn it on each time you use one of the 3D options.

The Extrude And Bevel dialog is fairly self-explanatory, allowing you to add depth to 2D objects or type by extruding them into three dimensions. You can view the preview cube from a number of predefined positions – top, left, off-axis and so on – or use the mouse to rotate the cube round to any angle you want. Then you simply specify the extrusion depth and select a bevel option from a pull-down menu to see how the new 3D object appears on screen.

Another option in this dialog box is the ability to map artwork onto the surfaces of the 3D objects. This works with any symbols stored within the Symbols palette, so you can create or edit new artwork and add it to the Symbols palette. That seems like a rather long-winded way of doing things – a simple Import command within the Map Art dialog box would have been quicker – but using the Symbols palette allows you to quickly reuse artwork once it’s been placed there.

The Revolve command provides you with the same type of dialog box, but creates a lathe effect by revolving the selected object around a specified axis. You can specify the degree of rotation, and the distance that it’s offset from the axis. This feature tends to run slowly, but if you’re using an older, slower machine, you can use the Wireframe option to speed things up.

In a spin

Finally, there’s the Rotation command, which simply rotates flat 2D objects to create a 3D perspective effect. All three dialog boxes have a More Options button that provides access to a number of lighting and shading options, so
you’ve got plenty of control over the final appearance of your 3D images.

It’s a shame then that these 3D tools fall down when it comes to a number of basic options. Using the same basic dialog box for all three sets of effects is a good idea, since it means there’s a consistent interface for you to work with.
However, these 3D dialog boxes do have one big flaw. They work modally, which means that they take over the entire application when they’re on screen, so you can’t adjust the main workspace. You can’t, for instance, zoom in or out
on an extruded or revolved object to get a clearer view of how the finished item will look.

To do this you would have to close the dialog box, adjust the view, and then open the dialog box once more by clicking on the 3D item listed in the Appearance palette (remembering, of course, to turn on the Preview option once more when the dialog box opens). There’s no Undo command available within these dialog boxes either, which is very annoying. With a little practice you’ll get a feel for how the 3D options work and will be able to speed things up a little. However, some very minor changes, like an Undo or Reset button within these dialog boxes would make them much easier to work with.

The other highlight of this upgrade is the extensive reworking of Illustrator’s type capabilities. Pretty much all of Illustrator’s text features have been improved in one way or another, but there are a few obvious highlights that are worth noting.

The main Font menu gives you a visual representation of each font and indicates whether it’s a PostScript, TrueType or OpenType font. There’s a new Glyph palette that allows you to view and insert any of the alternate glyphs available for a particular font, and an OpenType palette for specifying alternate options such as the use of ligatures or the representation of fractions.

Illustrator CS supports style sheets for both characters and paragraphs, and the paragraph styles in particular provide great control over settings such as indents and spacing, tabs and even character colour. When you save a file, its associated style sheets are saved as part of the file, so any colleagues that you share the file with will automatically have access to its style sheets as well.

Illustrator allows you to save files in a new template format, which stores settings such as type styles, as well as document dimensions and guides. Using the New From Template command allows you to create a new document containing the same content and settings, while leaving the original template document untouched. You’re then free to modify the new document’s content while maintaining consistent style and appearance.

Another useful layout option is the Area Type dialog box, which allows you to create a text area of a specific size, and
to specify the number of rows or columns of text that it will contain. You can control text flow between columns, and a live preview option allows you to change settings and see how they will affect the text layout. In addition, for fine-tuning text layouts there are new optical kerning and margin alignment options. Illustrator has two separate line composers – one for working with individual lines and an Every-line Composer that scans long blocks of text to produce the best looking line breaks and to avoid rivers of white space running from line to line.

There are improved options for flowing text along a path, such as the ability to alter the alignment or position of text relative to a path. These new features really do make Illustrator one of the most powerful typographic tools currently available. Adobe’s even beefed up the program’s support for Japanese typography, with spacing and layout options such as warichu, kinsoku shori, and mojikumi. There are a number of Japanese fonts included with the program, as well as a selection of Japanese-style templates for documents such as business cards and menus.

Throw in improved PDF and printing options, better support for importing Photoshop files, and even an option to export files in a format suitable for use in PowerPoint presentations, and Illustrator CS is an impressive upgrade.
There are still some areas that need to be addressed, though. The various menus are becoming increasingly cluttered and untidy – especially the Filter and Effects menus, which are an utter mess.

There are all sorts of duplicated items in these two menus, including no less than four identically named Stylize commands, some of which contain identical options, and some that contain extra options not found elsewhere.
Long-time Illustrator users may be used to this, and will know where to find the tools they need, but anyone coming
to Illustrator for the first time will just think it’s a mess.

Illustrator is crying out for some sort of file-management option along the lines of Photoshop’s File Browser, and its inconsistent ability to preview files in the Open dialog box is really annoying. And how about a context-sensitive toolbar to provide options for individual tools, rather than having to double-click on a tool in the tool palette in order to open up a clunky old dialog box?

Illustrator CS is certainly a recommended upgrade for existing users, and may even tempt a few FreeHand users to switch over (especially if you get Illustrator as part of the larger Adobe Creative Suite bundle). There’s still plenty of room for improvement though, and the interface should be top of the list for a makeover next time around.

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