Adobe Illustrator CS5 review

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

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

  • 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.

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Those who design for the Web or Flash Platform application user interfaces will be pleased by Illustrator's new features.

Many Web and interface designers felt that earlier versions of Illustrator weren’t fit for making Web graphics that include text because of its lack of anti-aliasing support. Illustrator CS5 has adopted Photoshop’s celebrated text anti-aliasing system. Now you can optimize the rasterization of type destined for the Web or mobile devices by setting its anti-aliasing to be Sharp, Crisp, Strong, or not anti-aliased. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work—at least, not by default.

In order to make the text anti-aliasing you’ve chosen from the bottom of the Character panel work, you’ll have to take the extra step of going to the Image Size panel in the Save for Web & Devices dialog and changing the unlabeled dropdown menu at the bottom to the Type Optimized option.

Flash Platform developers using Flash, Flash Builder, Flex, or Flash Catalyst will also find Illustrator CS5 a compelling upgrade. The program can now save directly to Flex in the FXG format, and includes support for roundtrip editing with the new designer-centric Flash Catalyst CS5.

Begin by designing your user interface—the entire thing or just an element or two—in Illustrator and open that file in Flash Catalyst to add interactivity. Even after adding components and actions in Flash Catalyst, you can return the design to Illustrator for further tweaking without losing your work from Flash Catalyst.

Perspective drawing

Technical or creative illustrators will either love or hate Illustrator’s new perspective drawing feature. Switching to the new Perspective Grid tool converts your flat artboard into a simulated three-dimensional space complete with planes and vanishing points dwindling away onto the horizon. From there, you’re drawing in perspective. Grab the Rectangle tool and click and drag on the active surface of the Perspective Grid and you’ll draw a rectangle that rides on that surface, growing smaller as the shape moves away from you toward the horizon. Entire scenes can be drawn or rendered with realistic perspective.

The Perspective Grid can be controlled with great precision. For instance you can dynamically adjust the position of the vertical panes, raise or lower the ground level, and even switch between one-, two-, and three-point perspectives.

Perspective Grid doesn’t work the way I would have expected, however. You can’t type onto the Perspective Grid. Instead, you have to first create a type object off the grid, and then move it to the grid with the Perspective Selection tool. And, once text is on the Perspective Grid, it looks like it has been converted to outlines, but it has not. It can be edited by entering a special isolation mode via a new button on the Control panel. Worse than making you think your text has been outlined is the fact that object appearances are not drawn in perspective. Draw a rectangle with a 20-point stroke on the Perspective Grid and you’ll have a 20-point stroke all the way around; the stroke won’t appear to get smaller as the path moves away from your view, toward the horizon. You’ll get the same perspective-clashing results with offset fills, drop shadows, and any other appearance attribute.

Other enhancements

Illustrator includes a slew of smaller but highly utilitarian new and newly refined features. The new Shape Builder tool—sort of a marriage between the Pathfinder commands and converting shapes to a Live Paint object -- offers a more intuitive way to combine, divide, and control pieces of overlapping elements. Other CS5 perks include new modes to draw behind or inside objects, the ability to select objects behind the current object, better path joining, 9-slice scaling of symbols (a kind of intelligent scaling), and resolution-independent effects.

For those who have long asked why the Y (vertical) axis must begin at the bottom of the artboard, you’ll be pleased to know that Illustrator finally matches the rest of the Creative Suite in putting its default ruler origin -- the X and Y zero point -- in the top-left instead of the old bottom-left methodology.

CS Live services, which are integrated throughout the Creative Suite, include: CS Live, a panel of shortcuts to Adobe’s offering of software as a service tools like and Adobe BrowserLab; CS Review, an interface that builds on to enable client or team project review; and CS News and Resources, a panel linking to helpful Illustrator how-tos and other resources. These services are free for a year after installation, and subsequent subscription fees have yet to be announced.

One of the main selling points of Illustrator CS5 is its speed. For example, when applying a memory-intensive, very complex 3D Extrude & Bevel effect to live text, CS4 took 20 seconds to build the final render while CS5 required a mere four seconds. Results of other timed tests with system-intensive tasks were comparable. Illustrator CS5 is much snappier than CS4, and that translates directly into increased productivity.

Still not fixed

A few things I would like to have seen in the release of CS5 went untouched by Adobe. For instance, I find it frustrating to work with 3D Extrude & Bevel because Adobe seems incapable of improving that feature to eliminate the frequent occurrence of self-intersections. The blending modes in Illustrator still have not been updated to match the more fully featured set introduced in Photoshop CS2 (Vivid Light, Color Dodge, and others). For years, users have been asking for enhancements to long-standing Illustrator features like blending, charts and graphs, 3D effects, and others, but CS5 once again ignores those requested refinements.

Despite long-hoped-for enhancements that have not been delivered, the new features and updates that are included in Illustrator CS5 are so compelling that I’m unable to say anything short of this: Illustrator CS5 is a great buy. Even if you have no need of all the new features—and I can’t see anyone not benefiting from at least one of them—the zippier performance alone will pay back the cost of the upgrade in time that you don’t have to wait for Illustrator to complete tasks.

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