Review: Adobe Illustrator CS5

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Pros: Useful new features that include variable-width strokes and a tool to build shapes more easily; innovative Bristle Brush feature; new antialiasing settings create pixel-perfect web graphics; numerous enhancements to artboards; seamless integration with Adobe Flash Catalyst.

Cons: Perspective drawing feature difficult to use; Bristle Brush feature can create artwork that could cause printing issues; some core drawing tools still absent.

Rating: 85 out of 100

For an application that's more than 25 years old (and remember that computer years are like five times as many as dog years), it’s incredible to see Adobe Illustrator continue to grow with innovative features and useful enhancements. Illustrator is used now more than ever, as it offers a familiar and reliable design environment that can be used to create content for just about any need in just about any medium -- be it print, Web, video, or mobile.

Installing Illustrator CS5 ($599 new/$199 upgrade, and in all configurations of Adobe Creative Suite 5) was noticeably improved over previous versions. Adobe has completely rewritten their installer technology; IT managers will now appreciate the ability to silently "push" installations across a network. You’ll be prompted for your Adobe ID during installation -- used mainly to help access Adobe’s new CS Live online services -- although you can skip that step and enter the information later. Aside from the funky new splash screen (each CS5 product features a different shape), you’ll find that Illustrator CS5 doesn’t look all that different at first glance. But don’t worry, that perception will change in a hurry. Read on.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive
Ask an experienced user for something they’d like to see addressed in a new version of Illustrator and you’ll rarely hear a request for something big. In fact, you’ll find that most users wish for seemingly small things -- like adding an extra menu command here or there to help with the everyday tasks -- ones that are constantly repeated over and over again. In CS5, Adobe finally addresses numerous "small" requests -- with a few innovative twists along the way.

Create a new document in Illustrator CS5 and you’ll notice the ruler’s origin point is positioned at the top left of the document. And when you're using multiple artboards, each artboard now maintains its own ruler and origin point. Speaking of artboards, you can now assign names to them. A new Artboards panel lets you easily navigate between artboards and rearrange their order. A new Auto-Rotate option in the Print dialog box changes the paper settings to portrait and landscape automatically so that you can print all the artboards in your document at once, even if the artboards have mixed orientations.

Figure 1: A new Artboards panel in Illustrator CS5 makes it much easier to manage documents that contain multiple artboards. Click the image below to open a larger version in a separate window.

Illustrator CS5 even breathes new life into the most basic of functions, like selecting, pasting, and path editing. You can now press and hold the Command (Mac) or Control (Windows) key while making selections to choose objects that appear beneath other objects in the stacking order. And CS5 sports two new paste commands: Paste in Place, which lets you copy an object from one artboard and paste into the exact location on another artboard; and Paste In All Artboards, which does the same -- but across all artboards at once. And after 14 versions of being forced to join anchor points two at a time, you can now use the Join command to fuse multiple paths and anchor points with one action.

Illustrator CS5 introduces the concept of drawing modes. In Draw Normal mode, each object that you draw is added above objects in the stacking order. Press Shift-D to toggle to Draw Behind mode and each object you draw will appear beneath other objects in the stacking order. Select any shape and press Shift-D again to enter Draw Inside mode, where anything you do happens inside of the selected object.Basically, Illustrator automatically creates the necessary masks for you. For example, when Draw Inside mode is active, you can use the regular Paste command to paste objects directly into other objects, without having to manually define a mask. This is similar to the Paste Inside feature that Freehand users have longed for.

Figure 2: A dashed border appears around the bounds of an object, indicating that the Draw Inside drawing mode is active.

With each release of Illustrator, the Symbols feature becomes more important and more powerful. Besides being able to work more efficiently, Symbols are also directly compatible with both Flash Professional and Flash Catalyst (Illustrator symbols become Flex optimized graphics when brought into Flash Catalyst). With CS5, symbols now have their own layer structure, like mini documents, and they support individual registration points and 9-slice scaling directly on the Illustrator artboard.

Several raster-based effects, including the oft-used Gaussian Blur, now maintain their appearance even when you change the resolution value in the Effect > Document Raster Effects Settings dialog box. This means you can design at lower resolutions for better performance, then crank up the resolution before you go to print, without negative consequences. It also makes it easier to share content between print and Web documents.

In Illustrator CS4, Adobe added the ability to assign opacity values to individual color stops within a gradient. In CS5, Illustrator can now do the same for individual mesh points in a gradient mesh object.

While all of these items are just small enhancements, they have a huge impact on the bulk of the work you do in Illustrator every day. I covered them here first in my review because in my opinion, they are the most important.

Strokes Get a Complete Overhaul
Looking at past releases of Illustrator, you can point to watershed features like gradients, the Appearance panel, and Pathfinder: things that have dramatically redefined the kinds of art you can create and changed the ways in which you get your work done. With Illustrator CS5, you can add yet another feature to this list: variable width strokes.

Illustrator users often take strokes, the attributes that control the appearance of paths, for granted. While there are settings like dashes, joins, and caps that can change the appearance of a stroke, the most common adjustment we make to strokes is the weight, or the thickness of a stroke. Strokes have always been limited to a single consistent weight that's distributed along the entire length of a path, but many of us have dreamed of creating strokes with tapered edges or non-uniform weights. In the past, we struggled with tedious workarounds, such as outlining strokes and adjusting anchor points manually, or applying brush strokes with pressure-sensitive pens and tablets.

In Illustrator CS5, you can use the new Width tool to adjust a stroke’s weight along any part of a path, with absolute precision. Normally, Illustrator paints the stroke along the centerline of the path, but using the Width tool, you can easily add or remove thickness from both sides of the path individually. As you click and drag with the Width tool, Illustrator defines width points that define the overall appearance of the stroke. You can double-click on these width points to enter precise measurements, and you can also drag width points along a path to make adjustments. And then there’s the best part: all of the width points applied to a path make up something called a width profile, which you can save and easily apply to other paths.

Figure 3: When using the Width tool to adjust the thickness of a stroke along a path, Smart Guides give you precise values.

As an added benefit, you can also use the Width tool to add width profiles to Art and Pattern brushes. You can now also define "stretchable" areas in Art brushes, so that they scale intelligently.

In addition to the Width tool and width profiles, Adobe also enhanced the way that dashes are applied to strokes (corners now line up evenly). And instead of having to add and modify effects, you can now specify arrowheads as a stroke attribute directly from the Stroke panel (much like InDesign). You can instantly flip an arrowhead from one side of a path to another, and you can even define your own custom arrowheads.

Figure 4: An updated Stroke panel allows you to easily add a width profile and apply perfectly aligned dashes along any path.

Adobe likes to refer to all of these stroke settings and enhancements as "Beautiful Strokes" and it’s hard to disagree.

Bob Ross Lives on in Illustrator CS5
Illustrator has had a Paintbrush tool since version 8, but it resembles a real paintbrush tool about as much as the Pen tool resembles a real pen. In past versions, Illustrator supported four kinds of brushes: calligraphic, art, scatter, and pattern. CS5 adds a fifth type called Bristle Brush, which simulates the bristles of an artist's brush.

The underlying engine for Bristle Brush is the same as the new Bristle Tips feature in Photoshop CS5, but with Illustrator, you paint with vectors instead of pixels. Still, it's possible to achieve painterly effects with Bristle Brush even if you've never painted before, though you may want to watch a few Bob Ross DVDs. You can define shaped brushes that mimic traditional brushes (fan, round, angle, etc.), and you have absolute control over a brush’s characteristics including bristle length, density, thickness, and stiffness. With so many variables, there’s no limit to what you can create with Bristle Brush. I’ve enjoyed creating artwork ranging from Japanese calligraphy to watercolor paintings.

Figure 5: With Bristle Brush, you can create a variety of effects, such as the leaves on this cypress tree, as well as the painterly sky in the background. Click the image below to open a larger version in a separate window.

The only downside is that to achieve painterly effects with vector paths, Bristle Brush uses transparency settings on multiple overlapping paths. This can sometimes create incredibly complex files that could cause problems during the printing process. If a file contains a significant amount of Bristle Brush strokes, Adobe suggests rasterizing the artwork before printing.

To get the most out of Illustrator’s new Bristle Brush, you’ll want to use a pressure-sensitive tablet. Bristle Brush also offers additional support for Wacom’s 6D Art Pen, which is available for both Intuos3 and Intuos4 tablets.

Draw Artwork in Perspective
Artists who need to create artwork in perspective often spend time manually drawing complex grids with horizon lines and vanishing points to ensure correct angles and positioning. Then they spend even more time carefully drawing artwork to line up correctly with the grids. Once such artwork is created, it’s difficult to adjust or edit the artwork without adjusting the entire perspective, as well.

In Illustrator CS5, Adobe adds a complete Perspective Grid feature that lets you quickly define a 1-, 2-, or 3-point perspective grid with adjustable horizon lines, perspective planes, and vanishing points. Once you’ve defined a perspective grid, Illustrator’s basic drawing tools draw shapes that are constrained to the perspective grid. A new Perspective Selection tool allows you to move and scale objects while keeping the proper perspective, and you can also use the tool to take existing flat art and snap it into proper perspective. An innovative on-screen widget also appears when you’re editing artwork in perspective to help you choose which perspective plane you want artwork to snap to. You can even move artwork from one perspective plane to another, making it snap from one perspective angle to another.

Figure 6: With the Perspective Grid feature in Illustrator CS5, you can draw and edit artwork -- even work with text -- to create illustrations that automatically distort to vanishing points that you define. Click the image below to open a larger version in a separate window.

Defining a perspective grid in Illustrator is easy enough, but as you start to draw and incorporate artwork, using the perspective features become increasingly difficult. A single document can contain a mixture of artwork -- some attached to a perspective plane and some not -- but there is no way to tell which is which, making it confusing to know when to use the Selection tool or the Perspective Selection tool. Some techniques, such as moving art between perspective planes, are only possible using keyboard shortcuts while simultaneously using the mouse.

For complex illustrations that need to be drawn in perspective, the Perspective Grid feature might be useful, but if you have to quickly add perspective to a few elements in your illustration, you’ll probably find it faster and easier to use features that Illustrator has had for quite some time, such as Envelope Distort, or the 3D or Distort effects.

Build Artwork Faster than Ever
Most experienced Illustrator users know that it can be a lot easier to create artwork by using Pathfinder functions to combine, subtract, or divide multiple objects. If you think about building artwork instead of drawing artwork, you can generate complex designs more efficiently.

However, even experienced Illustrator users often become frustrated with the Pathfinder panel. It takes up extra space on the screen, and it can be difficult to remember which button applies which effect. In CS2, Adobe added the Live Paint feature to help designers build artwork more efficiently, but Live Paint required the use of special groups, which confused many users.

In Illustrator CS5, Adobe adds a new Shape Builder tool that lets you apply the most-used Pathfinder commands (Add/Unite and Subtract/Minus Front) visually. Simply select several shapes and drag across them with the tool to unite them into a single shape, or perform the same action while holding the Option (Mac) or Alt (Windows) key to subtract or remove artwork. There are even options to make the Shape Builder tool behave similarly to the Live Paintbucket tool, allowing you to apply color to objects as you perform Add and Subtract functions.

Figure 7: When you start with basic shapes, you can use the new Shape Builder tool in Illustrator CS5 to combine the shapes to quickly create more complex artwork.

I’ll admit that when I first saw this tool, I didn’t think I’d find much use in it, as I’ve already come to rely heavily on Live Paint and even basic Pathfinder functions. However, I’m using the Shape Builder tool again and again. It’s really so much faster and more intuitive. I’ve dubbed the Shape Builder tool as the sleeper feature in Illustrator CS5.

Go to page 2 for Mordy's take on Illustrator CS5's new features for Web design and collaborative workflows, and for his overall buying advice.

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