Every two years or so, Adobe Systems releases a new version of its Creative Suite and revs up its well-oiled marketing machine to tantalize designers with video demos, free trial downloads and other enticements to upgrade their software. It all seems so impressive until you look at the price tag. “My current version works pretty well,” you think. “Do I really need this?” Many grumble and hand over the cash. Others put their wallets away, content to make do with their current setup.
So now we have Adobe Creative Suite 6, and, as with previous versions, Adobe has added an assortment of productivity enhancements, performance tweaks and other new features. This time, many of these tools are aimed at interactive designers who want to create content for tablets and smartphones, but there are plenty of goodies for all manner of creative professionals.
The game-changer is the way Adobe is pricing and delivering the software. For just $49.99 per month, you can join Adobe’s new Creative Cloud service, which entitles you to download and use the entire Creative Suite, including Premiere and After Effects in addition to the design and web applications. Even better, if you’re already using CS3, CS4, CS5 or CS5.5, the first year’s membership is $29.99 per month. You’re getting what’s essentially the entire $2,600 Master Collection for less than the cost of a typical smartphone contract.
These fees apply only if you agree to a full-year membership, though you still pay on a monthly basis. You can also opt for a $75-per-month plan that doesn’t obligate you to a full year, a good choice if you’re hiring designers for temporary projects. Later this year, Adobe plans to introduce a $69.99-per-month team version of the Creative Cloud that will include enhanced features for workgroups, including the ability to share workspaces and manage licenses.
The subscription pricing includes all future upgrades, and Adobe’s product managers are promising to add new features more frequently rather than waiting for the biennial mega-release. You still have the option to purchase conventional software licenses at the same nosebleed prices as before, but for designers who previously balked at upgrading, this new subscription scheme will be hard to resist.
Photoshop has long been one of the most versatile programs in the creative professional’s toolbox, packed to the gills with features for designers, photographers, illustrators, web developers, video producers and 3D artists. This creates a perception problem for Adobe when it’s time to release a new version, because for many users the added functionality seems underwhelming compared with what they already have. So with this release, Adobe has given us a number: We’re told that Photoshop CS6 has 62 percent more added or updated features compared with the last upgrade. And another number: More than 65 of these features were inspired by user requests.
I don’t envy the Adobe employee who had to sit down and count all those new features, and I certainly did not attempt to do it myself. But it’s clear that the Photoshop team has been busy, and designers should find that many of these new tools and enhancements will enable them to work more productively and get better results.
The first one you’ll notice is the new interface. When you run Adobe Photoshop CS6, you might think you’ve launched Premiere or After Effects by mistake. It now has a dark-gray color theme that it shares with those video-editing programs as well as Illustrator CS6. The theory is that the darker theme makes the interface less distracting, enabling you to focus more on your artwork. However, this is just the default, and if you don’t like the new look, you can use Preferences to revert to the familiar light-gray theme.
Mercury Graphics Engine
A more significant enhancement is under the hood in the form of the Mercury Graphics Engine, Adobe’s name for a set of features that use the computer’s graphics hardware to improve performance. This is most readily apparent when using the Liquify tool, which is now significantly faster. You should also notice better performance with the Puppet Warp, Transform and 3D tools.
The new graphics engine also accelerates the Crop tool, which has been thoroughly revamped in CS6. In addition to the previous Rule of Thirds overlay, you can now choose overlays that use other composition rules, including Golden Spiral and Golden Ratio. Any crops you apply are non-destructive—at any time, you can return to the Crop tool and restore the area that’s been cropped out. You can also save crops as presets.
The tool also incorporates the Straighten feature introduced in CS5, which makes it much easier to straighten crooked images. You click on the ruler icon in the Options bar and use it to indicate which line in the image should be horizontal. Photoshop then automatically rotates and re-crops the image.
The most astounding new feature in CS5 was undoubtedly Content-Aware Fill, which makes it ridiculously easy to remove objects from photos. In CS6, Adobe has extended this feature with the new Content-Aware Move tool and a new Content-Aware option for the Patch tool. Rather than removing an object, the Content-Aware Move tool lets you move it from one part of an image to another. As with Content-Aware Fill, it works better on some images than others—generally those with a consistent background.
The Content-Aware Patch is similar to Content-Aware Fill, but whereas the latter samples from the area surrounding the selection, the Patch lets you choose a different part of the image to create the fill. This is useful in situations where the area surrounding an object doesn’t work well as a fill pattern.
Another big addition is the Blur Gallery, which introduces three new Blur tools: Iris Blur, Tilt-Shift Blur and Field Blur. Useful for adding photographic depth-of-field effects, the gallery includes controls that let you quickly specify which areas should appear in or out of focus. That’s plural “areas”—unlike a camera lens, the Blur Gallery can create images in which multiple areas are in focus against a blurry background. This will likely lead to some horrible uses of the feature, but the capability is there if you want it. One cool aspect of this feature is the ability to save the blurred areas as masks in the Channels panel.
Also new is an improved algorithm for automatically correcting color and tone in photos. The algorithm’s name is deceptively simple—Enhance Brightness and Contrast—but draws on a built-in database of thousands of photo corrections performed by professional retouchers. It applies when you click the Auto option in Levels, Curves and Brightness and Contrast adjustments.
Each new version of Photoshop usually includes some small but important productivity improvements, and my favorite here is the new search/filter capability in the Layers panel. If your Photoshop file has a multitude of layers, you can now filter them so that only those matching specified criteria are shown. You can filter by Kind (Text Layers, Pixel Layers, Shape Layers, etc.), Name, Layer Effect (Bevel, Drop Shadow, etc.), Blend Mode, Color and Attribute (Visible, Locked, Empty, etc.). For example, if you want to quickly delete all empty layers, you can filter on that attribute, select the layers and click on the Trashcan in the Layers panel.
Another small but welcome fix for those upgrading from previous versions: You can now import your old presets, including Actions, via the new Migrate Presets command.
These are just some of the highlights. You can also check out these videos demonstrating other new features: