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First Look: Adobe Creative Suite 4

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Adobe debuted Creative Suite 4 Tuesday, with all-new versions of its major development, design, publishing, and video/motion graphics applications, along with new and modified pricing and licensing schemes for both K-12 and post-secondary education. We have a inside look at the new features in the core design and Web applications, along with preliminary findings based on a pre-release of the Creative Suite 4 Master Collection.

In this Creative Suite 4 preview, we'll take a close look at some of the key applications in the suite, sketch out some of the changes in the other applications, and explain new education licensing plans. For this preview, I won't get into the new versions of After Effects of Premiere Pro but will save those for another time.

Now, Adobe's Creative Suite is the centerpiece of just about every specialized creative professional's collection of critical tools, but its use in education spans just about every niche in an institution--from classrooms to Web departments to administrative centers. It's used for campus publishing, for Web development, for videography, for graphic design, for podcasting, and much more. Adobe's software is also becoming more important in application development--also of significance to a number of education institutions--which is reflected in some of the new features in Creative Suite 4.

Historically, Adobe's major Creative Suite updates--timed at about 18 months apart--have contained a few blockbuster new features, along with hundreds of minor revisions designed to improve workflow or enhance pre-existing features. In Creative Suite 3, which debuted almost 18 months ago to the day, Adobe undertook the additional challenge of integrating the former Macromedia applications--Dreamweaver, Flash, and Fireworks--into the fold. Now Creative Suite 4 follows largely this historic formula but with a much more meaningful effort not only to bring the former Macromedia applications further into the fold, but to give them some long-needed overhauls and even a few new blockbuster features themselves.

Dreamweaver
Dreamweaver CS4 is a prime example of this last statement. Until now, Dreamweaver had been on something of a downhill slide, in my personal experience, since version 3. Dreamweaver MX was clunky and buggy, and subsequent releases didn't do much to improve the situation. I've used Dreamweaver pretty much every day of my life for the last 10 years or so, so I'm intimately familiar with the shortcomings that have gone unattended lo these many years (at least on the Mac platform). That is, performance has been inexplicably weak for an application that is required to perform relatively light computing duties; and the same bugs introduced in Dreamweaver MX continued to show up in releases through CS3, most notably in the Design pane. (I'm a split-code user, which should tell you something about how I use Dreamweaver.)

So Dreamweaver CS4 is a great relief for me. As I write this, I'm using a pre-release version of Dreamweaver CS4 sent out to reviewers in August. Normally I wouldn't comment on performance, since there's still a long way to go to the final release. But even in this early edition, Dreamweaver CS4 is incomparably more zippy and less buggy than its predecessors. Dreamweaver's major lags have vanished; and some of the more frustrating Design view bugs have disappeared as well.

Based on limited experience with the beta so far, it's difficult to determine just how deeply Dreamweaver's underlying code has been overhauled. There are some indications that the overhaul wasn't comprehensive. (The default dictionary, for example, will still see "wiki," "podcast," and "iPod" as misspellings, indicating that at least this particular component of Dreamweaver hasn't been touched in quite a while.) But the improvement in performance alone is grounds for optimism.

Beyond the performance boost, the most immediately obvious change to Dreamweaver is its new user interface, which is shared with the rest of the apps in Creative Suite 4. This includes completely redesigned palette styles, along with some rearrangements within the menus and palettes themselves. (The Properties palette, for example, is now broken up into two sets--CSS and HTML--requiring a button click to switch between the two sets of properties. The Text menu is now called the Format menu, and the spell checker has moved to the Commands menu. That sort of thing.)

Dreamweaver CS4 interface

In terms of new features, Dreamweaver CS4 adds several--and not just in the category of additional code snippets, which has been the case with past Dreamweaver updates.

One of these is Live View, which allows users to preview their pages with a certain level of browser accuracy without the need to open an actual browser. It also supports modifying code while in Live View and previewing the changes with the click of a button (labeled "Live Code").

It also adds a couple new features designed to make managing associated files easier. One of these is called, appropriately enough, "Related Files." This displays all of the related files for a given document that you're working on, including CSS, XML, and other types of external documents. These associated files appear as buttons up above the default toolbar. Clicking on one will open that file's source code in the Code pane while keeping the Design pane focused on the document you were originally working on.

Dreamweaver CS4 related files

A second, for those who work primarily in the Code pane, provides a pop-up menu for accessing the elements of a given tag using Command-Option-click (Mac) or Control-Alt-click (Windows).

Dreamweaver CS4 code editing related files

HTML data sets in CS4 give users the ability to create data sets directly within an HTML document using tables, divs, or ULs. These data sets can then be used to create dynamic tables using the Insert Spry Data Set command.

On the integration front, Dreamweaver CS4 now provides support for Photoshop's Smart Objects feature. PSD files can be dragged and dropped into an HTML page to create a Photoshop Smart Object, which then provides for synchronization between the Web image and the original graphic file. Smart Objects within Dreamweaver can be updated without opening Photoshop at all. Updates can also be applied across a range of documents that might use variations on the original.

Some of the other new Dreamweaver CS4 features worth highlighting include:

  • Adobe InContext Editing, which uses an online service to provide editable regions within a Dreamweaver-created Web page. Using the service, designated end users can edit page contents online. The service is being offered initially as a preview technology free of charge; it's not clear what Adobe plans to do with it after the preview period, but information updates will be available at adobe.com/dreamweaver.
  • Code hinting for Ajax and JavaScript frameworks, including adding functions to pre-defined data types.
  • Integration with the Subversion open-source version-control system.
  • Support for Adobe AIR authoring using the Adobe AIR Extension for Dreamweaver, which includes the ability to repurpose assets for Adobe AIR desktop applications.

Preliminary finding: Dreamweaver CS4 is a solid full-version upgrade that includes long-awaited performance and bug fixes, along with some significant new features and feature upgrades that will make Web design and development a bit more streamlined.

Photoshop
Of all of the applications in Creative Suite 4, Photoshop Extended probably receives the most significant new features and enhancements. Where Dreamweaver CS4's story is about performance and workflow, Photoshop CS4's is all about creativity, with a wide range of new tools and new ways of working with the old ones.

Photoshop CS4 interface

Some of the more impressive new features fall into the category of 3D layers. These include all-new 3D compositing and editing features, ranging from greatly streamlined 3D object/layer manipulation directly within the main interface window to the new ability to paint directly on 3D elements as if they were 2D elements. While there are no changes to the Photoshop paint engine itself in CS4, the new version does allow users to select the mode of painting used on 3D layers--diffuse, bump, glossiness, shininess, opacity, reflectivity, and self-illumination. Painting mode is selected through the 3D menu, and new channels are created on the fly to house whatever type of data is being painted onto the object.

It also includes a new integrated ray tracer for higher final render quality and overall performance improvements.

Other new 3D features include:

  • The ability to convert 2D layers and gradients to 3D objects;
  • The ability to merge a 2D layer onto a 3D layer and have it wrap around the 3D object;
  • Support for using video layers as textures;
  • The ability to merge multiple 3D objects into a single scene;
  • Support for exporting 3D layers to the OBJ, KMZ, Collada, and U3D file formats;
  • Manipulation of light, camera, and material properties of imported 3D objects; and
  • The new ability to convert text and images to "volumes."

Outside the sphere of 3D (ahem), Photoshop's motion graphics capabilities also get a boost in CS4, including new keyboard shortcuts, non-square-pixel previews, frame comment export, support for animating 3D objects (including cameras, objects, cross sections, and, for whatever reason, render settings). Also in the category of motion graphics, Photoshop CS4's 3D layers can now be read and imported in After Effects CS4.

In the category of 2D/still-image design, Photoshop CS4's story is largely one of refinements rather than bold new features. For example, adjustment layers have been centralized into a new Adjustments palette, accessible within the main canvas window, providing direct manipulation of images non-destructively. By making an adjustment in the Adjustments palette (Brightness/Contrast, Hue/Saturation, Levels, Exposure, Color Balance, Black & White, Photo Filter, Channel Mixer, Invert, Posterize, Threshold, Gradient Map, Selective Color, and a new one called "Vibrance"), new adjustment layers are automatically generated in the Layers palette, and settings can be adjusted within this new pane, rather than requiring the user to invoke a separate adjustment window.

Photoshop CS4 adjustments

The creation and manipulation of masks have also been refined in CS4. A new Masks palette has been added that provides direct access to mask parameters, including density and feather, which can be adjusted non-destructively. Other refinements have also been added to masks, including an upgraded Color Range feature and a Refine Mask feature.

Photoshop CS4 refine mask

Individual tools have also been enhanced, including Dodge, Burn, and Sponge, which are designed to provide greater control and "more natural" results. Auto-Align and Auto-Blend have received tweaks. Auto-Blend can be used to provide a wider depth of field to images shot with a shallow DoF. For example, multiple images of a single scene can be shot using different focal points, and Photoshop can merge those images to simulate a deeper depth of field. (This is essentially like merging bracketed images to enhance highlights and shadows, but the new process enhances focus instead.) Blending has also been improved to enhance the creation of 360-degree panoramas.

In the category of entirely new 2D features, Photoshop CS4 adds one: context-aware scaling. This new feature allows users to distort the proportions of an image with minimal distortion to the image itself. It does this by detecting background elements in an image (such as the horizon) and stretching those elements while maintaining the proportions of foreground elements. I can't comment on this new feature too much because it isn't fully functional in my early beta.

Other new features in Photoshop CS4 worth noting include:

  • Further integration with Photoshop Lightroom;
  • Non-destructive adjustments for raw images through Camera Raw 5, which also includes support for localized corrections and adjustments and "Post Crop Vignetting";
  • Support for perspective transformations with Smart Objects, as well as other Smart Object refinements;
  • Improved performance for a variety of image manipulations and transformations, including rotation, pan, zoom, preview, and painting;
  • A new version of Adobe Bridge featuring updated navigation, workspace control, and UI, among other new features;
  • New data collection features for measurements, including color coding for tallying objects in images;
  • New printing options, including 16-bit printing in Mac OS X;
  • Enhanced memory support in 64-bit Vista;
  • Support for multi-touch gestures in Mac OS X;
  • Layer-based metadata;
  • New dynamic cursors for Clone Stamp and Healing Brush tools;
  • The addition of an extensible SWF File Info palette;
  • Device Link color profile support;
  • A new "Rotate View" tool for adjusting the angle of display of the canvas;
  • A new Notes palette; and
  • Integrated CUDO for designing for color-blind people.

Preliminary finding: In Creative Suite 4, Photoshop Extended includes several major new features that will make this upgrade valuable to anybody who relies on Photoshop for his or her design work or image editing. For those who work with 3D and motion graphics in Photoshop--especially 3D--it's a critical upgrade. Adobe is billing Photoshop's new 3D features as "breakthrough," and that's a pretty accurate description of them. While Photoshop CS3 added 3D features that were essentially preliminary, Photoshop CS4 begins this application's course toward a robust 3D compositing and graphics solution, as was the case with motion graphics applications a few generations back. The only disappointment with Photoshop CS4 was that its paint engine was not enhanced, but I suppose that gives my 32 sets of brushes a bit more life before I have to go in and recreate them all.

Flash
Flash CS4, on its surface, seems to receive very few meaningful enhancements. But dig just a little, and you'll find some pleasant surprises, particularly in the new tools available to animators.

FLash CS4 interface

Among these is inverse kinematics, a technology that has been a cornerstone of 3D animation. Now, in Flash, 2D objects can take advantage of IK with a new set of Bone tools. The Bone tools let animators create parent-child relationships between objects. So, for example, if you're animating a human leg, you can create bones between the ankle and knee and the knee and the hip. Then moving the ankle will cause the knee to bend or unbend. The image below shows a simple bone structure connecting three objects.

Flash CS4 inverse kinematics

Constraints can be applied to individual joints, including rotation and X and Y translation (minimum and maximum values), and individual rotation and translation can be disabled in the Properties palette when a bone is selected.

Flash CS4 bone properties

In addition to IK, Flash CS4 adopts an object-based animation model that drastically reduced the number of steps it takes to create a basic animation. Motion tweens are applied directly to objects, and tweens can be created simply by right-clicking an object, selecting "Create Motion Tween" from the contextual menu, and moving the object. The tween is then automatically created. The symbols used in tweens are created automatically. Tweens for bones are even simpler. Just advancing the timeline and then moving a boned object (for lack of a better phrase) creates an automatic animation.

Tweens can also be edited by adjusting an automatically generated motion path by moving points or adjusting handles on the Bezier path. The timing of animations can be adjusted simply by dragging the span on the timeline, which will also compress and retain keyframes within the animation.

Flash CS4 also adds a new Motion Editor, seen below, which provides independent control over every motion parameter. And it includes a Motion Presets panel for creating and applying pre-defined motions.

Flash CS4 Motion Editor

In terms of new, non-animation-related creative features, Flash CS4 also adds 3D transformation capabilities for adjusting the position and view of an object in three dimensions using either manual settings in the Properties palette or individual 3D Rotation and 3D Translation tools. And it includes a new tool called Deco, which is a procedural modeling tool for creating pattern effects from individual symbols. These effects include Vine Fill (branching patterns), Grid Fill (grid-based patterns), and Symmetry Brush (kaleidoscopic effects).

Other worthwhile new features include:

  • Built-in Adobe AIR publishing support;
  • XFL file format support;
  • Support for XMP metadata;
  • New support in Adobe Media Encoder for H.264 encoding; and
  • Adoption of the suite-wide CS4 interface and a few new UI options to make Flash a bit more intuitive for non-coders;

Preliminary finding: For people who have never been huge fans of the Flash way of doing things (such as your humble narrator), Adobe has brought some relief and probably lowered the learning curve a bit for those just getting into Flash authoring and design. People who like to design, rather than click and type things, will probably be thrilled by the changes in CS4, in particular with the new animation tools and shortcuts. For all users, there are also some new features that should make working in Flash easier, more productive, and more creative.

Fireworks, Illustrator, and InDesign
The three remaining design and publishing applications all receive relatively minor revisions in Creative Suite 4--minor, at least, in comparison with Photoshop, Flash, and Dreamweaver. So we'll touch on each of these just briefly.

Fireworks, like Dreamweaver, had not received an abundance of TLC in its recent incarnations. The new CS4 edition essentially brings it up to snuff in terms of performance and stability--although, again, I'm working on a pre-release version and don't want to talk too much about these issues until the final release ships. Some of its enhancements include:

  • Adoption of Adobe's text engine, a definite plus for Fireworks;
  • An overhauled user interface and general workspace improvements;
  • Adobe AIR interactive prototyping;
  • The ability to design and export CSS-based Web page layouts;
  • Export to PDF; and
  • A few changes to style and symbol functionality.

It also adds integration with Adobe Kuler. Kuler is a Web service for creating color schemes that, unlike an awful lot of misguided Web color scheme tools out there, uses an RYB color picker. The benefit of this is that for those who rely on such tools, color schemes will be generated using somewhat meaningful color theory (i.e., green is the complement of red) as opposed to RGB pickers that don't (i.e., cyan is the complement of red). It also allows users to share their own color sets.

InDesign has become a critical tool in print publishing. It has also matured relatively quickly, so much so that by version 3 or so, it was pretty much on par with its main competitor. (I should note here that I was always a PageMaker man back in my print days, so I might be a bit prejudiced. Not that there's any comparison to be made between PageMaker and InDesign. I just never liked the competitor.)

So there are not any earth-shattering new features in version CS4. Rather, the latest release focuses on refinements and a few incremental feature enhancements. Here they are, in short:

  • Automatic text reflow for overset copy, including the creation of new pages to handle the flow;
  • Page/spread rotation for simplifying the task of working with non-horizontally aligned text;
  • Smart guides to assist with transforming multiple objects (without the need to create guides manually);
  • Conditional Text, which allows users to create multiple, unique versions of a document;
  • An enhanced Links palette;
  • A new feature called cross-referencing, which automatically updates multiple elements when a change is made to one of them; and
  • Live Preflight, which provides warnings during the entire page layout/design process.

On the non-print-centric front, InDesign also adds SWF export (with hyperlinks, interactive buttons, and page transitions) and export to Flash CS4 Professional via the XFL file format.

Illustrator is Adobe's most mature application, and, as such, it's been in refinement mode (as opposed to blockbuster feature mode) for quite a few years. Still, Illustrator CS4 does introduce a few welcome design features, along with UI and workflow enhancements. These include:

  • Support for multiple artboards (a long-requested feature);
  • Enhancements to gradients, including support for transparency, new elliptical gradients, and overall improvements to manipulating gradients on objects;
  • A new Blob Brush tool, which creates outlined and filled shapes from brush strokes (as opposed to stroked paths);
  • The addition of Flex Skin Design extensions;
  • Enhanced integration with other Adobe apps, including multiple artboard support in Flash and InDesign CS4;
  • Smart Guides;
  • Appearance editing within the Appearance palette;
  • Graphic Styles previews (without applying the styles to objects);
  • Support for more object types in Isolation mode; and
  • A separations preview.

Also worth noting is Illustrator's new clipping mask functionality, which is designed to make masks simpler to work with.

Education Licensing
For students, teachers, and institutions, Adobe has made a few adjustments to Creative Suite licensing and pricing. Here's the way it works for both higher education and K-12, broken down by product.

CS4 Design Standard Edition

  • K-12 school site license: $6,499
  • Student Single license (K-12): $249
  • Student Single License (higher ed): $249
  • Educational Single-license Shrink: $499
  • Retail Single-license Shrink: $1,399

CS4 Design Premium Edition

  • K-12 school site license: $8,499
  • Student Single license (K-12): Not available
  • Student Single License (higher ed): $349
  • Educational Single-license Shrink: $599
  • Retail Single-license Shrink: $1,799

CS4 Web Standard Edition

  • K-12 school site license: $4,999
  • Student Single license (K-12): $199
  • Student Single License (higher ed): $199
  • Educational Single-license Shrink: $399
  • Retail Single-license Shrink: $999

CS4 Web Premium Edition

  • K-12 school site license: $7,999
  • Student Single license (K-12): Not available
  • Student Single License (higher ed): Not available
  • Educational Single-license Shrink: $549
  • Retail Single-license Shrink: $1,699

CS4 Production Premium

  • K-12 school site license: $8,499
  • Student Single license (K-12): $349
  • Student Single License (higher ed): $349
  • Educational Single-license Shrink: $599
  • Retail Single-license Shrink: $1,699

CS4 Master Collection

  • K-12 school site license: $13,999
  • Student Single license (K-12): Not available
  • Student Single License (higher ed): $599
  • Educational Single-license Shrink: $999
  • Retail Single-license Shrink: $2,499

Additional licensing options are available through the Transactional Licensing Program and Contractual Licensing Program. Further information about each of the suite editions can be found on Adobe's product pages and its education portal, which also provides additional details on TLP and CLP options. Adobe Creative Suite 4 is slated to ship in October.

About the Author

Executive Producer David Nagel heads up the editorial department for 1105 Media's education publications — which include two daily sites, a variety of newsletters and two monthly digital magazines covering technology in both K-12 and higher education.

A 21-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192 or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education). A selection of David Nagel's articles can be found on this site.


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