Adobe – Creative Suite 2 review

integrated package of powerful design applications
Photo of Adobe – Creative Suite 2
£899 + VAT (Premium Edition), £699 + VAT (Standard Edition), various upgrade options available

Adobe announced the upgrade to its best-selling collection of design software in April, with a view to begin shipping throughout the US in May and to UK customers by the end of June. This review is based on the final beta release.

The original Creative Suite appeared at the end of 2003, bringing together several design programs: Photoshop (image editing), Illustrator (vector graphics), InDesign (page layout), GoLive (Web site design and management) and Acrobat Professional (PDF creation and editing). In addition, the suite included a utility called Version Cue for managing shared projects over a LAN and maintaining multiple ‘roll back’ versions of a document without having to save multiple files. It has always been possible to purchase the programs individually but the ability to set up and manage network projects in Version Cue is exclusive to Creative Suite owners.

With Creative Suite 2, Adobe has upgraded the individual programs and beefed up the integration between them. Usefully, there is now a distinction in Version Cue 2.0 between ‘versions’ (historical steps in the creation of a document) and ‘alternates’ (alternative designs for a document). This means you can now create several alternates for a Photoshop image, place it into an InDesign or GoLive layout, then switch between the alternates using the Version Cue interface within those programs. Switching between alternates is hardly a one-click task but you do get to see thumbnail previews and annotations to help you, and it is easier than rolling back versions in the old Version Cue 1.0.

On that note, Creative Suite 2 programs now come with an optional ‘Adobe dialog’ for File Open, Save and Place tasks. This lets you browse documents with full file information or as thumbnail previews and so on, and link apparently seamlessly to Version Cue projects. The ‘Adobe dialog’ performs slower than the standard Windows or Mac OS dialogue window but it is more functional and we prefer to keep it enabled.

The big integration news in Creative Suite 2 is the introduction of a new program called Bridge. On the surface, it is a file browser similar to the one in Photoshop 7.0 and CS (Photoshop CS2 no longer has its own File Browser window) but applicable to and accessible from all of the programs in the suite. You can use it to preview documents, batch rename files, and to build searchable archives by adding keywords and XMP-standard metadata to files at will. You can also drag and drop files from Bridge to any of the suite’s program windows.

Bridge is more than a file browser, though. It comes with a customisable Bridge Center view from which you can trace current and recent documents, manage your Version Cue projects conveniently, and apply colour management preferences uniformly across the entire suite in one go. It even includes a built-in RSS reader, and one of the first things we did was add Adobe’s various technical support RSS feeds to it.

We also added the IT Reviews feed, and it works perfectly. Additionally, Bridge comes with a browsing and purchasing interface for simultaneous online picture libraries including Photodisk, Comstock and Digital Vision. Not least, Bridge can be JavaScripted to interact with the other programs in the suite.

Although it has improved in recent beta releases, Bridge remains appallingly sluggish. It launches slowly, the Bridge Center responds with a delay after each click, and opening a folder you haven’t opened before is an excuse to put the kettle on as it churns through all the files to generate thumbnails. Unless Adobe has an acceleration trick up its sleeve before shipping the final product, the massive potential of Bridge will be hamstrung by the fact that no-one will want to use it. While the Creative Suite 2 design programs respond like an Olympic sprinter, Bridge is more like that man who runs the London Marathon wearing a diving suit. Through cold syrup.

Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and GoLive have each been upgraded to version CS2; Acrobat Professional was upgraded to version 7.0 late last year and has already been reviewed by IT Reviews. The full new-feature lists for these programs can be read online at Adobe’s Web site, but here’s a summary of the most important enhancements.

The killer new feature in Photoshop CS2 is Vanishing Point. This lays down a virtual 3D mesh over an image so that you can set its three basic dimensional planes, then when you clone image elements from one area to another, they respect perspective automatically without you having to tweak the size and shape of those elements. A good example would be cloning a window from one side of a building to another when the photo shows the building at a three-quarter angle. Beta testers have been flipping over this feature, with good reason. There are limitations, though: you cannot bend a cloned selection halfway around the edge between two planes, nor can you describe non-flat surfaces.

On the other hand, non-flat perspective distortion is a lot easier to fake now with the (about time) introduction of proper envelope tools to Photoshop. For example, you could import a two-dimensional product label created in Illustrator and bend it within an envelope so that it appears to fit around a photo of a tin can.

The killer new feature in Illustrator CS2 is Live Trace. This traces scanned drawings and images, converting them to vector paths. It doesn’t sound so amazing but Illustrator does it really well, respecting line thicknesses when it can and intelligently treating one type of original image differently from another (a cartoon from a photo, for example). An associated feature, Live Paint, makes it possible to work with coloured objects on the same layer and lets you deal with those fiddly situations where general areas that you want to colour in are not independent, closed objects. Unfortunately, Live Paint is not intuitive and you have to keep remembering to use the appropriate tool – as if Illustrator didn’t have enough tools to confuse you already.

InDesign CS2 is a cracking good upgrade for designers and publishers alike, featuring something called Object Styles, which work in a similar way to character, paragraph and stroke styles. Applying an Object Style to a text frame, for example, could style up the text content, colour the frame background, set a stroke around its border and add a drop shadow, all with one click. Like Illustrator, InDesign can toggle individual layers and layer comps on and off within a placed Photoshop image on the page. Not least, InDesign CS2 is the first page layout program to support multiple baseline grids.

GoLive CS2, as with previous GoLive versions, is the joker in the pack. Let’s face it, almost no-one uses this program in a professional Web development environment except perhaps for Adobe itself. The program interface is still completely out of kilter with Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, and its site diagrams and approach to page templates remain fiddly and unintuitive.

What it’s really good at, though, is working with content you have prepared elsewhere in Creative Suite, such as InDesign documents, and in doing very clever things with PDF. The combination of Smart Objects and Version Cue alternates is powerful indeed because it keeps you working in GoLive instead of having to keep redoing components in Photoshop and Illustrator every time something needs to change. Casual users will appreciate GoLive CS2′s visual CSS authoring, while serious developers may be more interested in the beefed-up support for mobile devices.

As with Creative Suite 1.0, you can choose between Premium and Standard Editions for Creative Suite 2. The cheaper Standard Edition simply leaves out GoLive CS2 and Acrobat 7.0 Professional. For our money, it is worth paying the extra £230 just for Acrobat even if you do not want GoLive, partly for Acrobat’s advanced PDF creation, optimisation and reviewing functions, and also because the standalone version costs over £400. Our advice to cash-strapped designers and office users who may only use Creative Suite CS2 occasionally is to dig out an old copy of Photoshop and take advantage of Adobe’s upgrade deals.

Company: Adobe

Contact: 020 8606 1100

Despite Adobe's claims, the first version of Creative Suite was simply a well-packaged bundle. This second version at last begins to deliver the promise of integrated functionality between the programs, including automation scripts, through Adobe Bridge, plus some fine new program features. Every designer should own a copy.