If our explorations of the beta version of Photoshop CS6, made available to you on 22 March through Adobe's Labs site, are anything to go by, the next release of Photoshop will borrow many of the clothes of its Lightroom sibling. We’re talking about a much darker look here, one where the deep grey and black backgrounds of the canvas and palettes have the effect of enhancing both the colours of images and the readability of text in the interface.

The Lightroom similarities don’t end with the gothic makeover – Photoshop’s mini-bridge now sits by default in the lower part of the interface, à la Lightroom’s Filmstrip. In addition, the enhanced Camera Raw 7 workflow seen in Lightroom 4 also makes a very welcome appearance: the range of detail that can be accessed using the Highlights and Shadows sliders has been greatly increased, and you can use the adjustment brush to paint in more effects, such as noise reduction or warmer tones.

Photoshop’s new blur filters can shift the focus on images, apply multiple focal points and bokeh effects based on light and colour

The filtering power of Bridge has been applied to the Layers panel – it’s now simple to drill down to any desired layer quickly by filtering layers by kind (for example, adjustment, shape, type and so on). Furthermore you can now alter the opacity of multiple layers and groups simultaneously, a nice timesaver.

More efficiency is evident in the redesign of the Crop tool, which adds new guides within the selected area such as the Golden Spiral, and is generally improved thanks to more intelligent handle positioning and non-destructive editing. Selections are also more effective, especially in the case of faces – a Detect Faces option becomes available when the colour range is set to Skin Tones.

The new Properties panel moves controls for tools such as Adjustments into a central place, familiar from After Effects’ Effects panel (artwork by Francois Leroy)

Yet again the Content Aware lab has been busy. The latest additions to the ‘intelligent’ selection workflow are a content-aware Patch tool and the new Content Aware Move tool. The former behaves much as in CS5, though there’s now a content-aware option which should yield smoother blends.

The Content Aware Move tool is one of the ‘wow’ features in PS6, allowing you to select part of an image, such as a person, and just move them to another part of the scene, with Photoshop content-aware-filling the space left behind. You can also recompose a shot by moving objects to the centre of the frame, with Photoshop filling in the background. An Extend mode is also available, useful for lengthening objects, but it demands to be used subtly.

When using the Content Aware Move tool, you can adopt any method of making a selection, but doing so with the Quick Selection tool always seems to leave a ghostly outline behind when you apply the content-aware move; the effect seems to work better when you use the Content Aware Move tool’s own lasso. Still, it’s probably best to treat this tool as a timesaver rather than a guaranteed one-shot fix. Indeed, we can probably expect amateurish use of the tool to lead a wealth of retouching fiascos before too long.

There’s no such reliance on realism with the new enhanced blur filters – Field Blur, Iris Blur and Tilt-Shift. They allow you to apply selective depth of field to great effect, with the added bonus of controls floating over the canvas.

Drawing vector shapes is improved, with the ability to change lines to styles such as dashes and dots with a single click. The same simple application applies to gradient fills and other colour effects. You’ll still be using Illustrator for complex work, but this is a great addition for adding a bit of vector variety within Photoshop. You don’t have to go out to After Effects or Premiere for short video clips either, as video enhancements in both Photoshop and Photoshop Extended now include a proper timeline with transitions.

Apply a film-stock look to your video frames using the Color Lookup adjustment layer, then edit them in the enhanced Timeline

3D has also received some love – stereoscopic options move to the fore and it’s now much easier to manipulate 3D objects with the new onscreen controls. We encountered problems with some 3D extrusions however, and background rendering would be a welcome enhancement.

Another great addition is the Color Lookup adjustment layer, which can instantly apply any of a selection of preset ‘looks’ to pixel layers. This includes bringing in lookup tables (LUTs), used in the grading and compositing processes in TV and cinema post-production. As well as being able to apply professional LUTs on images in Photoshop, it means you can also do your own grading on imported video clips.

Behind the scenes Photoshop has signed up to the trend to shift some of processing workload from the CPU to the GPU. In CS6 this feature lets you save a large file and switch to working on another image while the save continues in the background. For some power users, this will be such a timesaver that by itself it will probably justify the upgrade price.

Use Advanced GPU mode to accelerate the Liquify and Transform tools and perform background saves

The same reliance on the GPU has boosted the performance of the Liquify Tool. No longer do you see the tiling motion of old; images now load instantly into the Liquify dialog and there are no pauses for the brushstrokes to take effect.

Brush sizes have also been increased tenfold, with application remaining as smooth at the higher end of the scale. This valuable increase in drawing speed also applies to the Transform tool, which now seems turbo-charged.

Upgrading to Photoshop CS 6 is made simple by a migration tool that imports custom workspaces and settings, but it’s GPU acceleration (see right) that nudges this release towards being a must-buy. The numerous other timesaving controls and tweaks crowd take precedence over ‘whizz-bang’  features this time around – but as ever time is money, so it’s a welcome focus in these budget-conscious times.