Although the vector wars sounds like a William Shatner-penned sci-fi epic destined for late-night cable TV, the war fought by Adobe and Macromedia since the 1980s is real. Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia FreeHand have battled hard for dominance in a market they have traditionally ruled, adding attractive competing features with every upgrade. Buoyed by competition both have shone, until recently feeding off the other in a battle of one-upmanship, with illustrators and designers the real victors.
Illustrator 11 received a major makeover, renamed Illustrator CS with the launch of the Adobe Creative Suite back in September 2003. Rave reviews failed to ignite Macromedia, however; FreeHand left well alone when the bulk of the MX line was upgraded in 2004. Adobe has again upgraded Illustrator with the announcement of Illustrator CS2 with no signs of Macromedia following suite. This is a concern for anyone who does not want to see one company dominating and dictating the market place. The signs are already there: not for nothing did Adobe achieve record revenue in the first quarter of 2005.
Adobe CS2, then, is pitched as another major upgrade of a major upgrade full of indispensable new features, with more skills to be learnt and more guides to be read. Illustrator CS2 adds two major features in Live Trace and Live Paint, and a host of other minor ones. Cynics might suggest that Adobe has simply addressed niggling issues that have raised the fury of forums and newsgroups since the launch of Illustrator CS. Despite five-star reviews, many users, including myself, found the CS upgrade more bloated and less reliable than previous versions. Observers have gone so far to suggest that the nature of the upgrade process means either the even-numbered releases or the odd-numbered releases work, with Adobe excelling with odd numbered updates. Illustrator CS2, the beta version of which is previewed here, is version 12.
To its credit, Adobe seems to have been listening to customer feedback – particularly via its excellent forums, and started fixing bugs and tweaking performance. This is vital as the learning curve in Illustrator can be steep at best. The addition of Live Trace and Live Paint are substantial sweeteners to the upgrade. Adobe dubs Live Trace a ‘breakthrough new tracing tool’ though it mimics many of the features of the oldie but goldie application Adobe Streamline.
A favourite with illustrators and designers since 1989, until now Streamline has required the inconvenience of booting up the Classic environment in OS X.
Streamline, which Adobe has no plans to update or discontinue, converts bitmaps to vectors that are fully editable and scaleable in Illustrator.
Live Trace adds these functions to Illustrator CS2, but preserves the ‘live’ link between the source pixel-based image and the traced vector result. Undo restores the original bitmap image intact. Rather like filters in Photoshop, experimentation with presets often produces startling variations and did so during the test period. Results are impressive, producing professional vectors images in minutes, best achieved by tweaking the threshold slide manually. As you fiddle with the presets, the vector image is updated continually, producing varied possibilities.
Live Paint lets users create and colour objects intuitively, rather than painfully working with strokes and fills to create complex filled shapes. Live Paint using two new Illustrator object types that include regions and edges, like traditional fills and strokes. A drawing is treated as a single object with multiple regions each of which you can dab away at independently. The visible portion of a group of objects is treated as a single layer. Unlike painting by numbers these areas interact when objects are moved. An area is highlighted in red before selection. Colouring sketches vectorized in Live Trace is child’s play, and the results are immediate. Live Paint’s Gap Options intelligently fills in broken lines particularly found on scanned images, allowing you to automatically close paths.
A new, context-sensitive Control palette allows quick access to the numerous tools from a single convenient location. You can now easily customize workspaces to best meet the needs of individual projects. Adobe Bridge “a replacement for the desktop” promises tighter integration between the various Adobe applications with what is basically a file-
browser. In Illustrator CS2 it will allow users to batch-process bitmap images into vectors via a handy script. Scripts can be edited, and custom scripts can be created, stored, and accessed via Adobe Bridge.
Illustrator CS2 also adds support for PDF/X formats as well as new SVG and SWF graphic formats used to great effect by mobile devices. Training and support materials have been improved including new online tutorials and a video workshop training CD from Total Training.
On the strength of the beta version under test, Live Trace and Live Paint look to be essential additions to the Illustrator toolkit. Indeed after a few days joyful play you’d be lost without them. Combined the two make the world of vectors a lot less painful, saving hours of donkeywork and producing professional results in the process. Those still clinging to pre-CS versions of Illustrator should seriously consider this upgrade. Those who shelled out big bucks for the buggy CS version just 18 months ago may feel a little cheated. Illustrator CS2 looks to be what CS should have been.