Photoshop CS3 Beta full review

In addition to compatibility with Intel-based Macs, the CS3 beta also packs a large selection of important new features, including interface changes, non-destructive filters, easier compositing, improvements to Camera Raw, and a completely redesigned version of Bridge, Adobe’s companion file browser.

In our initial tests, the Photoshop CS3 beta proved to be very stable, while offering a much improved performance on both Intel- and PowerPC-based machines. Intel users will certainly want to download it right away for the performance increase, but thanks to the program’s stability, most users will also find that’s it suitable for production work. Interface-wise, CS3’s core features remain unchanged, making it an easy transition for experienced users.

Performance matters
While the program is loaded with many new features, most users – particularly those who have bought an Intel Mac or are contemplating such a purchase – will initially be curious about its performance on Mac Pros, MacBook Pros, and other Intel-based machinery.

Overall, the news is very good. Most operations see a little improvement, and some receive a substantial boost. Launching is more than twice as fast, clocking in at 20 seconds on a 2GHz MacBook Pro Core Duo, versus 50 seconds for a Photoshop CS2 launch. In our tests, sharpen and blur filters were more than twice as fast in CS3 as CS2, and we found that these numbers scale consistently with larger images. Other operations, such as CMYK conversion and resizing with bicubic interpolation, were faster only by a second or two but it’s still an improvement.

A question of style
Upon launching, the first thing you’ll notice is the new palette look. The main tool palette is now a single long column of tools and all the palettes are bordered by an attractive semi-opaque grey border. The program still offers the same docking mechanism for nesting palettes together into tabbed collections, but the palettes that used to reside in the toolbar have now been moved into a second dock that sits next to the original one on the right side of the screen. With two docks, each tab collection is roomier.

Photoshop’s interface has been verging on ‘palette heavy’ for a while now, so Adobe has added the ability to collapse a dock full of palettes into a collection of smaller icons. When collapsed, you can click on any icon to display its palette at normal size.

For users with small screens, the ability to collapse palettes is particularly useful, while users with large screens will appreciate the second dock, because it enables them to see more palettes at once. For those of you who like the traditional two-column tool palette, a simple click at the top of the toolbar will change it back to its two-column state.

Editing for the indecisive
When Adobe added Adjustment Layers to Photoshop in version 4, it introduced the practice of non-destructive image editing to Photoshop. The feature was limited to just a few effects though, so you still had to think carefully about structuring documents in multiple layers to constrain your destructive effects. With CS3, you can attach any filter to a layer as a Smart Filter in the same way that Layer Styles are added to a layer. So, for example, you can add an Unsharp Mask filter to a layer to sharpen it. The advantage of a Smart Filter over a standard filter is that at any time you can hide or delete a Smart Filter to disable or remove its effect, or you can double-click on a Smart Filter to change its parameters. Smart Filters also have built-in layer masks, just like Adjustment Layers, so you can interactively paint a mask to constrain the effects of your Smart Filters.

While many effects in Photoshop are still destructive – cropping, mode changes, resizing and so on – the addition of Smart Filters should appease many of the non-destructive desires of Photoshop users who’ve been frustrated by the fact that once you apply a filter you can’t alter or undo it later. Users who do lots of retouching with the Rubber Stamp tool will welcome the new Clone Source palette, which provides the ability to change the clone source numerically, store multiple clone sources, or view the clone source as a semi-transparent overlay over your document.

Making selections is a big part of many retouching tasks, from compositing to localised correction and filtering. To ease this task, CS3 adds a new Quick Selection brush that allows you to select an object by simply brushing over it. As you brush, the program automatically analyses the image to determine which pixels in the region need to be selected. While the Quick Selection brush does not select very fine details (blowing hair, for instance) or handle transparency, it can do an amazing job of quickly selecting an object from a similarly coloured background, something that’s difficult to do with Photoshop’s other selection tools.

No matter which selection tools you use, the new Refine Edge palette, which replaces the Feature Selection command, lets you interactively apply feathering to soften the edge of a selection, and expand and contract the selection. In addition, a new Radius slider can often greatly improve the accuracy of your selection. The Refine Edge palette also lets you preview your selection over a variety of backgrounds.

Many other changes and improvements abound throughout the program. The Curves dialog provides a new Preset feature as well black-and-white point sliders. A new Black and White adjustment gives you a six-channel colour mixer, and Brightness & Contrast now performs its adjustments more intelligently – preserving the tonal relationships in an image while making alterations, rather than simply sliding the entire tonal range back and forth.

Be warned that in this beta version, cursor display is a little buggy. On Intel Macs, you won’t be able to see the brush size when painting. Precise display is all the current version can manage. This will be fixed in the final release, but if you depend on precise cursor display for painting and retouching options, you may find that you need to go back to Photoshop CS2 for those features. Fortunately, you can have CS2 and the CS3 beta installed on the same machine with no conflicts.

Raw deal
Included with this beta is Camera Raw 4, which offers features that are new to Photoshop, but that users of Lightroom will recognise. Camera Raw 4 now includes the same Recovery, Fill Light and Vibrance sliders that you’ll find in Lightroom. Lightroom’s slider-based curve editor has also been added to Camera Raw, along with Split Toning and a greyscale conversion option.

While none of these features will be new to Lightroom users, for those who’ve been enjoying the raw tools in Lightroom, but haven’t wanted to give up their Bridge/Camera Raw workflow, this will be a very welcome addition.

Adobe has completely revamped Bridge, giving it a more modern-looking interface. Significant changes include the ability to view multiple images side by side and to create Aperture-like stacks – groupings that allow you to easily keep related images together within the browser. Many aspects of Bridge’s interface have been streamlined, but its basic feature set remains the same.

For those who have been wondering about Bridge’s purpose now that Adobe is developing Lightroom, the new version should reinforce Bridge’s role – and its ability to drive automated batch processing of Raw files – in a Photoshop/Camera Raw-based workflow.

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