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Let’s face reality: Adobe could have slapped a CS5 label on an untouched version of Illustrator CS4, and all the digital artists of the world would still be using Illustrator as their go-to app for vector art. It’s not like there’s any serious competition in the arcane world of control points and bezier curves. As such, when a new Creative Suite version is released, the question isn’t “Should I buy Illustrator or the package from those other guys?” but rather “Does this latest CS version include enough new magic to warrant an upgrade?”
Our answer is a qualified yes. Illustrator CS5 isn’t a bold overhaul, but it still provides enough new features to make an upgrade a no-brainer--if your illustration needs dovetail with what Adobe hath wrought.
Using the Shape Builder tool, you can quickly weld together the two selected triangles into a single object, even using a palette preview (not shown) to decide whether the new object should have the yellow or dot fill.
The most useful addition is the Shape Builder tool, which lets you weld together multiple shapes, accomplishing what can be executed with Illustrator’s Pathfinder tools, but in a vastly more intuitive manner. Simply select an array of overlapping paths, and drag the Shape Builder across them to combine everything into a single object. You can also use the Option key to subtract one shape from another, as well as toggle on a palette preview to assign colors to your newly created objects. The Shape Builder tool’s content-awareness engine is very similar to that of the existing Live Paint Bucket tool, with which it shares a Toolbar home.
CS5 also introduces the Width tool, which lets you dynamically adjust the width of any stroke. Let’s say you’ve used the Pen tool to draw a squiggly path with a 2-point stroke. Select that path, then use the Width tool to manipulate control points, creating varying stroke widths along the path. For example, your stroke can be 2 points wide at one end, a hairline in the middle, and 50 points wide at the other end. On paper it might sound like a shape-building tool, but the path you originally created remains a simple path whose geometry can be edited at will.
Other additions are less showy than the Shape Builder and Width tools, but refine existing features, or address more arcane needs. On the pedestrian-but-useful list you’ll find the Draw Inside mode, which lets you create a mask out of any object, avoiding all the hullabaloo intrinsic to traditional masking. The Arrow and Dash tools have also been overhauled, offering a mix of greater control (it’s now easier to get the precise arrowhead you desire) and greater nuance (dash segments can now intelligently wrap around corner joints). There’s also new Artboard functionality that gives you Layers-like control over your various Artboards, and the ability to paste a single object on all your ‘boards at the exact same location.
On the more esoteric side, the new Perspective Grid tool lets you draw 2D objects directly onto perspective-correct planes. It’s the perfect feature for folks who want to, say, draw isometric views of buildings or place a label on a 2D assembly of a 3D product box. And then there’s the new Bristle Brush, which simulates richly textured real-world painting brushes, all with pure vector paths. Both new features are fascinating, but also a bit mission-specific, so you really have to consider if you’ll use them in the work you do.
That need to stop and consider pretty much encapsulates Illustrator CS5. It has some wonderful new additions, but it’s light on mind-blowing enhancements. For example, we’d love an overhaul of LiveTrace, which needs intuitive controls and some of the content-aware mojo that Photoshop CS5 uses. But of course we couldn’t discuss every new feature here, so anyone considering the $199 upgrade should delve into Adobe’s demo videos to see exactly what they’d be paying for.
PRICE: $599 ($199 upgrade)
REQUIREMENTS: Mac OS X 10.5.7 or 10.6, Intel CPU, 1GB RAM
Shape Builder and Width tools are snazzy additions. Draw Inside, revised Artboards, and new Arrow and Dash controls are pedestrian but much appreciated.
Feels like CS4.5--not enough new features, and many of the ones included lack the wow factor.