Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Photoshop CS4 Takes Off
Adobe alpha tester and all-around digital master Jeff Schewe takes us on a tour of the improvements to the new version of the Adobe Creative Suite, CS4
|The Mac version of the Photoshop CS4 interface with the Application Frame and documents in the tabbed interface.|
Yes, it’s that time again, another update to Photoshop, called by its full name, Adobe® Photoshop® CS4 (and, yes, there are regular and Extended versions again, with the Extended version designed for specialized image types and 3-D and multimedia). This represents the 13th time Photoshop has been updated (there were two .5 versions, so this is considered version 11).
Now, this isn’t a “review” in the classic sense; since I’m a tester and consultant for Adobe, I’m not unbiased. Call this an informational discussion that may help you decide if you want to jump into the upgrade waters. If you’re a pro, I highly suggest doing so relatively quickly. Since the upgrade cycles run about 18 months, getting the upgrade early actually gives you the most return on your investment. If you wait until mid-cycle, the odds are that you’ll shortchange yourself. But if you do upgrade, do yourself the favor of not starting that big job, under deadline. Ease into the upgrade and work with it until you have a stable replacement for CS3 or whatever your version may be (hopefully, at least Photoshop CS, since Adobe only allows you to upgrade from three versions back at the discounted upgrade price). Since I get it for free (well, sort of; I do have to put in long hours testing, so it’s not really free), I always upgrade on the first day it’s available.
Photoshop CS4 is a usefully powerful upgrade with some cool new features, some long-awaited improvements, a few surprises and a few things that are bound to frustrate the heck out of some people. For example, Mac users by now will have learned that there’s only a 64-bit binary version for Windows. Apple killed the 64-bit Carbon APIs, so Adobe had to punt 64-bit until at least the next version.
Why is 64-bit processing a big thing? Primarily because of the RAM limitations inherent with 32-bit applications. Only 4 GB of RAM can be addressed with 32-bit applications, while 64-bit apps can address up to the theoretical limit of 16 exabytes (or 264 addresses, equivalent to approximately 17.2 billion gigabytes). Of course, that depends upon operating systems as well as motherboards. But if you routinely work with multi-gigabyte /images, you’ll see the benefits of being able to allocate more than the 4 GB limit that a 32-bit version of Photoshop is locked to. Ironically, if you have a MacPro and Leopard, you actually can run Photoshop in 64-bit, but you’ll have to use Bootcamp and install Vista 64 and use the Windows version of CS4.
Windows users may be a bit ticked off as well. Mac users with at least Leopard (10.5.x) can print 16-bit-per-channel directly to those printers that can accept the 16-bit print pipeline. Windows, neither XP nor Vista, doesn’t support a 16-bit print pipeline.
Mac users also may be put off by some major UI changes that, well, make the Mac version look and behave a lot like the Windows version. But don’t wring your Mac hands too hard; you can turn the behavior on and off (it’s off by default). But it’s cool because with the addition of what’s called the Application Frame and tabbed document windows, you gain some useful functionality.
Probably the single largest engineering effort has gone into completely changing the way Adjustment Layers work. No longer are the adjustments locked into modal dialog boxes; they now live in a live Adjustment Panel. Click on an Adjustment Layer and you have live access to the adjustments. This was major engineering to do although you may not yet see the benefits, but they’re there. Plus, a new Adjustment, Vibrance (inspired by Lightroom), has been added.
One of the really cool additions is the ability to rotate the entire Canvas. People who use tablets will absolutely love this new function. Now, instead of scrunching your whole arm around to paint, you can rotate the canvas. Ironically, while I can see the benefits, I rarely use a tablet, so this falls under the heading of mildly useful for me. Going along with the Canvas Rotation is the new ability to directly resize the brush on the Canvas. Small, but widely asked for! And, again, if you use a tablet, you’ll love it.
Part of the basis for a lot of the new UI is the fact that Photoshop can finally make excellent use of the on-board graphics processor units (GPUs) in video cards to accelerate display processing. You need a late-model video card and ideally at least 512 MB of VRAM, but most recent computers should have at least that. In addition to refresh acceleration, you also can use it to have animated zooming and at least on Macs simulate “Flick Panning” (think iPhone). I actually have that turned off because it tends to make me nauseous with my large, 30-inch displays, but I appreciate the improved screen view sizing.
Another new panel is the Mask Panel, which allows for nondestructive adjustments to layer masks for functions such as feathering and mask density. These mask adjustments remain fully adjustable as long as you don’t do a destructive manipulation, such as running a filter on the mask. You have direct access to the Refine Edge tool that was new in CS3. It should be noted that Refine Edge isn’t nondestructive. For those who make a lot of selections using Color Range, a new functionality called Localized Color Clusters allows selections to be regionalized directly in the dialog.
One of the new features that I really love is Content-Aware Scale. Known by many with its original name of Scene-Carving, this feature allows scaling an image while protecting more relatively important objects such as squares and circles. You also can preserve objects using a mask, and it will even preserve skin tone. Art directors and designers will love this because making an image fit the crop will be far easier.
For those photographers who are into image stitching, Photomerge has received some new love. Incorporated in the function is the ability to do automatic Vignette Removal and Geometric Distortion Correction, which even can correct for many fish-eye lenses. The new additions make Photoshop’s stitching even more powerful and reduce the amount of post-stitch corrections.
An enhancement of the Auto-Blend function is the ability to use the blending for auto-blending for focus. Particularly useful for close-ups and macro work, the focus stacking extracts the sharpest portions of multiple /images and results in remarkable potential compared to manually blending different focuses.