As it’s done in previous versions, Adobe has added quite a few features to the latest version of Illustrator that have been on my wishlist for some time. Inevitably, it seems that
these always come with the price of new quirks that upset my working routine. Also, note that this review was delayed so I could wait for an updated version – the original issue had some real bugs. If you are still using v9.0, make sure and visit Adobe’s web site to get the latest update.
With those things said, Illustrator 9 is a worthy release and another step in the right direction by Adobe.
Streamlined working environment
Before getting into the new toys and tools, I need to point out that the most important thing to consider when upgrading is how a new version of the software will affect how you work. One cool feature is sometimes not worth the aggravation if the software engineers kill the usability and speed of the application. Illustrator has passed through different phases, and while improving some with every release, there have been versions of it in the past that were well-known troublemakers (I suspect that anyone can recall a few examples of this from Illustrator 6). Prior to the bug fix, version 9 had some real problems, but thankfully, almost all of them have been rectified. Aside from some sluggish performance in some instances, usability has improved with this release.
In regard to ease of use, Illustrator 9 offers the controls to rig the program in a way that makes you most comfortable. The keyboard shortcuts option is very easy to find and set to your own preferences. Nicer still is the ability to save sets for different users (if you share the computer with a co-worker) or simply reset to Adobe’s defaults. This is something you’ll want to explore since the new default shortcuts aren’t as intuitive as they used to be.
The greatest interface improvement in Illustrator 9 is the way layers are handled. While prior versions offered to layer, it was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now. You can now nest layers containing related objects, which helps keeps things organized and prevents what used to be common mistakes. For example, several objects that occupy different nested layers under a common parent layer can be manipulated or moved just by selecting the parent layer. This allows you simple control over very complex documents. Layers and sublayers can contain other sublayers, and objects and groups within layers are clearly marked in the layers palette.
New thumbnails in the layers palette show the object contained in each layer, showing you exactly where things are – a great improvement over the old system of simply using different-color selection outlines. The layers palette uses the expanding/contracting menu method, allowing you to hide info you don’t need at the click of an arrow. You can also turn one layer containing several objects into several layers, each of which will contain a separate object, by using the new “Release to Layers” command.
Because Illustrator and Photoshop now share a common color management system, color is more consistent when sharing files between the two applications. This used to be my number-one peeve about Illustrator, and I’m happy to see this resolved, finally. For many designers, it’s a common practice to switch between applications, and it was quite disconcerting to see nice colors get wrenched in the transition from Illustrator to Photoshop.
After using Illustrator 9 for a while now, I can say that while color translation is not dead-on every time, it is greatly improved. You’ll need to explore the color controls a bit to get the most suitable handling of color.
Photoshop and Illustrator have an important working relationship, and Adobe has strengthened the link with shared features and support. Illustrator 9 now supports transparency (more on that below), which includes the option to preserve the transparency of PSD files when importing into Illustrator (by first converting them to objects), and preserve the transparency of AI files when exporting to PSD format.
If there’s confusion about this feature, it stems from the fact that Illustrator files need to be exported to PSD format in order for transparency to be preserved.
Another great timesaver is the ability to keep text editable when exporting a file from Illustrator to Photoshop. It’s a simple matter of clicking a checkbox in the export dialog, and you have text you can change when you open the file in Photoshop. While it would be nice to be able to bring PSD files into Illustrator with editable text, this feature is quite useful all the same.
Illustrator 9 also borrows from Photoshop’s toolbox and menus. The new lasso and direct select lasso tools are fantastic, freeing designers from either square-only selection areas or clicking directly on all of the points desired. If you’ve ever wanted to put your fist through a monitor from the mind-numbing point selection in past versions of Illustrator, you know how much of a godsend this is.
Another carryover is the free transform tool, which behaves similarly to Photoshop’s free transform command. With this tool selected, a bounding box appears around the selected object(s). Corner points adjust height and width, and any drag movement outside an object’s bounding box rotates it. Clicking and dragging within the object moves it.
If you use the select tool, you’ll have most of the same functionality of the free transform tool, although with the select tool you must move the cursor close to a drag point to get the rotate function. What makes the free transform useful (and what differentiates it from the select tool) is that while the tool is in use, clicking in the workspace outside an object does not deselect it – yet another adjustment that obviates frustration with the behavior of past versions.
One disappointment, though, is that sides cannot be skewed with this tool as can be done in Photoshop. Hopefully this feature will be added in the next version.
New Improvements for the Web
While Illustrator 9 offers improvements and new features aimed at both web and print designers, the web is where it faces its most critical competition from Macromedia. Macromedia’s advantage shows its strength in the close compatibility between Freehand and Flash. Adobe responds in version 9 by offering numerous web-friendly features.
To aid in competition with the Freehand/Flash partnership, Illustrator 9 can output SWF files. Impressively, you have 3 SWF options in the export dialog. You can output your document as a single static SWF file, separate SWF files for each layer, or as an animation with each layer represented as a frame. You can even set your frame rate to match Flash or Livemotion movies from which you’ll be importing the file. This is a nice feature that is easy to use, and especially great for those that can’t afford, don’t need or are afraid to use, Flash or LiveMotion.
In addition to Flash support, this version also outputs SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) files, which are similar to SWF files. Adobe takes care to point out that SVG is a totally open standard developed by the W3C using XML and CSS. The obvious advantage is that the format isn’t controlled by a single manufacturer, but we’ll see how widely-used it becomes. Adobe offers more information on this format at http://www.adobe.com/svg.
Illustrator’s working environment now offers options more suited to web design. Measurement units can be set to pixels. You can also choose to work in either CMYK or RGB mode, which is a welcome relief from the color-shifting headaches of the past. You can work with websafe palettes, and hexadecimal values are now denoted in the Info palette. Pixel Preview offers a quick look at what the rasterized image will look like, which removes some of the obstacles posed by previous versions when it came to making web graphics.
Adobe is also capitalizing on tight integration between its products, adding the same web optimization controls used in Photoshop 5.5 and ImageReady 2 (some new web optimization features found in Photoshop 6 are not available with the current version of Illustrator). The “attributes” panel allows the user to assign URLs and image maps to objects. With Illustrator 9 there is no longer any need to switch over to other applications when outputting web images unless bitmap manipulation or complex slicing is needed. This is nice, as web output through Illustrator was shaky at-best in earlier versions.
Web animation using a layered Illustrator file in ImageReady is a snap, provided that you design in Illustrator with layers and animation in mind. Just import the Illustrator file into ImageReady with layers intact, and use the tweening controls to make the animation more natural. Having to use ImageReady at all is something of a pain, but the addition of this feature was a great move all the same.
Enhancements for Print
We mustn’t forget that Illustrator is a staple in the print designer’s toolset as well, and there are some new time-saving features in this release that are worth pointing out. Illustrator’s file format is now native PDF, which provides for a streamlined printing process and easy sharing of files between users. PostScript errors with Illustrator files used to be a nightmare, and it’s nice to be able to easily put together a file that almost anyone can look at in a consistent way onscreen or in print. Being able to embed all necessary pieces of a document when sending to print is a giant improvement for the sake of organization.
Illustrator 9 also offers overprint proofing, allowing the designer to preview how spot colors and trapping will look onscreen. When done properly this saves time, paper, and ink, if it works as it’s supposed to. Since I’ve not yet done any complex print jobs with the new version, I’m not sure how well this really works.
Cool new tools
In addition to features meant to expedite workflow, Illustrator 9 also gives designers some new tools and controls to aid in the creative process. I know I’m not the only one who has thought “I wish Illustrator could do this” while tweaking a vector file inside Photoshop.
Well, Adobe has gotten a step ahead of us again and built some tools in that give the same results as Photoshop without sacrificing the editability of Illustrator.
The best one is, of course, transparency. Freehand offered vector transparency first, but Illustrator 9’s transparency features and controls are truly superior. Transparency can be applied to any object, group, type, spot color or raster image. Unique transparency settings can be applied to different objects on the same layer with layer-level transparency adjusted. This makes possible a high level of control and gives the user the ability to achieve interesting visual interactions between objects and layers.
Illustrator 9’s flexible text transparency is quite impressive, actually allowing the word and character-level transparency settings to text that remains editable! No need to convert to outlines first – you can change type attributes while maintaining the transparency settings.
Again borrowing from Photoshop and going even further, each layer has selectable blending modes that behave as in Photoshop. Experimenting with these in conjunction with transparency provides amazing effects that haven’t been possible in vector applications, until now. Together with transparency, this is possibly the most important new feature in version 9.
Masking is also markedly-enhanced, and easier to use given the new layers methodology. Layer masks can be used to control visibility at the layer level, with a simple click of a button on the layers palette. This is a powerful improvement, since masking used to be a sometimes difficult and confusing task – to say nothing of the fact that it can be difficult to keep track of how the masks are actually working inside of your document.
Adding another object to a layer with a clipping mask constrains it to the layer’s mask, which takes out a lot of the frustration previously associated with masking. Version 9 also lets you set opacity masks, which mask underlying objects based on the luminosity of the top object. This is controlled very simply in the transparency palette and provides interesting effects. It’s sort of like a cross between a blending mode and a clipping mask.
Version 9’s live effects are not to be overlooked. Gone is the need to rasterize an object or “wait until it’s in Photoshop.” Live feathering, similar to what is offered in Livemotion 1, lets you have the soft edges you’re after while maintaining full access to make changes to the object. Layer effects are even better, giving you numerous Photoshop filters that are totally non-destructive. For example, you can apply a radial blur to an object, then alter the object’s shape, and the filter will update itself to the new shape. This makes me wish for the same capability in Photoshop and promises to keep me working in Illustrator more than in the past.
Illustrator 9 offers more complex and powerful control over objects with the “appearance” palette. Multiple strokes and fills can be applied to a single object, something that was impossible before and capable of creating unique effects. The appearance palette is also very useful for keeping track of and altering objects directly. You can also save appearance settings as “styles” in the styles palette, and apply styles with a simple click. Although it takes time to learn, this tool is very useful.
In order to keep file sizes manageable, designers can use the new simplify path command to cut down on the number of points in a path. This tool cuts out unnecessary anchor points, but can also smooth out and refine paths. The controls are precise, and using the command’s dialog even allows you to preview the changes against the original path – something that would be nice to have with other Illustrator tools.
Other new tools are interesting, but not as useful as Adobe plays them up to be. “Live Shapes” are shapes applied to objects and text that dynamically scale when changes are made. While this might have some interesting applications, I am skeptical of its suggested use for “flexible web buttons.” This is one of those features aimed at amateur “web designers” that will usually produce results that professionals are later hired to replace… which I guess is not such a bad thing. And watch out for “instant drop shadows and glows,” which is capable of some nice subtle effects, in the right hands.
Illustrator 9 offers many new features and enhancements that most designers will find useful and conducive to working in vector format. The most important concept with this application is constant editability, and Illustrator 9 both preserves and expands on this. With the inclusion of so many tools and methods borrowed from Photoshop, Illustrator may now be the more attractive design environment, given the flexibility to create and alter images in a non-destructive manner. Add in the ability to quickly apply one object’s numerous attributes to another or a group of other objects, with the improved organization, and Illustrator 9 becomes a very attractive package.
All of these benefits don’t come without a cost, though. As I said before, version 9.0 had several bugs-which actually had me reinstalling 8.1 and waiting for the bug fix. Now that the latest version of Illustrator is currently at 9.0.2, most of those problems are gone (check the archives on adobe.com’s message boards for specifics). What I thought was a glitch early-on actually turned out to be a feature (keyboard shortcuts), and now I use it regularly without incident.
One area that could use some serious attention, though, is the speed at which Illustrator works. Complex documents can really bog the program down, and sometimes switching between applications is marked with a disturbing lag. If you plan on making use of all of the new features, you’ll want to make sure that your box has plenty of RAM. Minimum requirements are steep, and the slowness I experienced was with 75 MB allocated to Illustrator. Version 9 is by no means as slow as version 6, but it’s something that I hear a lot about and think Adobe needs to work on. I can only imagine what using it on a slightly-older machine must be like.
It seems that Adobe Illustrator is constantly neck-in-neck with Macromedia Freehand, as both companies periodically up the ante on new features. For most designers, it’s a matter of choice based on ease of use. I use both because there is not a total feature overlap between the two, and use whatever is going to do what I want the quickest. As Adobe and Macromedia continue to offer features that are friendly to each other’s applications, there doesn’t seem to be much danger of losing essential functionalities by choosing one over the other. Competition drives innovation, and that is a tremendous positive for designers using these tools. Adobe has me sold for now with the comfy interface, the new transparency, blending, and masking features, and the almighty gradient mesh tool (introduced a few versions back.)
We’ll see what Freehand 10 can do about that new level of comfort in an upcoming review.
Adobe® Illustrator™ 9
full version: $399
competitive upgrade: $249