Adobe Illustrator CS5 (Creative Suite 5) offers something inspiring for just about all users, from artists and technical illustrators to web and Flash designers.

New features such as variable width strokes, Bristle Brush, Perspective Grid, anti-aliasing text for the web, Flash Catalyst integration, and better performance make Adobe Illustrator CS5 a compelling upgrade.

But Adobe Illustrator CS5 is far from perfect. The Perspective Grid feature feels half-finished, text anti-aliasing doesn't work without a second, secret option, and many requested features were ignored. See our Adobe Creative Suite 5 review.

Adobe Illustrator CS5: Stroke revival

Among the most noticeable improvements in Adobe Illustrator CS5 are those applied to the painting system. These include variable-width strokes, stretch control for brushes, brush corner control, enhanced dashed lines and arrowheads, and a new tool, the Bristle Brush.

First among the new features in Adobe Illustrator CS5 is the ability to vary the weight or thickness of strokes from start to finish. To make use of this new feature, begin by creating a path - open or closed - and assigning a stroke colour to that path. With the new Width tool selected, hovering over any place in the path's stroke presents a small diamond that can be dragged outward to increase the width of the stroke at that point, or inward to decrease the thickness. The new thickness will taper down (or up) toward the ends of the path or the next corner anchor points, which will retain the path's original thickness.

Each stroke may also have multiple width points, enabling subtle or dramatic oscillation of a single stroke. Thus using Adobe Illustrator CS5 it's simple to create robust, variable weight strokes with a natural, not stuttering feel. You can even save stroke width alterations as profiles that can be applied from the Stroke panel to other paths. One complaint with the variable-width stroke ability is that isn't applicable to brush strokes, just plain old path strokes. Plus, if you apply a brush stroke to a path, the variable-width disappears.

Brushes did get some serious love in Adobe Illustrator CS5, though. Art and pattern brushes have long suffered with the handicap of being equally distributed along their paths. Now you can define which parts of a brush get stretched and which don't. For example, with a banner brush, not only the middle of the brush would stretch to fit a long path; the decorative ends would also stretch, suffering unsightly distortion. In the Brush Options dialog, you can now specify that the ends of a banner (or other) brush don't stretch, that they remain the same no matter how far the middle section of the brush art or pattern stretches to fill the path between the protected ends.

A new Bristle Brush tip mimics natural media painting while remaining vector. Creating a new Bristle Brush lets you begin with either round or flat brushes in one of five styles each - point, blunt, curve, angle, or fan. From there the brush can be completely refined with options for bristle length, density, and thickness, paint opacity, and stiffness. The results of painting with Bristle Brush brushes are astoundingly natural. Adobe Illustrator CS5 won't yet replace Corel Painter for lifelike, natural media painting, but then again, Painter doesn't paint in vector.

Brush cornering is also greatly improved in this version. In places where pattern brushes round corners or wide angles, or where path segments of different lengths meet (for instance, in a rectangle with long and short sides), how the brush pattern traverses or joins at those points can be precisely controlled to avoid awkward collisions or empty space.

Similar refinements were added to dashed lines to enable them to look better, to avoid stuttering at path angle changes or where path segments of different lengths meet. Precision scaling of arrowheads that were formerly locked into sizes proportionate to stroke weight completes the refinements of strokes and brushes.

Adobe Illustrator CS5: web and application design

Those who design for the web or Flash Platform application user interfaces will be pleased by Adobe Illustrator CS5's new features.

Many web and interface designers felt that earlier versions of Adobe Illustrator CS5 weren't fit for making web graphics that include text because of its lack of anti-aliasing support. Illustrator CS5 has adopted Photoshop's celebrated text anti-aliasing system. Now you can optimise the rasterisation of type destined for the web or mobile devices by setting its anti-aliasing to be Sharp, Crisp, Strong, or not anti-aliased. Unfortunately, it doesn't work - at least, not by default.

In order to make the text anti-aliasing you've chosen from the bottom of the Character panel work, you'll have to take the extra step of going to the Image Size panel in the Save for Web & Devices dialog and changing the unlabeled drop-down menu at the bottom to the Type Optimized option.

Flash Platform developers using Flash, Flash Builder, Flex, or Flash Catalyst will also find Adobe Illustrator CS5 a compelling upgrade. The program can now save directly to Flex in the FXG format, and includes support for roundtrip editing with the new designer-centric Flash Catalyst CS5.

Begin by designing your user interface - the entire thing or just an element or two - in Adobe Illustrator CS5 and open that file in Flash Catalyst to add interactivity. Even after adding components and actions in Flash Catalyst, you can return the design to Illustrator for further tweaking without losing your work from Flash Catalyst.

NEXT: Perspective drawing >>

Related articles:

Adobe Photoshop CS5 review

See also: Adobe Creative Suite 5 review

Adobe Illustrator CS5 (Creative Suite 5) offers something inspiring for just about all users, from artists and technical illustrators to web and Flash designers. See our Adobe Creative Suite 5 review.

Adobe Illustrator CS5: Perspective drawing

Technical or casual illustrators will either love or hate Illustrator's new perspective drawing feature. Switching to the new Perspective Grid tool converts your flat artboard into a simulated three-dimensional space complete with planes and vanishing points dwindling away onto the horizon. From there, you're drawing in perspective. Grab the Rectangle tool and click and drag on the active surface of the Perspective Grid and you'll draw a rectangle that rides on that surface, growing smaller as the shape moves away from you toward the horizon. Entire scenes can be drawn or rendered with realistic perspective.

The Perspective Grid can be controlled with great precision. For instance you can dynamically adjust the position of the vertical panes, raise or lower the ground level, and even switch between one-, two-, and three-point perspectives.

Unfortunately, Perspective Grid contains a number of profound deficiencies. You can't type onto the Perspective Grid. Instead, you have to first create a type object off the grid, and then move it to the grid with the Perspective Selection tool. You can move any non-perspective object onto the grid this way, but the results don't always match the perspective of objects drawn directly on the grid. And, once text is on the Perspective Grid, resizing it causes the text to be converted to outlines. Worse is that object appearances are not drawn in perspective. Draw a rectangle with a 20-point stroke on the Perspective Grid and you'll have a 20-point stroke all the way around; the stroke won't appear to get smaller as the path moves away from your view, toward the horizon. You'll get the same perspective clashing results with offset fills, drop shadows, and any other appearance attribute.

Adobe Illustrator CS5: Other enhancements

Illustrator includes a slew of smaller but highly utilitarian new and newly refined features. The new Shape Builder tool - sort of a marriage between the Pathfinder commands and converting shapes to a Live Paint object - offers a more intuitive way to combine, divide, and control pieces of overlapping elements. Other Adobe Illustrator CS5 perks include new modes to draw behind or inside objects, the ability to select objects behind the current object, better path joining, 9-slice scaling of symbols (a kind of intelligent scaling), and resolution-independent effects.

For those who have long asked, "Why must the Y (vertical) axis begin at the bottom of the artboard," you'll be pleased to know that Adobe Illustrator CS5 finally matches the rest of the Creative Suite in putting its default ruler origin - the X and Y zero point - in the top-left instead of the old bottom-left methodology.
 
CS Live services, which are integrated throughout the Creative Suite, include: CS Live, a panel of shortcuts to Adobe's offering of software as a service tools like Acrobat.com and Adobe BrowserLab; CS Review, an interface that builds on Acrobat.com to enable client or team project review; and CS News and Resources, a panel linking to helpful Illustrator how-tos and other resources. These services are free for a year after installation, and subsequent subscription fees have yet to be announced.

One of the main selling points of Adobe Illustrator CS5 is its speed. For example, when applying a memory-intensive, very complex 3D Extrude & Bevel effect to live text, CS4 took 20 seconds to build the final render while CS5 required a mere four seconds. Results of other timed tests with system-intensive tasks were comparable. Illustrator CS5 is much snappier than CS4, and that translates directly into increased productivity.

Adobe Illustrator CS5: Still not fixed

A few things we would like to have seen in the release of Adobe Illustrator CS5 went untouched by Adobe. For instance, gradient swatches do not save gradient angle and placement. Similarly, copying a gradient from one object to another using the Eyedropper tool resets the gradient to the default angle and placement. That can be frustrating, as can working with 3D Extrude & Bevel because Adobe seems incapable of improving that feature to eliminate the frequent occurrence of self-intersections.

The blending modes in Adobe Illustrator CS5 still have not been updated to match the more fully featured set introduced in Photoshop CS2 (Vivid Light, Color Dodge, and others). For years users have been asking for enhancements to long-standing Illustrator features like blending, charts and graphs, 3D effects, and others, but CS5 once again ignores those requested refinements.

NEXT: our expert verdict >>

Related articles:

Adobe Photoshop CS5 review

See also: Adobe Creative Suite 5 review

Adobe Illustrator CS5: Specs

  • Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon 64, Intel Mac processor
  • Microsoft Windows XP with Service Pack 3, Windows Vista® Home Premium, Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise with Service Pack 1, or Windows 7, Mac OS X v10.5.7 or v10.6
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 2GB of available hard-disk space for installation
  • additional free space required during installation (cannot install on removable flash-based storage devices)
  • 1024x768 display (1280x800 recommended) with 16-bit video card
  • DVD-ROM drive
  • broadband internet connection required for online services
  • Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon 64, Intel Mac processor
  • Microsoft Windows XP with Service Pack 3, Windows Vista® Home Premium, Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise with Service Pack 1, or Windows 7, Mac OS X v10.5.7 or v10.6
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 2GB of available hard-disk space for installation
  • additional free space required during installation (cannot install on removable flash-based storage devices)
  • 1024x768 display (1280x800 recommended) with 16-bit video card
  • DVD-ROM drive
  • broadband internet connection required for online services

OUR VERDICT

Despite long-hoped-for enhancements that have not been delivered, the new features and updates that are included in Adobe Illustrator CS5 are so compelling we're unable to say anything short of this: Illustrator CS5 is a great buy. Even if you have no need of all the new features - and we can't see anyone not benefiting from at least one of them - the zippier performance alone will pay back the cost of the upgrade in time that you don't have to wait for Illustrator to complete tasks.

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