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Adobe Photoshop CS3 Extended review

By Jem Matzan

The 10th release of Adobe's flagship product -- and the most well-known graphics manipulation program in the world -- is Vista-ready, has a few interesting new features, and is now fully integrated with the latest versions of what were Macromedia's Web development tools. If this is your first version of Photoshop in a professional atmosphere, you'll love it; but if you're happily working with an older version, I doubt Photoshop CS3 will convince you to upgrade.

Introduction to Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop began life in 1988 as a Macintosh-only graphics editing application. It didn't take long for it to become the market leader in graphics manipulation, and has remained in that position to the present day. Though previous editions were available for proprietary UNIX platforms early in its life, Photoshop is now only available on the OS X and Windows platforms, solely as a 32-bit binary. Though it is still the market leader, Photoshop is not alone in its niche -- there are a handful of competing proprietary and open source programs that continue to challenge Adobe's position and erode its market share.

To put it bluntly, Photoshop creates and edits raster graphics. You can create raster images in a variety of sizes, resolutions, color depths, and file formats, or you can modify an existing electronic image with a huge selection of filters and special effects tools. Photoshop is best known for modifying digital photographs in creative ways -- removing "red eye" effects on the low end of the scale, and combining or altering photographs in ways that show surreal or untrue situations at the high end. Many graphic artists use it as a medium unto itself, creating art for print or Web distribution entirely or mostly with Photoshop.

Starting in 2003 with version 8, Photoshop changed its version naming scheme to match its new status in Adobe's collection of drawing and publishing tools, Creative Suite. Photoshop CS3 is the third version to use this naming scheme, and is included in a number of Creative Suite packages, detailed below.

Versions and packages

Throughout its history, Photoshop has seen many splinter versions, most of them reduced in functionality for distribution with OEM-built PCs, or consumer-grade printers and scanners. As of this writing, there are two versions, one being labeled as Extended. The features that CS3 Extended has over the standard Photoshop CS3 are:

  • Ability to render and incorporate 3D objects in 2D images.
  • Motion graphics editing and video layers.
  • Image measurement, analysis, and visualization tools.

Photoshop CS3 is available as part of the Design Standard and Web Standard Creative Suite 3 packages. Photoshop CS3 Extended is available in the Design Premium, Web Premium, Production Premium, and Master Collection packages.

The older, little-used Photoshop Elements product is not, as of this writing, related to Photoshop CS3.

Upgrade eligibility

If you already have a legal license for a qualifying upgrade product, you can upgrade to Photoshop CS3 or any of the Creative Suite 3 packages that include Photoshop at a substantial discount. You must own a legal license for Photoshop CS2, CS, or 7.0 in order to upgrade to the standalone Photoshop CS3 or CS3 Extended editions. Versions of Photoshop prior to these are not eligible.

If you have an MX, MX 2004, or version 8 edition of Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, or Macromedia Studio, or a commensurate previous version of another product in the Adobe Creative Suite, you are also able to upgrade to a number of Creative Suite 3 packages at a discounted rate.

Adobe Photoshop CS3
Photoshop CS3: still on top

New in CS3 Extended

Photoshop CS3 Extended offers a number of slight improvements and new features over Photoshop CS2. Here are the highlights:

  • Smart filters.
  • New "quick selection" and "refine edge" dynamic selection tools.
  • Layer auto-align feature.
  • 3D compositing and texture editing.
  • 2D and 3D scaling and measurement tools.
  • Panel docks are now resizeable, and can be reduced down to an icon bar.
  • User interface presets.
  • The Camera Raw plugin is now included by default.
  • Enhanced 32-bit image high dynamic range (HDR) support.
  • Multiple surface perspectives for wrapping images and text along properly scaled planes.

Putting it to the test

There is nothing remarkable about the CS3 installation procedure; it doesn't take long, and I didn't have any problems with it. I will say that the mandatory product registration signup is stupid -- if someone doesn't want the Adobe newsletter (or worse, "partner" spam), why should he be forced to put in bogus information or click "remind me later" when he doesn't want to be reminded later?

Product activation is still present in Photoshop CS3, and is no more or less annoying in this version than it has been in the past. You have five activations, after which you must call Adobe during business hours and explain why you need another activation.

Upon restarting the computer (still a post-install requirement, even on Windows Vista), the memory-resident Adobe Updater went crazy with updates that needed to be applied. It's good that there is a mechanism to install updates quickly; it's bad that the product needs updates so soon after release. Ideally, no commercial product -- let alone one that is as mature as and costs as much as Photoshop -- should need any updates at all. A few days later, the Updater interrupted me in the middle of what I was working on in Photoshop to demand that I install an update and restart the program. This is not friendly to creative production environments. Artists and other content producers expect software that doesn't need this much attention and maintenance. I certainly don't want popup windows demanding things of me when I'm concentrating on a project, and I don't see any reason why the Adobe Updater could not have waited until later to restart the program.

I'm not sure what to say about the new 3D editing effects, except that they do not turn Photoshop into Videoshop. Although it's interesting to put small movies into 2D images, I really don't think that effects that deal with 3D animation should be in Photoshop. This over-bundling of features reeks of market segment appeal, which in turn has led to a lack of focus on the core product. This is the sort of task that I would turn to a real video editing program for, once I had the 2D image the way I wanted it in Photoshop.

The UI workspace presets are interesting; I'm curious why Adobe did not integrate this feature into its other CS3 products (Illustrator in particular). There are eight presets for different tasks, and three for UI compatibility with previous versions (one being the current version). These allow you to dramatically alter Photoshop's interface so that the tools you need for the work you're doing are at hand. You can also save your preferred UI layout to a custom configuration. One of the things that bugs me about desktop software upgrades is what I call the "maid effect." It's when the programmers move things around in the interface just to make you think they've changed them (or when the maid moves things to a different location to make it obvious that she cleaned near/under it). Adobe made it easier to avoid the maid effect with its workspace switcher, which offers a legacy mode that sets the UI to look more like previous Photoshop releases.

The only significant new feature in Photoshop CS3 Extended that I found at all useful was the Camera Raw plugin. If your digital camera can save its images in an uncompressed format (all high-end cameras do, but many cheaper cameras do not), you can import it into Photoshop, thereby enabling you to work with the highest-resolution image possible. I'm kind of surprised that it took so long to get this practically necessary functionality into the program.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

I don't use Photoshop every day -- I've certainly used it on and off for various things over the past dozen or more years, but not so much anymore. First it was Fireworks that lured me from Photoshop for my Web graphics, then it was The GIMP when I switched to Linux and BSD. So since I'm not a regular user anymore, in order to get a better perspective on how I should be testing Photoshop CS3 Extended and how people are using Photoshop in various industries, I asked around among my friends and colleagues. I found about a half dozen people who used Photoshop regularly. None of them used the latest version, and the professional artists of the group weren't even close to the latest -- one used Photoshop 6, and the other was still on version 7. I asked them why they didn't upgrade, and they said that while some of the newer features of the past several versions looked interesting, they could not afford the cost of the upgrade. And while some of the new features would be nice to have, the older versions of Photoshop met all of their current needs. The nonexistent backwards compatibility of older Windows XP software in Windows Vista is also keeping them away from an operating system upgrade -- that would force a Photoshop upgrade as well.

And the rest of the Photoshop users I spoke with? They all had unsanctioned copies of Photoshop. In fact, the only people I spoke with who considered upgrading to CS3 are the ones who would download it for free from so-called warez sites. The grim fact of the matter is that Adobe Photoshop reached its peak several years ago, and has essentially been in maintenance mode ever since version 6. Little additions here and there, a few extra features, a redesigned interface, new plugins -- these things are nice, but they're not worth the price of the upgrade. The fact that the price of Photoshop and its associated suite of programs keeps going up doesn't serve to mitigate the problem one bit.

The graphics editing market is no longer dominated by an oligarchy of top players with expensive products. The market is now appropriately tiered, and saturated on the bottom end with inexpensive or free graphics utilities that are "good enough" for what many professionals and most amateurs and everyday desktop users need to do. There is no doubt that, in terms of features and support, Adobe Photoshop CS3 is superior to The GIMP, and Pixel, and Paint Shop Pro, and you-name-it -- it's the best Windows-dependent graphics program of its kind. I would not presume to dispute the superiority of Photoshop, but I will definitely say that it is no longer superior enough to justify the price for far too large a percentage of the market. The lesser programs are closing the feature gap while Adobe is widening the price gap. If this doesn't change soon, we'll be reading about layoffs and "debt restructuring" at Adobe before too many more superfluous Photoshop versions see the light of day.

So as a standalone product -- if you just landed on this planet and need to do high-end graphics work on a new Vista- or OS X-based computer -- Adobe Photoshop CS3 is great, assuming you don't have budget constraints. As an upgrade to previous editions, Photoshop CS3 is a dismal failure -- it does not sufficiently inspire existing users to commit to huge upgrade costs. The only real reason to upgrade to CS3 is if you've bought a new Vista-based computer and can't get your old Photoshop edition to work properly on it.

Here's what I'd like to see in the next Photoshop release:

  • Better value. Photoshop is way, way, way too expensive, even for the professional market that everyone thinks has no trouble blowing thousands of dollars on production software. The reality of the professional art and graphic design world is that software is still considered a one-time expense -- something that has been bought and paid for and doesn't need to be paid for again. It is an asset and a resource that doesn't need financial maintenance. Tossing in a few new features won't change this mindset. Frankly, I can't think of anything that will.
  • Get rid of the anti-piracy measures. The product registration routine serves only one purpose: to annoy and inconvenience paying customers. People who want to use Photoshop without paying for it already know where to find and how to use an activation crack to get around it. In essence, the so-called "pirates" have an easier time obtaining and using Photoshop than paying customers. Shouldn't it be the other way around? There will ever be a way to defeat illegal copying -- it's just one of the side effects of prohibitively high prices -- so why continue to hassle the people who are paying?
  • A new development and distribution method. The old release-and-upgrade model doesn't work anymore. Adobe needs to re-think the way it designs and sells Photoshop. One potential idea is to revamp the core graphics editing portion of the program, make it cross-platform and highly reliable (see below), remove all of the filters and plugins, sell it for a lower price -- say $100 -- and then make money off of proprietary Photoshop extensions. This way, users could build the graphics program they need, rather than be burdened by an over-featured product that they can't reasonably afford. Upgrades to the core wouldn't need to be quite so frequent, expensive, or disruptive.
  • Linux support. In a sense, it's already too late for Adobe to capitalize on the desktop Linux market. Creative Suite 3 in general should have been the first multi-platform Adobe commercial product, including Linux, FreeBSD, and Solaris in its OS support. The lack of Photoshop on Linux does not so much make Linux users suffer as it does encourage the development and enhancement of cheaper or free products that do work on multiple platforms.
  • 64-bit support. Photoshop needs to go 64-bit to remain viable in the near future. I've already written about this issue in detail.
Purpose Raster graphics creation, photo editing, and motion video enhancement.
Manufacturer Adobe Systems Inc.
Device and OS support Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or later, Windows Vista Home Premium or better, Mac OS X v.10.4.8 or later.
License Proprietary, restrictive in all the usual ways. Requires a limited-use product activation scheme.
Market Engineers, medical professionals, graphic designers, professional artists.
Price (retail) U.S. $1000 for the full version; $350 for the upgrade. The standard version of Photoshop CS3 is $650 for the full version, and $200 for the upgrade. Also available as part of Adobe Creative Suite 3.
Previous version Adobe Photoshop CS2
Product Web site Click here