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Adobe Illustrator CS3 review

By Jem Matzan

Among vector drawing programs, Illustrator has traditionally had a dominant market position, in no small part because of its Adobe brand name. Unfortunately for Adobe, vector drawing programs are easy to create, and the market now offers several Illustrator competitors on a variety of different platforms. In an effort to focus sales on Illustrator, Adobe killed off its recently acquired (and popular) FreeHand product, but to FreeHand fanatics, Illustrator is no replacement. Being under attack from all sides from free and inexpensive alternatives and FreeHand non-defectors, Illustrator CS3 really needed to be an amazing new release with important features and outstanding FreeHand-replacement functionality. It still is no replacement for FreeHand for Web graphics, but unlike the majority of its Creative Suite 3 counterparts, Illustrator has succeeded in adding important new features and making itself a must-have upgrade for graphic designers.

Illustrator overview

Illustrator is, to put it plainly, a vector drawing program. Vector graphics are easily scaled, and are useful for every purpose for which messier, larger, and less specific raster (bitmap) graphics are not required. Vector drawing programs tend toward one of three specializations: Web graphics, print graphics, and CAD. Illustrator has always focused primarily on print.

Now in its 26th year, Illustrator is among the oldest extant vector drawing programs. Like Photoshop, Illustrator has seen releases across many varied platforms over its lifetime, finally settling in on the Mac OS X and Windows operating systems for 32-bit x86 processors.

Versions and packages

There is only one version of Illustrator CS3, but it can be purchased as a standalone product (and within that there is the full version, the upgrade, and the educational non-commercial edition) or as part of the following Creative Suite 3 packages:

  • Design Premium
  • Design Standard
  • Web Premium
  • Production Premium
  • Master Collection

Upgrade eligibility

If you already have a legal license for a qualifying upgrade product, you can upgrade to Illustrator CS3 or any of the Creative Suite 3 packages that include Illustrator at a substantial discount. You must own a previous Creative Suite product that includes Illustrator, or standalone Illustrator 10, CS, or CS2. Versions of Illustrator prior to these are not eligible.

What's new in CS3

There are roughly as many enhancements to existing features as there are new features in Illustrator CS3. Some of these are little things -- changes in the user interface, better integration with Adobe Flash (which wouldn't be necessary if Flash had better drawing tools), improved scripting and raster support, etc., but there are some really important ones as well. Here are the highlights:

Adobe Illustrator CS3
Illustrator CS3: perhaps the only necessary Adobe upgrade
  • Live paint enhancements
  • Live color enhancements
  • Improved performance on Apple x86 machines
  • New eraser and crop tools
  • Flash and Fireworks integration

Putting it to the test

I tested on Windows Vista, so I can't speak for the improved performance on Macintosh systems, but I do know that Illustrator is now natively compiled for x86 instead of PPC. Avoiding the architectural compatibility layer should improve performance markedly.

My vector graphics experience is limited to the anemic drawing tools in Flash, the Linux vector drawing program Inkscape, and Macromedia FreeHand. I asked around among friends who use Photoshop on a daily basis, but none of them were regular Illustrator users, nor were they particularly fond of its capabilities. As a last resort, I agreed to a product demonstration from Illustrator's senior product manager, Dave Macy.

At first I was horribly discouraged by Illustrator's default minimalist configuration. It's easily reverted back to a more traditional layout, though, and can be customized to scale to your needs. One thing you can't change that I don't like is the fact that the drawing tools are colorless -- this makes it very difficult to intuitively select the intended tool. So initial usability is quite poor in Illustrator, but it doesn't take too long to adjust to it if you're familiar with vector drawing programs.

The integration with Flash and Fireworks is superficial -- all it really means is that Flash and Fireworks can open Illustrator AI files and maintain some or most of the work's integrity. AI images can be imported into both Flash and Fireworks without any trouble; even layers and symbols are preserved and converted into native equivalents. Saving the file -- at least in Flash -- will not import all symbols cleanly back into Illustrator, though. This is more of a Flash problem than an Illustrator problem.

The eraser and crop tools are unique and interesting in their functionality. In raster graphics editors you're used to the eraser tool removing all elements under the cursor in the current layer and replacing them with the selected background color. It's useful for removing whitespace artifacts from image scans, and other cleanup work. The crop tool will remove variable portions of an image by reducing the dimensions of the canvas. The way Illustrator CS3 implements them, though, they still serve these functions while also separating pieces of an image and isolating them into different selectable vector objects. So if you drag the eraser tool through the center of a straight line, it will become two line segments; if you drag it through a circle, you end up with two half-circles. The same principle applies to the crop tool. I don't know if these features are terribly useful to graphic designers or not, but they certainly are interesting.

The improvements to the live paint tool make it easier to color the individual pieces (or a selection of pieces) of a drawing by automatically closing gaps, if they exist. You can also rapidly choose other colors from a predefined swatch with the new live paint tool. Taken in concert with the eraser tool, these new features can speed up the creation of complex images.

Though the things I've mentioned already could be significant for some, Illustrator CS3's real appeal for graphic designers is in its improved live color feature. The traditional color selection methods are still available, but there is a heavier emphasis on custom swatches. You can much more easily find colors that fit a certain theme or topic, or colors that are close to one another within a certain range of variation. If what's built into Illustrator isn't enough, you can use an integrated tool to access the free online Adobe Kuler (Flash required to view the page) service to find swatch sets that other artists have designed. Though Kuler is experimental in Illustrator CS3 (a warning message will inform you of this fact when you try to use it), I did not discover any problems with it.

Another new live color ability is color reduction. If you have a high-color image that you need to reduce down to 2 or 4 colors for print, live color can creatively accomplish this according to your specification. Previously a designer would have had to do much more work to accomplish the same goal, and the results might not have been as good. This alone is a must-have feature for graphic designers who work with a variety of print media.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

Though Photoshop may have hit its peak some time before CS3, Illustrator may just now be reaching it with this release. This is the first program in the Creative Suite 3 lineup that has important new features that make an upgrade worthwhile. If you have an older version of Illustrator and use it frequently for professional work, CS3 is worth the price of the upgrade.

Overall, I still miss FreeHand for vector Web graphics. I've never really worked with print media, so Illustrator does not have the same appeal for me personally as it would for a professional graphic designer, but were I to spontaneously begin such a career, this software is where I would start. I couldn't think of any specific recommendations for future versions of Illustrator because it's primarily a professional tool, unlike most of the other Creative Suite 3 components, which have just as much appeal to amateurs.

Purpose Vector graphics creation
Manufacturer Adobe Systems, Inc.
Supported platforms 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, heavily restrictive. Requires Internet-activated, limited-use product activation and user registration.
Market Graphic designers
Price (retail) U.S. $600 for the full version, $200 for the upgrade. Also available as part of Adobe Creative Suite 3.
Previous version Illustrator CS2
Product Web site Click here