Adobe Illustrator CS5
Adobe Illustrator CS5 ($599 list new, $199 list upgrade) marks the continuation of two fine traditions from Adobe. First is the mere existence of this powerful, vector-based image editor, which gives you a vast array of tools and flexibility you can't easily find in competing programs. The second is that this update is hardly necessary for everyone: Most users will cheer changes to artboard organization and management, but roof-raising new capabilities are few. What's here, however, represents a marked improvement over Illustrator CS4's ($599 direct, ) slightly more anemic additions, and nonetheless secure Illustrator's place at the top of the heap—and as our Editors' Choice.
Illustrator: Artboards, Shapebuilders and Draw Tools
The most dazzling part of Illustrator CS5 isn't even so much new as an expansion on something the CS4 version introduced: multiple artboards. A new artboards panel gives you instant access to all the artboards you've created (you can have up to 100, of any size, within one document), and lets you add, delete, duplicate, name, or reorder them, just as if they were layers. You can rearrange them on your document in any of four different layout styles (grid by row, grid by column, arrange by row, or arrange by column), with any spacing you specify. Better still: If you want to reuse a graphical element from one artboard in the same location on several other artboards, you can choose a single menu option (or hit Alt-Shift-Ctrl-V) and that element is copied automatically. This is a huge time-saver—and long overdue.
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Another element that seems as if it should have appeared well before now is the Shape Builder tool. Turn it on and you can instantly merge multiple objects into a single shape, divide overlapping shapes into multiple objects (for easy moving or deletion), and delete whole areas you no longer need. The tool's options even let you choose the colors you want to fill areas of your artwork, whether fully or partially closed; decide whether you want colors to fill new shapes automatically; or even whether you want the tool to detect gaps.
TypeBusiness, Personal, Enterprise, ProfessionalOS CompatibilityWindows Vista, Windows XP, Mac OS, Windows 7 More
Two other appealing new features are the Draw Inside and Draw Behind modes. The former automatically creates a mask out of objects you've selected (you can edit them in the same way you would any other mask or clipping path). The latter is self-explanatory, giving you the ability to instantly place new objects "beneath" other objects in the stacking order. New nine-slice scaling and registration point control better preserves the integrity of symbols, text, and other objects (or parts of objects, including corners) when you resize them.
Illustrator: Smaller Scale Enhancements
The usefulness of many of the remaining features, however, may depend much more on the type of work you do on a regular basis. A selection of new perspective tools make drawing in three dimensions considerably easier—you have full access to, and control over, a three-way perspective grid to which objects and text can "mold" automatically. Strokes have been given a modest boost with new tools that simplify the creation of them in variable widths (you can also apply dashed lines or dynamic arrowheads). Stretch and corner control for brushes keep your creations looking clean even if they're on the complicated side.
If you're really into painting, the new Bristle Brush replicates the experience astonishingly well, creating vectors that very closely resemble what you'd get from a real-world brush. And there's not a small selection of available brushes, either—you can choose the style (round fan, flat curve, and flat angle are among the options), size, bristle length, density, thickness, paint opacity, and even stiffness to get exactly the effect you want.
Delicate raster images at low resolutions, such as those designed for the Web or mobile devices, can look blurred or grainy if they're not organized just right, and Illustrator CS5 offers some tools for dealing with that problem. You can align objects directly to the nearest closest pixel edge, and there are three different types of anti-aliasing (sharp, crisp, and strong) for improving the look of text in your images.
Illustrator is also tightly integrated with Flash Catalyst, maintaining objects such as artboards, layers, and names, so moving back and forth between the programs when you're working on animation doesn't cause you to lose your place or your mind. (Flash Catalyst lacks Illustrator's sleekness of interface, so flipping between the two may still be visually jarring.)
The question for Adobe Illustrator CS5 becomes, then: How many of these new features will you really use? If the answer is "few" or "none," you shouldn't consider this a run-out-and-buy upgrade, despite the usefulness of the artboard functionality and Shape Builder. This is a diffuse collection of features, to be sure, with little narrow appeal. Still, they do nicely fill some of the gaps in Illustrator's capabilities, and when you consider the changes in CS4, represent a huge jump over CS3 ($599 list, ) and earlier editions (to say nothing of competing products like Corel Painter 11) ($429 direct, ). Regardless of whether or not you need everything it has to offer, this is the best Illustrator yet.