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Adobe CS4: Six Things to Keep In Mind

Just a few observations to tide you over until shipping time By Kevin Schmitt

Such is the nature of the upgrade cycle: just as creative types were getting used to the CS3 line, Adobe goes and announces CS4. And while you've likely seen myriad press releases and first looks and other introductory stuff by now, here are a few "below the fold" observations based on the the experiences I've had with the CS4 betas over the last several weeks.

1) The new design interface is profoundly good, especially on the Mac.

If you've used any of the CS3 products, you've probably noticed by now that Adobe has been trending towards two distinct interfaces. There's the one for the production products like After Effects and Premiere (fig. 1): darker, task-oriented, steeped in the tradition of the video production world. Then there's the design interface found in Photoshop and Flash (for example), which has been more of an iterative process. Sure, things like tabbed panels and docks have crept in over the years (fig. 2), but there hasn't really been a fundamental shift in how these products have looked and behaved. And while the CS4 design interface may not qualify as a true fundamental shift, it is clearly a reflection of today's needs, especially on the Mac.


Figure 1: The Premiere interface.



Figure 2: Photoshop CS3's tabbed and docked panels.

For the moment, let's ignore the elephant in the room by talking about how flexible the newest tabbed/docked interface is. Adobe has built upon the awesomeness of the docked panels introduced in CS3 by extending that concept to documents themselves (fig. 3). You can rearrange these documents in myriad ways -- from the straight-up tabbed layout to splitting your workspace into multiple viewports to dragging documents into their own window, you definitely have a lot of options (fig. 4). Combine this with the configurable workspace menu (present in many CS3 products but streamlined for CS4), and you can work pretty much however you like across the CS4 design programs.


Figure 3: Photoshop CS4's interface, featuring a tabbed document area (here, arranged into four quadrants).


Figure 4: Here's a much different look at working with the same documents in Photoshop CS4, with floating images and panels instead of a single docked window area.

As for the aforementioned pachyderm in the immediate area, let us speak of the Application Frame and Application Bar (AF/AB) and what it means to Mac users. (Windows users, as you were: you've had single window interfaces since the dawn of Windows, so this silly argument largely doesn't apply to you.) Now, Mac purists have had their virtual shorts in a bunch ever since seeing the Fireworks CS4 Beta interface this past Spring (fig. 5), working themselves into a veritable frenzy because the single-window mode, which is being adopted by the majority of the CS4 design products (save Dreamweaver, to its great detriment), is, in their estimation, decidedly un-Mac-like.


Figure 5: Fireworks CS4's new interface, in all its single window glory.

In fact, to take the argument a step further, the AF/AB combo makes the CS4 design interface most definitely Windows-like, a statement which, to some, deserves a hearty "oh, snap!" You've got this huge bar running across the width of the window, taking up space, with all your documents and palettes crammed together in this single, monolithic area. And to add to the distastefulness, Adobe seems to be using custom button widgets. The horror! It's blasphemy, they say. And while it may be a futile effort to argue over something as subjective as an interface, I respectfully say bollocks to all that. Here are three reasons why:

A) First and foremost, and this can't be too emphatically said, YOU CAN TURN IT OFF. You don't have to use it. So don't. Adobe doesn't seem to be in the business of ignoring a common customer issue, so if enough people object, this will remain a preference on the Mac for many versions hence. Just turn it off and go back to work. Or, if the philosophical divide is too great for you to even accept, you can always vote with your wallet and not upgrade at all.

B) In this age of 24"+ monitors quickly becoming standard in creative environments, many users have a whole lot of screen real estate, and not all of it needs to be dedicated to a single program. It is indeed quite nice to have a single window containing the entire application, rather than stray palettes strewn about, flung to all corners of the screen (or worse, stuck in the middle of it). Tabbed interfaces work for Web browsers, they work for text editors, they even work for other production products, which I'll touch on in my next point. I only wish Dreamweaver had adopted AF/AB, since it was arguably the program that could have benefited most from a single window interface, but that's an issue for the full Dreamweaver review.

C) Have you seen some of Apple's very own Pro Apps lately? Single window environment. You pretty much have to have it as at least an option in order to handle the explosion of palettes any professional level application has these days. Plus, let's keep in mind that Adobe has been moving in this direction anyway; the last couple versions of the production apps (e.g., After Effects and Premiere) have had these monolithic windows, and we've all managed to soldier on.

The bottom line here is that the interface enhancements may be debatable as to whether or not they are, indeed, enhancements, but I, for one, think the new interface is spot-on. And all I can say to the skeptical Mac user is to give it a real chance before you choose to disable the Application Frame and/or the Application Bar -- those little buggers just may grow on you. 

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Related Keywords:adobe, adobe creative suite 4, cs4, photoshop, flash, after effects, fireworks, dreamweaver

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