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Adobe Illustrator 10

Vector illustration software By Dave Nagel
Vector illustration programs change little on the surface from version to version these days. Both Macromedia Freehand and Adobe Illustrator have been around for so long that major releases might seem like little more than maintenance updates. This perception is somewhat misguided. True, there are few spectacular new features in either product's latest incarnation. But what these releases (both version 10) might lack in spectacle, they do make up for in workflow and depth. And that's what illustration programs at this point are all about.

Now, for me, it's difficult to mention Illustrator without also mentioning Freehand. Both programs target the same market; both are in release 10; both integrate vector and raster effects and Web functionality; both have been re-interfaced to provide familiarity to both Macromedia's and Adobe's users; and, maybe most significantly, both now run in Mac OS X natively.

So which one is better, you ask? Nice try. These two programs have been going at it for years, and I don't propose to settle the dispute in this review. While Illustrator 10 seems to run more smoothly in Mac OS X (especially the behavior of palettes), when it comes down to it, the decision has to be based upon your workflow and needs. The real question is, "Should I upgrade from Illustrator 8/9 to 10?"

Short answer: yes. For the long answer, read on.

The upgrade path
Now, I'm in the camp that saw little reason to upgrade from Illustrator 8 to Illustrator 9. And, judging from some of your reactions in our user forums, I probably made a wise choice. Version 8 was more stable, and its workflow seemed easier. Plus, version 9 didn't offer all that much that was new, unless you needed some enhancements for Web graphics. But the upgrade to Illustrator 10 is different for a couple of reasons.

Illustrator 10 under OS X

First, if you're on a Mac, as most of you are, you really have no choice. Mac OS X is here to stay, and Apple isn't going to continue supporting OS 9 much longer. Already OS X is the default OS in current system configurations. While this might not affect you right this second (unless you're planning to go out ad buy a new system), it does affect the development plans of every software maker out there. Meaning, in short, that anything prior to OS X is a dying technology. While your Mac system is built to last, your options for staying current with technology are rapidly dwindling.

So, from this standpoint, you're going to have to upgrade sooner or later. This, of course, isn't a very satisfying reason to upgrade anything, although it does reflect the eventual reality of the situation.

But there are some intrinsic reasons to upgrade as well, most notably in workflow enhancements, but also in some of the new creative tools, which we'll get to below. By no means do I want to undersell the value of the enhancements in Illustrator 10. This is a significant release, even if there aren't tons of of new features that make your head spin at first glance.

New creative tools
I'm going to begin with the new creative tools, even though I don't consider them the most important new features of the program. I've never been a tremendous fan of vector illustration programs as creative tools. For me, they've always been a means to an end, not an enjoyable or mind-expanding experience. You use them for type treatments, logos and the like, but you're going to do your finishing in another application.

But the new version of Illustrator adds some tools that really change this. Several of these are in some ways similar to those offered in the FILTERiT plugin package from CValley, though they aren't nearly as numerous as the ones that come with FILTERiT. (As a side note, anybody who uses Illustrator 8 or above should own FILTERiT. You can read my aging review of it here.) The ones adopted in Illustrator 10 are all tools for interactively warping and distorting vector objects. They help turn a laborious process into an enjoyable one.

All of these tools, which Adobe calls "Liquify" tools, allow you to go in with your mouse or pressure-sensitive stylus and apply distortions to your objects. These distortions can range from bulges to twirls to wrinkles, and the size and degree of the effect can be controlled on the fly or through a Tool Options dialog. Click play on the movie below to see some interactive warps in progress.

In the above movie, the degree of the warp was controlled by the pressure from my Wacom tablet. The size of the warp area can also be controlled by holding down the Option key and dragging the cursor. The image below shows the manual settings dialog.

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