Slick new interface
Powerful pattern creation tools
Better bitmap tracing tools
Gradients on strokes
Novices will find toolset baffling
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Adobe Illustrator has long been the choice for illustration professionals, designers and anyone who wants to work with infinitely scalable vector graphics.
Over the years it's gained some highly impressive features, such as mesh tools for drawing photo-realistic objects, perspective tools for taking the pain out of vanishing points and much, much more. So, what can CS6 bring?
Before we get onto features, let's talk about the interface and the tuning that's gone on under the bonnet.
The interface, like Photoshop's by default, is now charcoal grey. It gives Illustrator a more refined, professional feel. If it's a little much, you can change the interface colour via Preferences (unlike Photoshop's theme-based approach). It's a minor, but lovely touch.
But the real thing you notice about Illustrator is its speed. It's blazing fast. Mainly thanks to the Mercury Performance System and native 64-bit support, complex documents with meshes, gradients and many points can be manipulated with relative ease. Redraw certainly seems snappier as well.
Beyond the speed improvements, Illustrator does bring some new and improved features to the table. The most notable is undoubtedly the new pattern creation tools. Creating a tiled pattern and editing it is now extremely easy: open up or draw your object that you want to be repeated and then go to Object>Pattern>Make. Your object then repeats on the art board.
The Pattern Options panel enables you to control the pattern, with a really handy slider enabling you to dim your instances so you can work on and edit the original object. As you do edit it, the repeats update. The pattern is automatically added to the Swatches panel and updates when you hit Done in pattern creation mode. You can choose to save a copy to add another swatch to the Swatches panel.
But the best thing? Double-clicking the swatch in the Swatches panel enables you to go back to edit the pattern. When you update it, it updates any object the pattern is applied to. It's quite brilliant and textile artists, designers and illustrators who use patterns in their work will absolutely love it.
The other 'big' feature is the removal of Live Trace - being replaced with a new bitmap tracing engine called Image Trace. Now, don't expect this to magically turn any photos into vector artwork, but it does a pretty good job. And there are more options for tracing than ever before.
The tool is controlled by the context-sensitive Control Panel or the new Image Trace panel, and you can apply presets or tweak settings manually. Whilst you won't always use it, Image Trace is a powerful replacement for the often hit-and-miss Live Trace, and when you do need it, it'll come in very handy.
The final addition of note is being able to add gradients to strokes. We don't know why this wasn't in previous versions, but it's a welcome addition - especially for those designing photo-realistic vector artwork.
There's also some tweaks to the Gaussian Blur effect and minor panel updates, including a Scale Strokes & Effects checkbox added to the Transform panel.
Illustrator remains hugely powerful, and a tool that is reliable, fast (as long as you have a good amount of RAM) and pretty much vital to any creative pro. The new pattern creation features are a joy to use, and the speed of this version alone will impress any daily user of the app.
Steve has been writing about technology since 2003. Starting with Digital Creative Arts, he's since added his tech expertise at titles such as iCreate, MacFormat, MacWorld, MacLife, and TechRadar. His focus is on the creative arts, like website builders, image manipulation, and filmmaking software, but he hasn’t shied away from more business-oriented software either. He uses many of the apps he writes about in his personal and professional life. Steve loves how computers have enabled everyone to delve into creative possibilities, and is always delighted to share his knowledge, expertise, and experience with readers.