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Illustrator CS5 is lovely, but Adobe still needs competitors

05 May 2010

I remember when I first went freelance, paying for my first software bundle. I had the choice of buying Quark Xpress 5 for a few pounds shy of a thousand (that’s a complacent monopoly for you), or I could get Acrobat, Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator for just £600. It was a no brainer to leave what was the leading print design app of the day, that I’d used for all my career so far, and go for the plucky youngster that was InDesign.

Back then, Adobe felt like the good guys. Nowadays they feel more like the Quark Xpress. Another weighty CS upgrade is upon us, and I was keen to see if there were improvements. Shortly after that big post looking at Fireworks alternatives, I was contacted by John Nack from Adobe:

I’ve just begun reading your thoughts on ways to replace Fireworks, and I think you’ll be happy with what the Illustrator team has been doing

I ended up trying a pre-release of Illustrator CS5 at the end of it’s beta cycle, and I have to say, I was taken aback. I’ve always used and loved Illustrator, but it’s never been a tool that I’ve trusted with anything that depended on crisp pixels. It’s supposedly had pixel snapping since v9 (pre CS), but it’s never worked properly. Workarounds, such as setting stroke widths to 0.9px to avoid unwanted subpixels, had to be devised. Using effects like drop shadows often left artefacts on screen, leading to wasted time trying to get of rogue artwork that wasn’t actually there.

That’s all changed in CS5. Pixel snapping works! You can draw artwork with confidence that you won’t have to do a lot of tidying up afterwards. Artboards have been improved and make a very good alternative to pages in Fireworks. In fact, it’s better, because you can see all your artwork at once.

I’m smitten. Really I am! While it isn’t a bitmap editor, these last few weeks I’ve used Illustrator CS5 instead of anything else for UI and icon work in particular.

In general, looking at the “What’s new in CS5” list I see a lot of new features being added like ‘Flash Catalyst Integration’ to the list of other fluff that gets installed like Bridge, Device Central, Version Cue, etc.

I’ve also had a chance to play a little with Fireworks CS5, but nowhere near enough to have a informed opinion. Once again, I failed as beta tester due to workload. (It’s embarrassing – I can’t really complain about Fireworks, and then not do anything about it). However, I’ve seen that the Fireworks team have been busting a gut getting it stable and smooth.

This is all very nice, but aren’t we just paying for bug fixes on Fireworks? The developers have obviously done an incredible amount of work, and the focus on stability is to be applauded, and a low-cost upgrade like Snow Leopard would’ve been fine. In the case of Illustrator, there is a lot more than stability and bug fixing going on. Perspective drawing is a very appealing new feature to me, amongst others. Still, pixel snapping is the draw for me, and that’s something I thought I’d paid for a long time ago. I’m in a quandary as to whether to upgrade, but the pull of Illustrator CS5 is strong.

Quark could charge whatever they liked for Xpress, because it was the industry standard and there were no real competitors for years. It also stagnated for a long time. Adobe finally changed all that by making a fantastic competitor and charging considerably less for it. It took quite a while to filter through the print design industry, but InDesign toppled Quarks top position, forcing them to revise their pricing and their attitude. I can’t help but feel that Adobe really needs the competitors now.

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