Adobe Creative Cloud 2014: the full review

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Adobe Creative Cloud 2014: the full review

The latest round of upgrades included in Adobe Creative Cloud 2014 is the biggest yet, bringing upgrades to all the major desktop applications, plus several new mobile apps. Such is its significance that Adobe has partnered it with its first hardware release.

It's also the first time in the CC era that Adobe has felt the need to update the splash screens and branding for its desktop applications – leading to slightly ugly names such as Photoshop CC 2014, Illustrator CC 2014 and so on. Clearly, this is a generational update: if the original CC release was effectively CS7, this release is CS8.

Before you get too excited, remember that most iterations of Adobe software bring incremental rather than revolutionary changes. And so it is here, with a wide-ranging collection of updates that focus mainly on making specific jobs easier, rather than shaking up anyone's day-to-day workflow.

Photoshop CC 2014

Like recent releases of Illustrator and InDesign, Photoshop has finally had Typekit plumbed into it. Open a PSD file that uses a missing font and you'll be prompted to download it or replace it with a different one. The font selection dropdown becomes a proper search field, and you can now preview different fonts in situ by simply hovering over them.

Photoshop's handling of Smart Objects has been sharpened up too: it's possible to convert embedded Smart Objects into linked ones and package them into a single directory. For most art workers, these changes won't make much difference, but for certain tasks, such as collaborative promotional design, it's a huge improvement.

Elsewhere, Photoshop's various content-aware tools have been upgraded with new colour blend options. A little fiddling can be required to find the right settings, but the results are impressively natural, even when moving elements between areas that are lit differently. Smart guides are smarter, too, indicating not only when a path or layer contents are lined up with other elements, but also showing spacing information, to help you create regular, balanced designs.

If you're working with cut-outs, you might be optimistic about the new Focus Area selection tool, which promises to select or mask only the parts of an image that are in sharp focus. Sadly (if predictably), it works well only on images with stark separation; it struggles with portraits in which the subject's hair softens artily into the background, for example. In other words, it isn't much more useful than the Quick Selection tool.

Other notable enhancements include more versatile handling of individual layer properties within layer comps (including layer comps within Smart Objects); GPU-accelerated upsampling for faster image resizing; and new path and radial motion blur effects, accessed via a tidier Blur Gallery. The 3D printing capabilities introduced in the last major revision have also been upgraded to show where meshes have been repaired, to help you develop your models. And to complement the arrival of the iOS stylus and ruler hardware, Adobe has stepped up the sampling rate for Windows 8 stylus hardware.

Illustrator CC 2014 and InDesign CC 2014

If you've ever battled with Bézier curves, you'll be pleased to learn that Illustrator's pen tool now displays a live curve preview before you click to place a point. This takes much of the guesswork out of creating smooth paths. Inevitably, obtaining the desired result still involves tweaking handles, but this too is simplified by the ability to drag handles asymmetrically while drawing (achieved by Ctrl+Clicking on the handle in question). It's a much slicker workflow than in the past, and it complements nicely the smoother pencil tool – complete with high-DPI stylus support – that was introduced in January's update.

Other changes are more subtle: snap-to-grid, for example, no longer affects anchor handles (although it continues to work on points), so you can easily create curves that begin and end exactly where you want them without sacrificing the convenience of making fine tweaks to the contour. This isn't helpful in every case, however: it would be nice to have the option to hold down a modifier key to snap handles.

Elsewhere, new Alt+click functions let you create smooth curves from corner points without moving your mouse away from the artboard, and GPU acceleration via CUDA now promises to speed up the rendering of complex scenes. This is dubbed an experimental option, and we'd prefer to see a system that works with AMD and Intel graphics rather than Nvidia only, but it's a step in the right direction.

In InDesign, the big news is support for fixed-layout EPUB 3 files, which are compatible with iBooks and Kobo readers, among others. Reflowable EPUBs have been supported since CS3, but, as Adobe points out, this isn't an ideal format for works such as kids' books or art books, where the designer might want to keep a specific relationship between images and text. Now, images and boxes stay in the right place when your document is opened on an electronic reader, while text remains selectable and searchable.

Some other upgrades will also benefit those working in print. Tables can now be reorganised by dragging and dropping rows and columns; it's not something many of us do every day, but it's an enhancement all the same. Also, the Swatches window now lets you sort your colours into groups, so you can more easily keep track of things across documents that use multiple palettes.

An interesting change is automatic scaling of effects: if you shrink down a shape with a 1cm feather applied, the feathering now shrinks, thus preserving the object's appearance. It's a good idea, but if you've applied a drop shadow to your object, this also scales, potentially resulting in an inconsistent appearance between elements. If you want to avoid this, your only option is to disable effects scaling.

Video and web editing

Creators in other media haven't been forgotten. Premiere Pro and After Effects have been beefed up with support for Live Text templates, allowing you to create text animations and overlays that can be updated in Premiere Pro without you having to jump back into After Effects. New keying features can clean up a noisy green-screen background, even one suffering from compression artefacts, and can automatically reduce ghosting and halo effects around translucent elements such as hair.

Premiere Pro also gains a function called Master Clip, which can be used to apply the same settings and adjustments to all instances of a clip that's in your project bin. Scenes containing masks can be exported from Premiere Pro to After Effects for precision adjustment and editing.

For those working on the web, Dreamweaver is still with us. It missed out on the last round of updates in January, but the veteran web design package has been upgraded with new tools to help you create and edit structured designs. This starts with the Element Quick View pane, which allows you to view your page as a DOM hierarchy, so you can see at a glance which image element lies within which div tag, for example, and easily select and move elements and sections via simple drag-and-drop operations.

Adobe Photography package

To coincide with the release of Creative Cloud 2014, Adobe has announced that its Photography subscription – previously described as a limited offer – will remain available indefinitely. For professional photographers, it's a tempting deal, providing the latest releases of Photoshop and Lightroom, on both desktop and mobile platforms, for £105 a year. That's half the price of a regular single-app CC subscription, although it doesn't include access to Adobe's supplementary online services. However, for those who don't need the full power of Photoshop, however, it's a questionable deal. Uniquely among CC applications, Lightroom 5 is available as a standalone package, with a perpetual licence costing only £73. Buy this, plus a simple image editor such as Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 9, and you'll be ahead of the game in not much more than a year – as long as you're not worried about missing out on future upgrades.

The Live View – souped up last year with the Blink rendering engine, as found in Google Chrome – now lets you edit text, images and CSS selectors in situ. Thankfully, CSS Designer has been improved, too, gaining an Undo option among other things, although we still find it more fiddly than the old floating palette.

Flash Professional benefits from a few updates, although there's a certain fin de siécle feel to them: it's now possible to export animations in WebGL and EXE formats – for viewing on non-Flash platforms – and save single frames in SVG format. It's not all doom and gloom, however: variable-width strokes are new in the 2014 release, as is an updated Motion Editor, for precise control over transformations and effects.

Last comes Muse, which has been overhauled with more familiar keyboard shortcuts, a more conventional panel-based layout and support for high-DPI displays. It feels far more mature than the old AIR-based application, but little has changed functionally, save for the introduction of one interesting new feature: an in-browser editing mode.

This allows authorised clients to update text and images on a live site without the designer's involvement – potentially a godsend for harried designers with multiple clients. Wisely, Adobe doesn't allow online editors to access CSS or structural elements, which should make it difficult for unschooled contributors to wreck their own sites accidentally.

Worth the subscription?

The promise of frequent updates is a big part of the CC proposition, and several of its major packages are now four versions along from the CS6 editions. The difference is starting to become significant, especially in applications such as Illustrator and Dreamweaver, which have seen improvements to key everyday tools. In particular, the new in-browser editing feature in Muse in particular is the sort of innovation that keeps professionals coming back to Adobe. On top of all this come the new mobile apps, although whether these sweeten the deal will depend on your workflow.

All in all, it's maddening that the only way to get these tools is via subscription. Although the annual CC stipend includes access to Typekit, the Behance portfolio site and 20GB of cloud storage, we're certain many creatives would leap at the option of a perpetual, standalone licence for the creative applications themselves.

As it is, Adobe Creative Cloud 2014 remains a toss-up. If you have a regular, professional use for four or five of these applications, all this great creative potential might be worth £562 a year to you. If your work is centred on one or two core apps, with occasional dips into a third, there's no doubt CC has something to offer – but the recurrent outlay may be hard to justify.

Mobile apps

Adobe is a stalwart in the world of desktop software; the firm's creative applications have dominated for years and are so powerful that it would take a miracle for any other company to overhaul it. In the mobile apps space, however, the company is a relative newcomer, and it's fair to say it hasn't made as big an impact as it would like.

However, with three new creative apps for the iPad, plus the Creative Cloud file management app and Lightroom for iPhone released as part of the latest clutch of CC announcements, it seems Adobe isn't giving up the ghost just yet.

Mobile apps: Photoshop Mix

Overall rating: 4/6

First on the roster of new arrivals is Photoshop Mix, aimed at those who want to create quick compositions and edits on the move. As with all the new apps, it's free to download and install from the Apple App Store. All you need to get it to work is an Adobe ID – there's no need to pay for a CC subscription.

The app is split into two sections: the Gallery view, which gives access to recent projects, local files, images in your CC online storage and those tagged in your Lightroom library; and the Overview mode, for editing and compositing. From the Overview, it's possible to import further images for compositing and adjusting exposure, contrast, clarity and saturation. You can also apply various looks – to the whole image or part of it – create selections and perform cropping.

It's also possible to apply one of three more advanced features borrowed from the app's desktop cousin, these being the Upright, Camera Shake Reduction and powerful Content-Aware fill tools. These all work effectively, but there's a catch. Because the iPad isn't yet powerful enough to perform such CPU-intensive tasks locally (according to Adobe, at least), processing takes place on Adobe's servers, so you have to wait for your image to upload before the filter can be applied and displayed.

There are other features here borrowed from desktop Photoshop. The Refine Edges and Smart Selection tools help in the creation of quick cut-outs, and once a composition has been finished it can be shared back to Photoshop via Creative Cloud in the form of a multi-layered PSD for more precise edits. Alternatively, it can be published to the Adobe Behance community for feedback from your peers.

It's all impressive stuff. The simplified touch selections work beautifully, the speed with which the app works is excellent and it's much easier to get to grips with than most tablet-based photo-editing apps. Even the uploading process for these advanced effects didn't take too long on our Sky Broadband ADSL connection.

However, there's no ignoring the fact that, on its own, Photoshop Mix isn't as powerful as the best iOS photo-editing apps, such as Photogene, Snapseed and Apple's own iPhoto. Work needs to be done refining certain aspects, too: the two-fingered Undo gesture works only in certain places; it's far too easy to move layers instead of zooming in to perform a more accurate edit; and the app is crying out for more positional control, such as the ability to lock, group and align items to guides.

Mobile apps: Adobe Line

Overall rating: 5/6

Adobe's two new drawing apps – Line and Sketch – are clearly designed to be used in conjunction with the new Ink and Slide (we cover these in detail further down the page). Without the stylus, there's a limit to how accurate you can make your strokes, especially freehand, and control over stroke width and weight is limited without pressure sensitivity.

Despite this, both apps stand reasonably well on their own, especially Line, a drafting tool designed for making drawings you might otherwise create on paper with a pencil and ruler. The basic concept involves moving a virtual ruler with two fingers – or the Slide hardware, if you have it – then tracing its virtual edge to create precise digital sketches.

There's an awful lot more to Line than straight lines, though. The app is equipped with perspective guides, making it a doddle to create convincing architectural sketches, for example. There's also a huge selection of shapes that can replace the straight line, allowing you to add everything from basic shapes and polygons to hyperbolic curves created through the use of virtual French curve templates.

It doesn't end there, either. A selection of "stamps" lets you add line drawings of people, furniture and plants, and there's a range of pens, pencils and markers to choose from, all of which can be laid down in different colours, opacities and thicknesses.

It's possible to import photographs from local folders or your CC online storage space to draw around, too, and Line makes it amazingly easy to undo and redo individual strokes, or even scrub back and forth through the entire history of your sketch using a variety of two- and three-fingered swipes.

Mobile apps: Adobe Sketch

Overall rating: 4/6

Sketch has a similar look and feel to Line, but it's designed for freehand sketching, rather than precise drafting. It's much simpler, offering a choice of only four drawing implements – pencil, pen, ink and marker – plus an eraser tool for correcting mistakes. There's no facility for adjusting the weight or thickness of these media, either.

Sketch includes a stripped-down subset of Adobe Line's tracing capabilities for tracing straight lines and basic geometric shapes, plus there's the ability to import photos for tracing, and a number of different ways to select colours. Sketch can generate a colour palette from any imported photo; alternatively, there's a list of predefined colour sets to choose from, or you use one that's been created using Adobe Kuler.

Like Line, Sketch is a beautifully crafted piece of software that's speedy and responsive. It's also easy to get to grips with, allowing you to concentrate on the important thing – creating – rather than fiddling with parameters and sliders. It's a great way to get ideas down quickly and simply, ready for further development in one of Adobe's more powerful desktop packages; CC subscribers can send sketches directly to Illustrator and Photoshop, where they appear as flattened PNG files.

That said, it isn't a full-blown digital art package to rival packages such as ArtRage or SketchBook Express, both of which are far more powerful than Sketch. Meanwhile, FiftyThree's Paper offers a similar sketch and gesture type approach, but with the potential to add more features as you need them.

Adobe Ink and Adobe Slide

One of the most interesting announcements Adobe made in its June 2014 splash was the introduction of the firm's first pieces of hardware, a pair of tools designed specifically to operate in concert with the new Sketch and Line drawing apps.

Ink is an active stylus that connects to an iPad via Bluetooth and employs Adobe's Pixelpoint technology to offer pressure sensitivity. This means you can press hard for a thick, heavy stroke and ease off for fine shading – something you can't do with those thick, bulbous, rubber-tipped capacitive styluses. The stylus' thinner nib should afford more accurate tracing as well.

Slide is best imagined as a physical way of manipulating Adobe Sketch and Line's digital ruler capabilities. You rest it on the screen of the iPad, the app detects it and activates the straight line guide, and you can then twist and manipulate your lines as if you were resting two fingers on the screen. Tapping the device's single buttons cycles through the selected trace or stamp's various options.

It looks rather exciting, but, disappointingly, the set (the two aren't available individually) won't initially be on sale in the Australia. The price of US$200 seems high, too, especially since similar products are available at far lower prices.

Mobile apps verdict

The new mobile apps, and hardware, from Adobe are a step in the right direction. They add to, rather than replicate fully, the power of Adobe's desktop applications, and each one is quick, simple and effective – precisely what a touch-based companion to a desktop application should be.

We particularly like Line's approach to drafting; we expect it will fast gain cult status among digital artists who work in this area. We're also intrigued by the possibilities opened up by the server-based photographic processing in Photoshop Mix.

They aren't the most comprehensive creative apps, though, so – although they're free, and therefore worth a try – we can't see them tempting across those who've already invested elsewhere.

This article originally appeared at pcpro.co.uk

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