Adobe Illustrator CS5 Review

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As the Creative Suite versions of the Adobe software mature, the list of new features for each program grows smaller, but the new features seem to be getting better. This release has some nice features, making this an important upgrade for those using Illustrator for more artistic purposes—of course, many of those features are useful for graphic designers, too. Here are the top new features for Illustrator CS5 (a.k.a. version 15).

The Perspective tools are a welcome, if not overdue, addition to the Adobe Illustrator (AI) feature set—one wonders if this feature was on the drawing board for some time or was the technology a pick-up from Adobe FreeHand MX.

Two new tools have been added: The Perspective Grid tool (Shift-P) and the Perspective Selection tool (Shift-V). The grid tools are easy to work with. The Perspective Grid tool adds a default grid to the page that can be visually modified. When a grid plane is active, many of the normal drawing tools work in perspective. When moving or scaling perspective objects, you must be sure to use the Perspective Selection tool to keep the object in perspective.

Think of the new Shape Builder tool (Shift-M) as “Live Paint meets Pathfinder.” You can work with selected shapes (much like Live Paint) to merge and subtract the overlapping areas (like the Unite and Minus Front options in Pathfinder). At first I thought this was a tool for those who didn’t like the Pathfinder panel, but the more I work with it, the more I like it. I wouldn’t necessarily upgrade just for it, but it certainly adds to the overall package.

Variable-width stokes is one of the best improvements to happen to strokes in a long time. The Width tool (Shift-W) allows you to take a standard stoke and change the width dynamically by clicking on a stroke and dragging away from the center of the path. Stokes can be adjusted on one side of the path by holding-down the Option (PC: Alt) key and dragging. The settings can even be saved as a stoke profile for future use. Compared to the old process of outlining a stroke, adding points, and then editing them with the Direct Selection tool (A), this tool is a big time saver.

Arrowheads have been added to the bottom of the Stroke panel and are much easier to implement now. A nice new feature is to have the arrowhead end at the path anchor point, rather than sticking beyond it.

The oft-forgotten Brush panel gets a fun, new type of brush: the Bristle Brush. This allows Photoshop-like brushes to be created and used with the Paintbrush tool (B) in Illustrator. Of course, just like previous brushes, they can be applied to existing paths and shapes. This tool really requires a tablet for proper freehand use—with a tablet you can see the brush shape and angle.

The multiple artboard features get some needed improvement by way of the new Artboards panel. Artboards can be named, reordered, added, duped, deleted, and rearranged with the new panel. In addition, the panel can be used to jump from artboard to artboard.

There’s now a Paste on All Artboards command (under the Edit menu)—handy when working with repeating elements such as symbols. Artboard rulers got a needed makeover, too. Instead of separate rulers that didn’t do much (as in CS4), the traditional ruler changes for each artboard. Each artboard can have a custom zero-point, too. Another big change with rulers is that they’re now oriented in the upper-left corner like InDesign, not in the bottom-left corner like the previous version.

In previous versions, raster-based effects—such as drop shadows, glows, and Photoshop effects—in a print-based document could really bog down your computer. One trick was to work with a lower effect resolution and increase it later during final output. Unfortunately, some effects were measured by pixels; so changing from 72 ppi to 300 ppi could dramatically alter the look of the effect. Now, the settings are recalculated to look similar; however, because they’re being recalculated, the appearance might change slightly.

This feature is important since Illustrator CS5 isn’t 64-bit, but still 32-bit, so it can’t access more than 3–4 GB of RAM. Granted, most users would never need the 64-bit option, but I’ve seen Illustrator slow down due to high-res effects.

There are three drawing modes now: Draw Normal, Draw Behind, and Draw Inside (you can find these options near the bottom of the Toolbox). Draw Normal is what you’ve normally used in AI in the past. Draw Behind does just that: Draw behind the selected object(s). If nothing is selected, it draws beneath all objects on a layer. Draw Inside draws inside the selected object; basically, it creates a clipping path automatically, but it’s much easier than previous methods.

Symbols have had a number of improvements, but the most dramatic is the support of 9-slice scaling. While it was available in the last few versions of Illustrator, it was only for symbols being exported to Flash. The feature was meaningless in Illustrator. Not any more—now it works in AI, too!

When creating graphics for the Web, the Transform panel has a couple of new options: Align to Pixel Grid for existing objects and Align New Objects to Pixel Grid. This prevents any “fuzzy” graphics when exported for the Web. Another feature is similar to the pixel grid feature in Photoshop: When View>Pixel Preview is on and the zoom level is greater than 600%, a pixel grid is visible for precise alignment of objects.

Some of the new features are just improvements of existing features; in other words, they’re not earth-shattering. Overall, this is a nice upgrade—either by itself (does anyone buy separate packages anymore?) or combined in an Adobe Creative Suite.—David Creamer

Company: Adobe Systems Incorporated
Price: $599 (Upgrade: $199)
Rating: 4.5

Hot: Perspective drawing
Not: Many “new” features are long-overdue improvements


  • David McCulloch says:

    But have they fixed the long standing bug where you can create an action that runs a script, but if you shut down Illustrator then start it up again the link between the action and the script is lost.

    This has been a problem since I started using Illustrator before Adobe started with the Creative Suite. If it were fixed I could cut half the time my current work flow takes in half. I didn’t bother with CS4 Adobe didn’t fix it (plus the other “improvements” were not compelling enough for the jacked up prices they asked for in Europe – but that one fix would still have got me to open my wallet).

    So the big question remains. Has Adobe fixed this long standing bug?

  • M Burke says:

    “Illustrator CS5 isn’t 64-bit, but still 32-bit, so it can’t access more than 3–4 GB of RAM. Granted, most users would never need the 64-bit option, but I’ve seen Illustrator slow down due to high-res effects.”

    UNGH! Illustrator is broken until it gets 64 bit! I cannot tell you how many times I have to deal with the many vague out of memory errors in Illustrator. Yes, I’m doing some crazy hi-res stuff with the program but for them not to go 64 bit is ridiculous.

  • t0yz says:

    I also get TONS of memory errors in AI, especially when working with 3D revolve, rotate and extrude/bevel. I hoped CS5 will solve these problems, but lo&behold, I try to extrude some complex stuff on my 8 GB machine, only to see AI CS5 gloriously dying just like CS4 after minutes of rendering with “This operation cannot complete because there isn’t enough memory (RAM) available”, leaving more than 5 GB on my system unused… virtual memory galore also… but nothing could help it seems.

  • rob says:

    A single 32bit process can only access 2GB of Ram, not “3-4 GB”. The OS as a whole, with all its processes can access “3-4” but rather 3 then 4.

  • M Burke says:

    Plus, after using Illustrator CS 5 for 30 days, I’m finding a lot of issues. For example, the alt-key scroll-wheel zoom is flawed, causing the menu to activate and the computer to beep incessantly.

    That said, I find the perspective tool is fantastic, the system seems smoother and uses memory better than CS 4, and in general seems more stable.

  • Peter Mitchell says:

    Illustrator CS5 is unbelievably slow with small but incessantly annoying tweaks to keyboard shortcuts that I’ve used for years. What the hell is going on here Adobe? Also, what’s up with the new smart guides locking to everything but where I need them to? Major updates are necessary before CS5 is ready for prime-time… oh wait, it’s already in the wild. Talking about putting the cart before the horse…. disappointing…

  • Tyler says:

    I was sincerely hoping that, given the incredibly short time between releases, Illustrator CS5 would be more like an upgrade than an entirely new version. Well, it’s obviously not an entirely new version. It does everything I hated about CS4 and none of the things I liked about CS3. Thus, thank you, clients who keep forcing me to upgrade my software just so I can open your files and save them out in a legacy format to work on them in CS3. Stop being dazzled by shiny new toys. And Adobe, stop wasting my money and fix your damn software.

  • clairemont says:

    variable width stroke tool is great, would love to be able to select several strokes and use a slider over the stroke tab to adjust their sizes, as well as adjust them simultaneously even if different sized strokes, so they increase or decrease but same relative to eachother maintaining their proportions.

    • Brian Frisch says:

      You can adjust the overall limit by adjusting the stroke size in the stroke menu…

  • Lily says:

    Some of the new features I’m starting to get comfortable with and using them more and more, like creating very nice looking shades, or drawing from perspective. This is what I mean:

  • Skeddy says:

    Понравился данный пост. Теперь буду заходить к вам чаще!

  • focus says:

    I recently bought Adobe suite and installed Illustrator CS5.
    Well adobe guys, have a read about how Vista on Microsoft solved the issue with that operation system.
    Yes, this is the comparison!!! I have worked for so many years with Illo and Ps, and now you bring your keyboard layout in? WHO you asked for that?
    I am working on a very high model PC, ultimate processor, top video card, SSD etc…

    I truly hope that this is NOT the final version of CS5, right?

  • Marisol says:

    I’ve been using AI CS5 for 6 months and have encountered nothing but problems. I use the Extrude and Bevel to map a 3-D object and countless times get the message: “The operation cannot complete because there isn’t enough memory (RAM) availble.” Unfortunately, this means that many of my designs are totally useless. I have encountered countless other software problems, such as every time I open a document, it opens the PREVIOUS document, so I cannot open a document unless directly going to it and clicking on it. Also, when I want to check what swatch I used, it does NOT highlight with a little square the one I used. This is extremely frustrating. I have to GUESS what swatch I used. I could not tell you all the software problems here, there are just too many. All I can say is this: THE INDIAN FELLOWS THAT SUPPORT ADOBE IN INDIA CANNOT FIX THESE PROBLEMS–THEY ARE NOT SOFTWARE SPECIALISTS. ADOBE–GET ON THE BALL!! THIS IS AN EXPENSIVE PRODUCT WITH NUMEROUS GLITCHES AND BUGS THAT NEED TO BE REMEDIED NOW….