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Adobe CS4 Review

In this review I hope to provide a general overview of Adobe's CS4 release (October 2008). I have the Master Collection but I don't use all the programs on a regular basis so I'll be concentrating on the ones I do use.

Purchase & Installation

This is the first time I've been able to make a major purchase online from Adobe.com. Previously, when I tried to buy from the international store (I'm in New Zealand) I was taken on a game of follow-the-links-to-nowhere, eventually to deduce that Adobe still didn't ship to my country. This time I was pleased to discover that I could not only purchase online but use the download option as well. Of course the download wasn't exactly instant—it took around 10 hours to download the files which came to around 10GB—but it was a lot nicer than waiting days or even weeks to have the box shipped. It's greener too.

The instructions weren't particularly clear but I figured out which exe file to run in order to extract all the required files (they come compressed in 7z format). Unfortunately the main installation file threw an error: "Unable to extract files. Please try downloading the file again". Great, another 5.5GB download. Oh well, a few hours later I finally had a working file. I installed over the top of CS3 and it went very smoothly. Within about 20 minutes CS4 was all ready to go.

Update: Just after finishing this review I got an interesting email from Adobe, telling me that there had been a mistake at their end and the download file was a pre-release version instead of the correct final version. I was asked to completely uninstall everything and start again from the download page. Let's just say I'm disappointed.

First Impressions

The common interface used throughout CS4 is slightly more space-efficient. At first glance the top of the window looks like it's missing something but in fact it's not, it's just more compact (without feeling squashed). The colors of the interface feel slightly more subdued as well, which is always a good thing when you're working with visual images.

Photoshop: The much-talked about context-aware scaling tool is fun but I can't see myself using it much. It works quite well with scenery but falls apart quickly when people are in shot. Other new features include 3D paint, composite, and animation tools, plus enhanced motion graphics editing.

Premiere Pro: Not many new features but numerous fixes and enhancements. Format support is better. The overall editing process has lots of minor tweaks that combine to make a noticeably more efficient workflow. The new Adobe Media Encoder works well although I haven't yet tested its performance against other encoders.

For more details see our review of Premiere Pro CS4.

Encore: Improved Blu-ray support includes pop-up menus, subtitles and dual-layer burning. Dynamic linking with Premiere Pro is much better. The firewire monitor output is a good addition. The most fun feature for me is the automated Flash export—I made a quick SWF version of an existing DVD project and it worked like a charm. This is a great feature for anyone wanting to showcase their DVD authoring skills on the web. Wedding Videographers should definitely have a look.

After Effects: One of the most most anticipated new features is the Mocha application for motion tracking. I haven't tried it yet but you can see a demo video here. Another new feature is the cartoon effect, which some people have described as gimmicky but I think is quite handy. Importing 3D models from Adobe Photoshop should also be well received by animators.

Soundbooth: Now offers multitrack support which helps lift it towards the "serious application" category. A few new editing tools are provided, and integration between PPRO and Soundbooth is better. It's still no Audition but Soundbooth is on the way to being a good audio editor.

On Location: As expected, this version is mainly concerned with two things: Conforming the interface to the CS style and adding native support for the Mac. Both are now done.

Flash: CS4 coincides with the release of Flash Player 10. New features in Flash include object-based animation, improved 3D support, bones tool (inverse kinematics), XMP metadata, Adobe AIR authoring and full H.264 support. The new motion editor looks nice for those who animate using tweens (rather than coding Actionscript directly).

Dreamweaver: Not a lot to get excited about to be honest, although there are some nice new touches. The interface now conforms with the CS style and overall it's a moderate improvement. There are the obligatory improvements to CSS and dynamic content. I like the way the properties inspector can be switched between HTML and CSS mode. I've never cared much for DW's handling of CSS and I've been in the habit of coding classes and inline styles by hand. However the new-look properties inspector, together with the familiar CSS panel, might make me consider doing it this way instead sometimes.

Every time I upgrade DW I find the way it displays pages in WYSIWYG mode changes. Typically, some things are better but some things are worse. CS4 is no different—some of my pages are previewed more accurately but I've already noticed some things that are now broken. I've long since got used to this in DW so it's just a case of adjusting to this version's idiosyncrasies.

Acrobat: The jobs I do in Acrobat won't be affected by this upgrade so it's not huge for me. Some people will be very excited by the ability to embed Flash and video content (while others may be equally alarmed by the prospect). There's also an enhanced form creation wizard, improved collaboration and the ability to create "dynamic PDF portfolios".

Acrobat caused a few installation problems back in CS3 and I have to say the biggest problem I've had with CS4 is also Acrobat. I keep getting a pop-up message telling me Acrobat is being configured. This happens when I'm not even using Acrobat, it ties up my computer for 30 seconds or more and it's very annoying. Apparently it's an old issue with Acrobat involving registry permissions. I've seen a few fixes that involve registry hacks but since I'm going to have to reinstall the whole suite anyway, I'll just hope to fix it that way.

InDesign & Illustrator: I hardly ever use Illustrator and I never use InDesign, so I'm leaving them out of this review. Too much else to concentrate on.



CS4 continues the integration of Adobe and other products that started in CS3. Dreamweaver and On Location fit in better, and dynamic workflow between applications has improved substantially. There aren't a great deal of new features—each application typically only has two or three worth boasting about—but the overall improvement and number of minor tweaks makes it a worthwhile upgrade.

Author: ,  Originally published: 2008-10-18