Latest Adobe Photoshop CS4 Review

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SPACIOUS: Photoshop CS4’s new interface is geared towards maximising your workspace, for example, by doing away with the Windows Title bar and merging some menu items together.

When you look at the market for photo editing software, there’s really nothing that comes even close to Adobe’s Photoshop in terms of power and versatility.

I’ve tried others, like the open-source GIMP, but I always keep coming back to Photoshop.

The one thing about Photoshop though, is that if you don’t have any grounding or help in using the software, it’s really quite difficult to just pick up and use — I blame it on the fact that the software originally began life on Apple’s Macintosh computers, which require you to know many keyboard shortcuts.

With the Photoshop CS4 Extended, Adobe is taking a few steps to rectify this situation, although it still has to be familiar to the core professional users which I think make up most of its customers.

Of course, being easier to use is not the only thing Creative Suite 4 has — the suite features more stuff than ever before and the full package comes jam-packed with so much that it’ll make your head spin.

In fact, the Adobe Creative Suite 4 Master Collection we got has added loads of other applications as well, including colour calibration software and even video editing tools, which are beyond my core competence.

Even if I could review them, they would take up all the pages of this newspaper to cover it. Therefore, I’ll just concentrate on Photoshop CS4 and its changes since the last version.

The interface

One complaint I had with the previous iteration of Photoshop was that the interface was apparently designed for larger widescreen monitors and the toolboxes and the way they were displayed really took up a lot of space on older 17in monitors.

Well, I’m happy to report that Adobe seems to have realised this and Photoshop CS4 has done a few things to maximise viewing space for your images.

One such change is that much like Google Chrome, Photoshop CS4 for Windows has done away with the Windows Title Bar (the one that usually shows the title of the program at one end, and the minimise, maximise and close buttons at the other) and integrated some common Photoshop tools into the Menu bar (the one that has File, Open, etc) below it.

This doesn’t sound like a lot but coupled with a few changes to the toolbars and dock, it does gain you a quite a bit of viewing area for your images.

Another tweak to the interface is that multiple open image files are now ordered tabs instead of floating windows.

Some users may not like this, but I personally found it a good feature as it makes it easier to switch between different open files and compare them, especially when you have a particular zoom level set.

Floating windows tended to obscure other windows behind them and this wasn’t so great when you have to quickly switch between them.

Although it appeared in previous versions of Photoshop before, the Workspaces option on the top right hand corner of Photoshop CS4 has been improved.

It now not only displays different tools in workspace, but menu items only show the relevant tools for the current workspace.

This makes for a much cleaner (and more customisable) interface — of course, hidden items can be shown again with a simple mouse click.

I work with Adjustment Layers a lot — it’s one of the most powerful features in Photoshop’s arsenal and allows you to make selective and reversible adjustments to your image (such as Levels, Saturation, etc) and apply them in layers.

While previous versions of Photoshop had you double-click on an Adjustment Layer to bring up the settings menu of that layer, Photoshop CS4 now puts it front and centre, with each Adjustment Layer having its settings displayed in the Photoshop Panel (the toolbox on the right) as its own tab.

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SEAMLESS PANORAMA: Although not new in Photoshop CS4, the Photomerge has been made even better with more advanced automated analysis and blending.

Although this feature isn’t new in Photoshop CS4, it’s also worth mentioning that since Photoshop CS3, the automated Photomerge feature to create panoramic images has become an extremely powerful tool.

Using Photomerge, Photoshop CS4 (and CS3) can examine shots and blend them together into a seamless panorama, even managing to recognise when elements such as people have moved from frame to frame and then stitching the images together so that each person appears only once in the final image.

Photoshop CS4 has added even better vignetting and geometric distortion correction plus the ability to more easily create 360 panoramas so this feature is even more powerful than before.

If you thought making 360° panoramas was cool, Photoshop CS4 has a new feature which will allow you to merge several photos together of the same subject but with different focal points into a single photo with extended depth of field.

For example, if you’re shooting a close up of an object, but find that the area of focus is really very shallow, Photoshop CS4 allows you to shoot a number of shots, each focussing on a different area and merge them all using the Auto-Align and Auto-Blend into a single photo with extended depth of field.

Adobe Bridge

Adobe Bridge CS4, the file browsing and management application that comes with Creative Suite 4, has had a couple of tweaks as well.

Ever since Creative Suite 3, Bridge looks a lot like Adobe Lightroom and has workspaces which allow you to switch between a maximised thumbnail view, metadata editing, light table view amongst others.

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MORE DEPTH: Photoshop CS4’s Merge and Blend allows you to blend several shots of the same subject with different focal points into one photo with extended depth-of-field.

Bridge CS4 adds a new Output workspace which adds controls for creating PDF contact sheets or a web photo gallery.

I’ve also noticed that startup and display of thumbnails is noticeably faster compared with previous versions, which is good, because browsing was pretty slow on Bridge CS3.

Oh yes, Bridge CS4 can even automatically order your photos in the Collections menu, based on certain criteria that you set.

One of the more unusual and interesting ones is an Auto-collect feature that will have Bridge CS4 analyse images in a particular folder and pick out images that could be grouped together to be used for a HDR (High Dynamic Range) image or stitched together to make a panorama.

This is particularly useful for me as I do shoot a lot of images specially for stitching into panoramic images, and although slow, the Auto-collect feature does help to pick out those images from a list of sometimes hundreds of photos that I usually have after a trip.

Camera RAW

Adobe has also updated the Camera RAW, the application that allows you to open and edit RAW image files from practically all camera brands.

Camera RAW in Creative Suite 4 has had various changes, mostly to come up to the same level as the Lightroom RAW editor.

One of the more interesting features is the ability to make localised adjustments to the RAW image — you just click on a point in the image you want to make a localised adjustment to and then adjust the sliders, which will only affect the area you selected.

These changes are of course non-destructive and can be reversed at any time.

There is even a pretty nifty spot removal tool which seems to be more intuitive than the main Photoshop CS4 Spot Healing Tool.

Hardware acceleration

One of the major new features of Photoshop CS4 for me is that for the first time, it takes advantage of the GPU (i.e. your graphics card) to perform some tasks.

The most obvious change with GPU acceleration is when you zoom in and out of your images (using the Ctrl and – key or + key) you get a completely smooth zoom.

In previous non-hardware accelerated versions of Photoshop, what you get when you zoom in and out was a wire frame that reflected how large or small or your next image is going to be. With Photoshop CS4, you can see the zoom happen as soon as you press the key combination.

Similarly, panning pictures works much like in an iPod touch/iPhone — if you have the Hand tool enabled, you can grab hold of an image and flick it any direction you want, and the image will pan smoothly and come to a stop depending on how aggressively you moved the image.

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SPEEDY: One of the more major changes in Adobe Bridge is that the application launches faster and displays thumbnails faster too.

There is another new little trick made possible by GPU acceleration.

When you hold down the H key together with the left mouse button, Photoshop CS4 will quickly zoom out to show you the entire image, and moving your cursor to any part of the image and then letting go the H key will get you back to the zoom level you were at before, but this time to where your cursor was pointing at.

A similar sleight of hand can be performed by holding down the R key and the left mouse button, which allows you to rotate your image to any angle for easier viewing. The rotation here is not permanent and is meant to make it easier to make a selection, for example. Any changes done will be saved, except for this arbitrary rotation.

It all sounds flashy, but believe me, it really makes working with images much easier, especially when, for example, you’re making a selection using the marquee tool.

Conclusion

As usual, every new generation of Photoshop puts the software even further ahead of its rivals, and Photoshop CS4 Extended is no exception.

While probably not revolutionary, Photoshop CS4 has hundreds of little tweaks and interface changes that together make up for quite a lot.

I for one, am very happy with how Adobe has concentrated on maximising the viewing space and still have all the important tools at your fingertips, something which I feel Creative Suite 3 had really taken a step backwards with in its panels and toolbox design.

In fact, there are so many little changes in Photoshop CS4 I have only barely scratched the surface of the number of new features you can find in it.

Of course, being that the software costs RM4,099 it’s probably not worth upgrading to if you’re a casual user who already has Photoshop CS3, but for an imaging professional, this is certainly a worthy upgrade.

Pros: GPU acceleration; improved menus; lots of small tweaks and new features.

Cons: Pricey.

Adobe Photoshop CS4 Extended

(Adobe Systems Inc)

System requirements: 1.8GHz processor or faster, 512MB RAM, 1GB HDD space, 1,024 x768-pixels display, 16-bit video card with OpenGL 2.0 and Shader Model 3.0 (or newer), QuickTime 7.2, Internet connection required.

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