Review: Adobe Creative Suite 3 Web Premium

Adobe CS3 Web Premium ReviewMacromedia's Studio and Adobe's Creative Suite have now finally combined, with Adobe launching no less than six different versions of their third edition of this popular series. This review focuses on CS3 Web Premium, aimed squarely at professional web designers. Let's take a look at the suite and the various modules within.

Installation of the entire suite takes well over half an hour or a Core 2 Duo system running Vista. Supplied on three CDs, it comes with applications, content and a very welcome training video CD, which thankfully is becoming more common. Within one or two hours you can quickly get up to speed with a visual tour - much better than the wafer thin quick guides so often supplied, or worse still where you have to buy the manual separately. The videos are concise and well targeted so you can watch only what you need to in order to get going.

CS3 does not take full advantage of Microsoft's new operating system by integrating the search facility within its applications. The ability to index text within filenames or even web pages, for example, would have been a significant benefit. While this could be made available as an update, most likely we'll see it in CS4.

So, let's take a look at the applications themselves:

Acrobat Professional
The most noticeably thing about Acrobat 8 is that the icons have all been given a lick of paint, so it's a little easier on the eye than its predecessor. There are more icons as well, which, in addition, display submenus when right-clicked. But the negative of this is that it steals screen real estate, which will be felt most by those running at lower screen resolutions. There are several new security features, including 128-bit encryption and the ability to remove sensitive information through the document. Adobe Reader users can add digital signatures  of the document creator has switch this facility on. Preflight checks have also been bolstered, solving many of the problems found in previous versions.

One downside is the preview mode which simply places two pages side by side. What's wrong with that I hear you cry? Well, when writing a book, page one appears on the right... Not according to Adobe. Page 1 is on the left. This won't drastically affect 99% of Acrobat Pro users, but there's 1% out there that'll be a bit miffed at this one. Adobe also still need to do some work on text editing. If you think you're going to edit text in the same way as in Illustrator or PhotoShop, think again. Editing a previously created PDF (admittedly from another source application) caused all manner of problems - delete some text and the paragraphs or line below go all over the place with no possibility to get them back in the same place. These are minor niggles, as most people will use Acrobat to create rather than edit.

Contribute
The baby sister to Dreamweaver, this is more one for the web designer's clients perhaps rather than an inclusion in the suite, as I can see many users never even running the application as they would exclusively use Dreamweaver. This is not a reflection on the program itself, though, as Contribute has always been a great tool for allowing non-HTML savvy users to edit pages previously built in Dreamweaver. Contribute's drag and drop philosophy has been extended and now includes a wide array of elements, from video to PayPal buttons! Content control is excellent - you can specify who has control to edit your site, and pages can be rolled back to previous versions in the event of an 'accident'. Contribute is one of those applications that, if you need it, it's the best in its class. If you don't have a need for it then don't install it. As the retail price on the standalone product is only £99 you can't feel too cheated on its inclusion.

Dreamweaver
As expected GoLive, Adobe's web editor has fallen in favour of Dreamweaver, which (at least in my eyes) has always been the superior product. GoLive is still available as a separate purchase, and Adobe have made various videos available online to wean GoLive users over from the dark side.

One of the biggest talking points in Dreamweaver CS3 has undoubtedly been Spry. This application framework allows drag and drop functionality to be added to a site with no programming skills required. These include form validation, interactive tables, special effects, CSS-powered dropdown menus, tabbed boxes and accordian displays. Some great demos of Spry can be seen here: http://labs.adobe.com/technologies/spry/demos/index.html.

Integration between Dreamweaver and other applications is excellent. For example you can copy and paste directly from PhotoShop, with Dreamweaver immediately providing you with a preview screen and options to set the output filesize, followed by where you want to save the file. Clicking on the PS icon in Properties when the outputted image is selected in Dreamweaver then opens up the PSD file, even though you converted it to a different file format! This integration spans all of the apps in the suite.

CSS support is now one of the driving forces behind DW's code generation. If you use the Design view exclusively then you can be confident that you will be automatically generating web compliant code. This can be verified using DW's validation tools, along with checking for accessible. As code accuracy and accessibility can account for higher web rankings this is not to be taken lightly. One minor niggle is that even if you have a separate style sheet associated with a page, if you then create a new style DW create a new <style> tag in the head section - why can't it place it in the separate style sheet and keep the code nice and lean?

It's even easier to add in Flash video to pages, and the code is also W3C compliant as DW places it into a separate javascript file. Users that cannot take full advantage of Flash itself can still convert videos using the Conversion program, which creates .FLV files that can be dropped straight onto a page. Adobe even kindly include several 'skins' with Play, Pause and slider controls.

Dreamweaver and Flash now benefit from Device Central - a way to test out sites designed for mobile platforms. Adobe has included many 'virtual' mobile phone setups, so you can see how the site will actually look on the handset.

Although for many Dreamweaver continues to be the preveribal sledgehammer to crack a nut you cannot deny the ease of use of the WYSIWYG interface combined with the power of the coding interface. It is a tool that any level of programmer can get into straight away and will continue to surprise them as they continue to work with it.

Fireworks
To me Fireworks has always been a poor man's PhotoShop, but in the last few versions it has become a considerable contender when creating web based graphics, mainly due to its tight integration with Dreamweaver. This has been furthered with seamless .PSD format support, keeping all of your PhotoShop effects when opening and editing in Fireworks. This support is two way. Adobe have continued with DW's sterling CSS support by applying this philosophy to Fireworks. All graphics designed can be previewed in HTML quickly, with all code being W3C compliant, including CSS powered menus. The interface has had a little bit of a polish too.

Fireworks also sports a new Pages panel, which allows you to create a complete working website structure, including pages, graphics and hyperlinks in a single file, all of which can be quickly previewed. As before you can create layers, but now these can be shared across pages. So, if you want, say, a company logo or menu on all pages it is now very easy to create this and maintain it from one reference point.

Scaling has now been improved to reduce distortion when enlarging or reducing objects. 9-slice scaling allows you to specify what part of the graphic to scale and what to preserve. What's impressive is that this scaling is passed from Fireworks to Flash when copying and pasting symboles.

Flash
Adobe has listened to the critics of Flash 8's speed and stripped the application to its core. As a result CS3 runs noticeably quicker - compiling a file that previously took 30 seconds in Flash 8 now takes less than 10 in CS3. As mention in some of the other modules, the integration is across the board, with cut and paste from the likes of Fireworks and Illustrator working seamlessly. Device Central, as mentioned in the Dreamweaver section above, is also present in Flash, which is more important as more more mobiles now support Flash Lite. As with Flash 8 a separate video encoding application is included, so you can compile a video and then drag/drop it from your library onto your scene. There are a number of small but significant improvements in Flash. When importing PSD files you can set the stage to be the same size as the PSD, and turn layers into key frames or movie clips. This means that you no longer have to convert them to objects and rename them layer by layer. Actionscript 3 will be a welcome edition to the coder writers out there, with many tools included to make life easier. Animations can be pasted into the Actions panel , where code can then be edited. Animations can also be saved in XML format. Thankfully the compiler and debugger has also been reworked, no in Java. When an error is located, double-clicking on the error in the debugger window will transport you to the errant section - a very useful addition, especially for complex Flash applications.

Illustrator
This is one of Adobe's products that also has a strong Mac following since its launch back in 1986, and Illustrator CS3, the 13th incarnation, does have a few new tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, performance has seen a boost. Now, let's face it, every developer says tha they've improved performance on applications, but with Illustrator this is noticeable. Opening files and redrawing complex artwork is significantly improved.

As with the other apps, the interface has seen a makeover, with the now commonplace dockable toolbars. These also take note of the screen resolution, with the most relevant content being displayed depending on available screen space. Colour management has also been enhanced, with a new tool called Colour Guide. This allows you to limit colours displayed within a certain number of variants, which does make it much easier for the eye to see what works and what doesn't. Adobe have also included a new feature called Live Colour, which takes this a stage further, providing you with a colour wheel showing all of the colours selected. You can then drag the points around on the colour wheel to get the right mix, with your image updating every time you let go of the left mouse button.

Integration with Flash is tighter, with more commonality when working with symbols. Many Illustrator users will be using it to create symbols that will later be used in Flash. For example, in addition to standard graphical symbols you can also specify that artwork will be instead used as part of a movie. There are several other Flash specific commands to make it much easier to create work in Illustrator before moving on to Flash. While many options will invariably be things that you can do in Flash, sometimes there is no time like the present, and everyone works in different ways, so the ability to apply information such as text instance name and rendering type when creating it initially rather than retrospectively will suit many a designer.

Other new features include document profiles, which will create a file within specific document configurations; one example is the Video and Film profile, which creates an RGB document at 1080p resolution. The new vector erase tool will be of benefit to tablet users, allowing the ability to erase vector-based graphics in the same way as the PhotoShop eraser tool. If you select an item it will intelligently only erase that, whereas if nothing is selected it will erase everything across all layers. Live Trace, first included in CS2 now allows you to ignore white areas of a black and white image, thus making them transparent.

PhotoShop
Finally we come to what many consider to be the industry standard in image editing - PhotoShop CS3. This is the 10th version of the application and the most noticeable improvement is that of performance. The application starts significantly quicker (about 30%) than its most recent predecessor. Once loaded you will note that the toolbars have the now familiar docking ability, in line with other applications. As usual Adobe have packed in a raft of features, some of which you'll quickly get used to and some of which will be of little interest. First up is the quick selection tool, which works in a similar way to the magic wand, but this works best when trying to remove a background that has a considerably different contrast to the foreground image. What is a welcome edition is the Refine Edges box that can be selected after your mask has been applied, which allows you to create a much smoother mask than was previously possible. 

 

Following on from the inclusion of smart objects in CS2, we now have Smart Filters. Smart Object allowed changes to be made to a layer without permanently modifying them. Filters can now be applied to smart objects. This allows multiple filters to be applied, enabled, disabled or placed in any order. Previous editions had the ability to stitch photos together to create a panoramic image. This process has been extended to now be called Auto Alignment of Layers, which allows two or more layers to be compared and then merged into a single, blended image. Several projection types are available, such as perspective, Cylindrical and Reposition Only, depending on how you want the final image to look.

One of the major strengths of PhotoShop has always been colour adjustment controls. Many of these have been enhanced, including the Brightness and Contrast control, with much improved results. A new Black and White function has been included which provides much more control over balance and contrast. The camera RAW converter has also been improved, not only in terms of performance but also in regards to tone and adjustment tools. It also supports the new high end HDR standard. Adobe Bridge, the image orgnaisiation tool which also ships with the standalone copy of PhotoShop has also had a makeover.

Summary
Many people had concerns after Macromedia were acquired by Adobe, but CS3 proves that they had no need to be. The applications prove stable and provide seamless integration, especially when passing information between them that previously would have required conversion to 3rd party formats. Although each application still contains the identity of its past, which is good for upgraders, there is still a little way to go to provide a seamless look and feel across the applications, although this in itself is not really a major issue, more an observation and most noticeable in Adobe's most recently acquired Macromedia products (e.g. Dreamweaver, Flash and Contribute). It appears that Adobe keep the prices of individual applications high in order to make the suites more attractive, which they are. In short, CS3 marks a significant improvement over previous releases and the bundle does provide value for money if you are planning to take advantage of most of the included applications. The only reason that this review stops short of a full 5 stars is that for some it may still prove a little too expensive when compared to competing suites or applications.

 

Pros: Excellent integration between products. Includes industry leading products such as PhotoShop and Dreamweaver. Much cheaper than buying applications separately.

Cons: Prohibitively expensive for some. Steep learning curve for applications such as Flash and PhotoShop.