REVIEW: Illustrator CS4 Reveals Multiple Improvements

Appearance improvements and graphic styles

The other efficiency improvement that I am thankful for is the revised Appearance panel. I’ve always been surprised by the number of designers who don’t know what the Appearance panel is for—the panel is essential for handling multiple strokes and fills. The panel has been revised to the point that it’s now comparable to Photoshop’s Layers panel, except it coordinates object elements instead of document layers.

Illustrator CS4 Appearance panel

The Appearance and Graphic Styles panels together allow good control over styling objects with a variety of strokes, fills and effects.

As with the Appearance panel in previous versions, you can add new strokes, fills and effects or revise existing ones. Now you can also enable and disable any of these on the fly, and the Select –> Same menu allows you to select objects with the same appearance or appearance attributes. The panel has also been enhanced with attribute links so you don’t have to double-click them to revise them. These are small improvements but very helpful. I’ve always recommended designers keep their Appearance panel visible at all times, and now it’s even more important.

Because of the Appearance panel improvements, graphic styles are now easier to handle as well. Designers can select an object with a graphic style and revise that style with the Appearance panel. Moreover, graphic styles can now be added to objects in combination—which opens up a world of complex styles based on smaller styles. Designers can build and maintain libraries of effect styles, color styles and such—and combine them with objects to create larger effects easily. This is the fundamental structure of other styling paradigms such as CSS in web design, and it could be very useful for organized designers.

Quick Tip: Press the Control key (Mac) or right mouse button (Windows) to view larger previews of your graphic styles in the Graphic Styles panel.

Other features: Separations Preview, clipping masks and Smart Guides

Illustrator CS4 clipping path

Clipping masks are more intuitive than ever—only the clipped area is shown.

There are a few other features new to Illustrator CS4:

  • The Separations Preview panel that InDesign has had for a few years makes its debut in Illustrator CS4. This is a handy tool for preflighting files before sending them to the printer.
  • Kuler and Live Color add some color combination tools, allowing some cool methods for recoloring artwork based on color schemes from the Kuler community.
  • Clipping masks now show just the clipped area, which is more intuitive for me. In the past I’ve tended to use opacity masks instead of clipping masks, but I may rethink my techniques due to this improvement.
  • Smart Guides have been tweaked to support artboard alignment, X-Y coordinate cursor displays (just like InDesign CS4) and guides that now align with object edges rather than the cursor itself.

Illustrator CS4 separation preview

The Separations Preview panel has been a part of InDesign for a long time. Now it’s a part of Illustrator CS4 as well.

These are all generally small tweaks that will benefit some users but don’t really get the attention of other groundbreaking features. I’d say that Illustrator CS4’s multiple artboard feature is the only new feature that really qualifies in that regard, though there are a few that make Illustrator CS4 a clear step beyond its predecessor.


Illustrator CS4 is a nice upgrade, but I’m not sure it justifies its cost. It makes more sense for Creative Suite users, who can consider the improved features as part of the whole decision to upgrade to CS4. I am actually a little nostalgic for the days when a new version of Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign and other Adobe apps meant major new changes in the way I worked. The last Illustrator features that really got me excited were Live Paint and Live Color. Illustrator CS4 offers multiple artboards, which does get me excited, but the rest of the package is merely good—not great.

Adobe Illustrator CS4
Adobe Systems
Rating: 7/10
US$599/$199 upgrade

3 thoughts on “REVIEW: Illustrator CS4 Reveals Multiple Improvements”

  1. I’ve been wanting to upgrade, because all the new features are great (transparency gradients ftw!). But I’ve heard so many people complaining about the stability of ilcs4 >.>

  2. I haven’t experienced much instability myself. The one thing that irks me (and I didn’t mention this in my reviews) is the fact that these apps take time to launch and they also have a tendency to hang when quitting during my computer shutdown process. I actually think what’s happening is when multiple CS4 apps are quitting at the same time, they take so long that the computer thinks they’re hanging. I am on a 3-year-old MacBook Pro so it might be my computer to blame—CS4 requires a lot of resources to run.

  3. Yeah, CS4 is a resource-heavy set of applications. But I haven’t had a lot of problems with the applications hanging.

    Try adding a bit more RAM, if you have the room to do so. 4 gigs is the absolute minimum I would suggest having, and if you’re on a mac or a windows machine with a 64 bit version of windows, having 8 gigs is my recommendation.

Comments are closed.