Illustrator CS5 Review

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This review supplements Illustrator CS5 First Impressions, which I wrote just after CS5 was announced. That article explains most of the new features in Illustrator CS5 like other reviews, but the goal of this article is to share my experience in the field with Illustrator CS5 and to tell what works and what doesn’t work for me.

Much more useful

In “First Impressions” I said I wasn’t sure Illustrator CS5 was a necessary upgrade, but some of the new tools have impressed me more and more since then. One thing I’ve learned to do is simplify my illustrations with variable-width strokes, replacing shapes made with the Pathfinder panel or shapes drawn freehand with the Pen tool. It takes some practice and sometimes the controls aren’t refined enough to get the exact shapes I want, but variable-width strokes can usually achieve what I want.

One trick in particular that I tried was to build the Nike logo with a single stroke. It’s a perfect candidate—a simple shape with a clear line connecting the two endpoints—but even then it was tough to achieve. The sharp turn in the brand is very hard for the variable-width stroke control to get without bending the turn on top of itself, but I was able to do it and I hope to publish a tutorial on this when I can.

Even though I still use the Pathfinder panel for a few things, I am using the Shape Builder tool more and more to combine objects. It’s very intuitive, well-designed and effective. Another major improvement for usability is artboard alignment. There’s no way I could go back to moving my artboards around manually and aligning them by typing in measurements! I’m also labeling my artboards now for organizational purposes.

One more feature that has proven really useful is the Perspective Grid, which I am really grateful for every time I create the illusion of depth. Snapping objects to the grid and moving them along a z-axis has really simplified the process of creating depth, and everything remains live so ease of use is not compromised. It does require handling the two perspective tools added to Illustrator CS5, and I think Illustrator has a huge array of tools as it is, but the benefits outweigh the learning curve.

Some features not as useful

I haven’t found Drawing Modes to be useful—I still prefer to move objects forward and backward rather than interrupt my flow to change modes. I’m trying to get used to Draw Inside but I still fall back on opacity masks, which feel most comfortable to me.

The Bristle Brush has also turned out to be something I don’t use very often, which has surprised me. It makes some excellent painterly effects and brings Illustrator closer to Photoshop and Corel Painter, but perhaps due to force of habit I still go to those apps for those effects and use Illustrator mostly to create logos, graphics and other hard-edged products. The Bristle Brush just hasn’t been compelling enough to make me skip Photoshop for those painterly brushstrokes. I am also wary of throwing that much transparency and objects at a commercial print job: the Bristle Brush really does produce a lot of transparency and that can tax even the most professional hardware.

Conclusion

The more I use Illustrator CS5, the more I find I like its new features. It seems like a really useful upgrade, and anyone who works a lot in Illustrator should at least get the 30-day trial. Many designers use Illustrator only for a few specific tasks, but even they could get some use out of variable-width strokes, perspective grid and the Shape Builder. These three features make fundamental Illustrator work faster and more productive.

Illustrator CS5
Adobe Systems
US$599/$199 upgrade
Rating: 9/10