The rumor is true: Adobe has updated two flagship products for the ultra-high-resolution Retina Display screens. Photoshop CS6 and Illustrator CS6 is now capable of high-resolution graphics on Retina displays (such as those on the newest MacBook Pro models); Creative Cloud subscribers can log in and grab the update immediately as of 9PM PST/12AM EST, yet another bonus for users who subscribe through the Creative Cloud.
I’ve been running the Retina-capable Photoshop CS6 for several days now and the product works well–the user interface is sharp and clear, and views at various zoom settings work as expected. I wish Adobe was able to push this update sooner than this–the Retina models have been on the market for almost six months now–but I’m happy to see it here now.
Adobe probably has more in store for us today: their “Create Now” event to be broadcasted live on December 11 at noon CST says we’ll “explore what’s next in Creative Cloud.” I bet we will see more new features, or perhaps a Creative Cloud offering for enterprise clients (which has been often requested.) Click here to see the “Create Now” livecast on Facebook.
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.
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.
Adobe Illustrator CS5, a part of all Creative Suite 5 (CS5) suites announced today, was the first beta application I tested for Adobe several months ago and I’ve used it all this time in my professional workflow. The application is stable and has some nice new features and improvements to existing features, but I’m not sure if it is an essential upgrade.
Some new features are extensions of old features
CS4 was a notable release because many product teams focused on productivity enhancements and “making things easier” for users. Adobe began to promote this approach about halfway through CS4′s product cycle. I think the Illustrator CS5 product team has maintained this approach, because several new features in Illustrator CS5 are improvements to old features or provide new ways of doing things.
One example is the addition of Drawing Modes, which allow you to draw behind or inside objects. There are three modes:
Draw Normal, which is default behavior,
Draw Behind, which draws behind a selected object, and
Draw Inside, which will put strokes and placed objects inside an object.
Draw Behind is not particularly useful, and I tend to go back to my usual behavior of moving objects to the back if needed. Draw Inside is a lot more useful but you can do the same thing with clipping masks or opacity masks. I happen to not like working with clipping masks so Draw Inside is a positive addition to Illustrator, and I think others will agree, but it’s not one of those jaw-dropping features we have come to expect from Adobe. It’s really a productivity enhancement.
Another example are the enhancements made to artboards, which was the killer feature introduced in Illustrator CS4. I use artboards regularly as an organization tool for my work but Illustrator CS4 does not make it easy to align or organize artboards. Illustrator CS5 has improved the artboard feature with an Artboards panel where you can rename, reorder and rearrange artboards pretty easily with just a panel menu command or a dialog box. You can also rename artboards in the Artboard tool’s Options bar. These are all welcome improvements to an existing feature, and it makes handling artboards easier without changing artboards’ basic functions.
Probably the most dramatic tool designed to improve an existing feature is the Shape Builder tool, which duplicates what one can do with the Pathfinder’s Add and Subtract buttons. The Pathfinder panel is powerful but disappointingly complicated. The Shape Builder tool will combine or exclude shapes with a simple drag, and it’s fast and intuitive. It can take a little time to master but it’s worth learning, and it will also lessen the need for clipping masks to hide objects.
Perspective drawing might be the most dazzling new feature in Illustrator CS5. 1-, 2- and 3-point linear perspective grids can be produced and drawn upon for building three-dimensional drawings. You can drag and drop two-dimensional shapes and drawings onto grids and they’ll conform to the right perspective, and it’s fun to build three-dimensional drawings so easily with perspective grids. Everything remains live so you can edit shapes and even text, but you have to be careful: if you use the regular Selection tool to resize perspective-enhanced text it will be expanded and you’ll lose edibility. A Perspective Grid tool and Perspective Selection tool are available to handle perspective-enhanced objects.
It blows my mind that Illustrator can now widen and narrow specific points in a stroke! The new Width tool can change the width of points on a stroke so multi-width shapes can be built with just one stroke. I really like this feature because I often draw organic shapes that can’t be produced with the Pathfinder panel and can be comprised of just one multi-width stroke. A good example is a stroke that’s pointed on one end: in Illustrator CS4, a combination of stroke outlining and point manipulation is needed to produce this. The Width tool can do the same thing with just one drag.
There’s also some improvements to arrowheads and dashed line control in the Stroke panel that help users fine-tune the positioning of arrowheads and dashes around endpoints and corners. This is another example of a feature that is helpful but is really an extension of long-standing features.
The Bristle Brush: Beautiful art done quickly
Photoshop CS5 has introduced brush tips to its painting engine, making it a better application for fine art painting. Illustrator CS5, being a vector art application, doesn’t handle painting the same way but it tries to mimic the look of painting with a new Bristle Brush brush type. A variety of round, pointed and fan brushes are available with settings for brush length, density, paint load and opacity. Illustrator CS5 recreates the look of paint by overlaying multiple strokes of various opacities to create a blended and shaded strokes of color.
I like the Bristle Brushes, not really because they recreate a painterly look (Painter and Photoshop are superior in that regard) but because the results are very pretty. Illustrator graphics tend to be flat and blocky, but the Bristle Brush can make very nuanced and shaded artwork quickly. I will be curious to see how easy it is to actually print Bristle Brush art in the final version, because I fear so much transparency and overlaying strokes may make it hard for a RIP or a printer to handle, but on the screen the results are striking.
Illustrator CS5 might be an exciting upgrade for some and not worth the money for others. I was surprised how many features are enhancements to existing features or rely on other applications like Flash Catalyst CS5. My favorite new features are the Shape Builder and the Width tools, with the perspective drawing features a close second. I will be writing a full review of Illustrator CS5 when the final product is shipped.
The UK-based developer Serif has released DrawPlus X3, the latest version of their drawing application that most closely resembles Adobe’s Illustrator and the defunct Freehand. Unlike those programs, DrawPlus X3 has also taken after Photoshop Elements and other applications that help users along with wizards, visual aids and step-by-step instructions built into the application, making this product a good selection for amateur and prosumer users who do not need the Adobe standard.
Working with EPS and other formats
The new version of DrawPlus X3 works with more image formats including Microsoft’s HD Photo format, EPS and Illustrator (AI). I have never used the HD Photo format and it surprises me given that DrawPlus X3 is a drawing application. The additions of EPS and AI are much more pleasing, since they are two of three of Adobe’s major vector image formats (the other being PDF). I imported an Illustrator CS3, Illustrator CS3 EPS, and PDF saved with the Illustrator Default preset and DrawPlus X3 did not have a problem importing the data. I was able to work with points (called “nodes” in DrawPlus X3) but one shape using a compound path could not be edited in any of the three formats. It’s handy to import Illustrator and EPS artwork but illustrators who want to import complex artwork should expect difficulties.
AutoTrace = Live Trace
DrawPlus X3 introduces AutoTrace, a module that will trace bitmap graphics and convert them to vectors. This technology has been in Illustrator for a few years, dubbed Live Trace; before that, Adobe produced an application called Streamline for this purpose. Converting bitmaps to vectors is a very helpful feature, so AutoTrace is a great addition to DrawPlus. The interface is straightforward and presets can be saved in one of three modes: logo, black/white and color.
AutoTrace offers fewer controls than Live Trace and it seems harder to get great results. I missed the presets that ship with Illustrator and Live Trace: I often use them as a starting point and fine-tune the controls to perfect the trace, but with AutoTrace I was searching for the right sliders to achieve good results. Part of the problem might be the sliders’ labels and icons, which I didn’t always understand. I also wished AutoTrace would preview the trace on the full-sized image rather than a small preview thumbnail. Quick tip: you can preview on the large image by clicking the Trace button, though you have to click to re-render every time settings are changed.
Head to the Image Cutout Studio
Another major addition to DrawPlus X3 is the Image Cutout Studio, which most closely resembles Photoshop‘s Extract filter, which was actually retired when Photoshop CS4 was released. Image Cutout Studio is a simplified version of Extract that doesn’t require tedious highlighting of edges, but that is what made Extract such a precise extracting filter. Instead, Image Cutout Studio employs Keep and Discard Brush tools that are more like Photoshop’s Magic Eraser tool—click a background with the Discard Brush tool and it goes away. A Tolerance setting controls its sensitivity. Once everything is extracted, you can preview the results, fine-tune the edges with more brush tools and output as an alpha mask or vector mask.
I found that, even though previews within Image Cutout Studio suggest less than perfect results, extracted images look great in DrawPlus X3. Image Cutout Studio did have difficulty with images with fine details, such as hair, and subjects whose color was close to the background. However, Photoshop CS4′s eraser tools have the same problems. The old Extract filter is the only tool I’ve used that could handle such images well, other than third-party plug-ins such as Corel’s KnockOut 2.
An interesting new addition is not in the application itself but online: DrawPlus.com has become a “community website” where DrawPlus users can upload their artwork, rate their and others’ art, make comments and search in various ways. I’m disappointed the website is built with Silverlight—it’s definitely not as ubiquitous as Flash, especially in the Macintosh market—but it doesn’t surprise me since DrawPlus uses several Microsoft technologies such as the Windows Metafile and HD Photo formats.
If anyone doubts that professional results can be created with DrawPlus, visit DrawPlus.com and see the artwork that’s been posted: some of the artwork could be better, but there are also some excellent photorealistic illustrations and creative artwork!
New design additions
Serif has added some nice new spray brush strokes to DrawPlus X3, including airbrush, grungy and special effect strokes that look really good. I think the best application of these is to create textures with the Grunge family of brushes: a swirl of paint with these strokes will make a very nice texture for use in other applications or within DrawPlus. The Special Effects family is also fun to play with but the presets aren’t particularly useful for my daily work.
Some new overlays have also been added in order to aid the designer: a Rule of Thirds grid, which creates a simple 3×3 grid, and a Divine Proportions grid that creates a Fibonacci spiral, considered a harmonious basis for many designs and layouts. Experienced designers may not find these particularly useful but novices could find them very useful.
There are a variety of other new features for the designer, including:
A Crop Tool that allows position, rotation and shape changes in the middle of the cropping procedure. It even can apply a Rule of Thirds grid to the crop window so it’s easy to know the most harmonious places to crop.
Brush outlines can be stroked or textured.
New 2D and 3D filters that can apply blur, reflection maps and lighting effects. These have been around in Photoshop for many years.
Specific areas in a document can be exported with the Export Optimizer. Photoshop and Fireworks have better bitmap image optimizing interfaces but DrawPlus X3 has all the basic functions and the option of exporting a section of an image is appealing to me.
The new Arrange tab allows for basic arranging, rotation and reflection of elements. Again, this has been available in Adobe products for several years.
I keep coming back again and again to the fact that DrawPlus X3 has added features that are already familiar to Photoshop and Illustrator users. One could chide Serif for basically playing catch-up, but improvement is not a bad thing. DrawPlus is borrowing ideas from good products and has matured into a solid application for prosumers.
Last fall Adobe Systems released Creative Suite 4 (CS4) to good reviews, which was good news to Adobe since CS4 represents the bulk of their creative pro software products and includes industry standards such as Photoshop, After Effects and Flash. Adobe stayed true to their traditional upgrade cycle and released all the CS4 products simultaneously, 18 months after CS3 was released.
But over the past few years, the 18-month product cycle has forced Adobe to release upgrades that haven’t had as many groundbreaking features as those in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many CS4 applications saw more improvements in efficiency and productivity as fewer new tools and cool technologies have been included. In my reviews Iconsideredthisshiftdetrimental, but according to third-party research commissioned by Adobe productivity may very well be the “new killer feature” that delivers tangible savings to CS4 users.
Adobe commissioned Pfeiffer Consulting, an independent technology research institute, to benchmark the productivity capabilities of CS4 and compare them to CS3 to measure productivity gains. More than 125 benchmarks were conducted across the design, web, video and digital imaging (Photoshop and Lightroom) segments and tested a variety of large and small real-world tasks and assignments including:
Making simple adjustments with Photoshop CS4‘s Adjustments panel,
Dave Burkett, Adobe’s Vice President and General Manager for Creative Suite – Design and Web Segments, said the goal of CS4′s productivity capabilities was to improve “deep usability”—refinements of the small steps designers execute every day in their daily work. “When developing Creative Suite 4 we paid close attention to our customers’ needs and pinpointed common tasks that matter most to them. We then focused on adding features and improving upon existing features in order to make those tasks more intuitive and less repetitive. Put simply, it now takes less clicks to achieve the same results.” Andreas Pfeiffer, who conducted the research, wrote that “the cumulative effect of small productivity gains in everyday operations is almost universally underestimated.”
The benchmarks were performed by professional designers and measured by researchers. No scripting or automation was used. The research does not take into account the time and money spent in training, installation and continued learning after the initial purchase, since such investments apply to previous versions of Creative Suite and don’t affect the measurements in productivity. For more information about the benchmark methodology, visit www.pfeifferconsulting.com.
Pfeiffer found that “CS4 increases efficiency in a vast variety of operations, including many routine, everyday production tasks.” In particular, the following CS4 features provided substantial time savings:
InDesign CS4′s Live Preflight,
Dreamweaver CS4′s Live View and Live Code,
Photoshop CS4′s Adjustments and Masks panels,
Tapeless video support in Premiere Pro CS4, and
CSS export from Fireworks CS4.
As an example, Illustrator CS4′s multiple artboards feature allowed designers to consolidate related projects in one file and become more efficient when experimenting with color palettes and designs. I’ve been using multiple artboards myself in my design business: handling one or two Illustrator CS4 files is a lot easier than handling one file for every illustration. I work with a lot of logos and brands, which often have several versions for size and color, and multiple artboards help me organize my clients’ branding. Burkett commented that multiple artboards, according to the research, can save designers three hours per month.
Other examples, such as InDesign CS4′s Live Preflight, save time and money fixing printing errors by intercepting them early—research found that Live Preflight helped designers find and fix errors twice as fast than with InDesign CS3. Live Preflight is one of my favorite CS4 features because I haven’t had to mess with preflighting at the end of a project like I used to—violations are flagged immediately and I can fix them right away. Photoshop CS4′s Adjustments panel and Dreamweaver CS4′s Live View and Live Code features were shown to offer similar speed improvements.
CS4 was also designed with multiple media content delivery in mind, and is the first Creative Suite to fully integrate Macromedia software (Flash, Dreamweaver and Fireworks) so Pfeiffer also analyzed cross-application features such as Photoshop Smart Object support in Dreamweaver CS4, Flash CS4 Professional’s abilities in handling After Effects and InDesign content, and Dynamic Link technology that integrates assets between the CS4 video applications.
So how much money does productivity save you? Pfeiffer’s analysis estimates show a substantial sum:
$5,753 saved with CS4 Design Premium compared to CS3 Design Premium
$10,563 saved with CS4 Web Premium compared to CS3 Web Premium
$11,404 saved with CS4 Production Premium compared to CS3 Production Premium
$4,020 saved with Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom 2 compared to Photoshop CS3 and Lightroom 1
Burkett commented, “Ensuring that time- and cost-saving benefits were built into our Creative Suite offerings was always a priority, but is even more vital right now given the current economy. Users can now complete everyday tasks in significantly less time, allowing designers and agencies of all sizes to come in under budget, deliver ahead of deadline and maximize time spent on the creative aspects of the project.”
I think CS4 is a major step ahead of CS3 when it comes to efficiency: it’s clear that many improvements in CS4 had efficiency improvements in mind. I’ve always thought this shift toward improving efficiency occurred because it’s become harder and harder to pack the upgrades with cool, exciting new tools when their toolsets are quite mature already. But it appears productivity might have been Adobe’s game plan all along.
As with many such objective findings in the industry, your mileage may vary. Photoshop CS4′s Adjustments panel was found to decrease the time making adjustments in half, but I actually do not like the feature: the new keyboard shortcuts are difficult and the panel is either too small to make adjustments or so large the panel strip takes up too much space. As another example, the research found Fireworks CS4 and Dreamweaver CS4 cuts down CSS creation and management time by over 80% but the CSS generated by Fireworks was not clean enough for my tastes and I still do quite a bit of coding in Dreamweaver.
But I am a fan of many other efficiency improvements, especially InDesign CS4′s Smart Guides and Live Preflight features and Dreamweaver CS4′s Live View feature. Flash CS4 Professional’s new object-based animation system, which was also cited as a major time-saving feature, can be difficult for experienced Flash users to get used to but does make sense in the long run. Ultimately, consumers should remember that Pfeiffer’s benchmarks were performed by experienced users of both CS3 and CS4—designers new to CS4 will have a harder time duplicating their level of efficiency—but, given training and experience, the time and cost savings could be substantial.
SIDEBAR: The Visionaire Group and Fast & Furious Show CS4’s Time Savings
Adobe is praising The Visionaire Group for leveraging the productivity benefits of CS4 in order to maximize the online campaign for the movie Fast and Furious. Universal Pictures, the studio that produced Fast and Furious, attributes the movie’s recent #1 position at the weekend box office to the online experience that sparked the enthusiasm of young car enthusiasts and hard-core moviegoers. An engaging Web site, rich-media advertisements, a downloadable desktop widget and a custom iPhone Web site were just some of the campaign’s key elements. J.P. Richards, vice president of marketing, said, “Our goal on Fast and Furious was to develop the most compelling creative content and Adobe Creative Suite 4 delivered way beyond my expectations, while doing it in half the development time.”
In an article published on Enhanced Online News, several CS4 features are called out including Flash CS4 Professional’s 3-D tools, a faster Adobe Media Encoder, Dreamweaver CS4’s Code Navigator and integrated Flash and AIR development with the Adobe Flash Platform.
In the current economic climate, such findings are sure to command attention. “In today’s economy more than ever, investments in software need to be justified by clear business reasons,” said Andreas Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Consulting. Adobe certainly showed good timing in paying close attention to efficiency and time-cost savings just before the recent economic downturn. According to Burkett, productivity improvement was a primary objective of the CS4 product line and it’s the first time product teams scrutinized this objective in such detail: “We took a new approach with CS4 and decided very early on in the development cycle to better understand how real-life projects could be enhanced with productivity improvements.” Customers were consulted to help pinpoint the most effective ways to improve workflow, and during development the product teams worked to improve raw performance and reduce steps required to complete a task. In some cases, the goal was to make it so users wouldn’t have to access a single panel to execute a command, although I’ve noticed that in some applications (such as Photoshop CS4) more commands have migrated to panels.
Even though productivity improvement was a primary goal, no metrics were developed internally to measure the applications’ success; despite this, Burkett and his team were pleased with the results. “We’re happy that these benchmarking tests were performed,” said Burkett, “as they allow us to gauge just how much of an improvement CS4 is over previous versions.” For more information on Pfeiffer Consulting, visit www.pfeifferconsulting.com. For more information on the CS4 ROI study, including the benchmark data, visit www.adobe.com/go/cs_productivity.
Can you believe Adobe Illustrator has reached version 14? It doesn’t seem too long ago that we designers were working with small-numbered applications such as Photoshop 6, InDesign 2, Quark 4 and others. Many of these are now consolidated under one company and into one homogenous Creative Suite. We should still keep in mind that Illustrator has been shipping for 21 years this month.
Illustrator’s longevity is one reason why I am somewhat disappointed with Illustrator CS4. There really is not a lot of groundbreaking new technology in the new release, and some of its new features are new to all CS4 applicationsâ€”the CS4 interface is a prime example. I really have not had a need for most of the new features found in Illustrator CS4, though most of them are useful and a few of them do push the envelope. One in particular is something that I’m now using with all my Illustrator files, and is something that more than a few designers will find earth-shattering.
While it’s frowned upon by most designers, there are still a lot of designers who create multi-page layouts in Illustrator. This is meant to be done in an actual page layout application like QuarkXPress or InDesign, but some people simply have made do with Illustrator over the years (it’s one of the few apps that can do both art and type fairly well) and cause grief for publication designers with their ads and page layouts.
I had always expected the Illustrator team to eventually allow multiple pages to accommodate these designers, since it’s clear these designers will never learn a second application when they can do it all in one. Illustrator CS4 comes close by introducing multiple artboards. Designed to be an efficiency aid, multiple artboards can be set up in one document to allow multiple deliverables or art to reside in one file. There’s a new Artboard tool for selecting, resizing and positioning artboards as well.
Illustrator CS4 allows for multiple artboards for multiple graphics.
Multiple artboards is the one great new feature in Illustrator CS4. I’ve used it to compile all my various logos in one single file, and I can place a selected artboard in InDesign CS4 so compatibility is not an issue. I have clients who maintain large libraries of logos, and now they can be compiled into one or a few Illustrator files. You can also print multiple artboards, which is a valuable ability, and artboards don’t have to be the same size. However, multiple artboards aren’t really designed to make Illustrator into InDesign or QuarkXPressâ€”artboards aren’t linked in any kind of pageflow structure. Think of them as separate Illustrator documents that just happen to be in one file. I don’t see multiple artboards as the final solution for the designers who use Illustrator for page layoutâ€”it will probably help, but in the end it’s still a kludge for them to do such work in Illustrator.
Multiple artboards can be exported as a multi-page PDF file.
The Blob Brush: Borrowed from Flash
The Blob Brush adds some realism to the painting/drawing experience.
Another improvement touted in Illustrator CS4 is the Blob Brush tool, which is supposed to recapture the fluidity of painting. You can brush with the tool and then use the Eraser and/or Smooth tools to tweak the resulting shape. The most interesting aspect of the Blob Brush tool is the fact that strokes will “blend in” with other shapes of the same color, creating a painterly feel. Those who are familiar with Flash know that its Brush tool has been behaving this way for years. The benefit of the Blob Brush tool is its painterly behavior in a vector-based drawing application, but most of what I do in Illustrator is drawing and drafting so I have not had a need for it. When I do paint, I stick with Photoshop and Painterâ€”but if I ever need to combine vector output and painterly styles, I will look to the Blob Brush tool to make it work.
A major advancement with gradients
Gradient controls are overlaid on gradient-filled objects for greater ease of use.
Most of what I like in Illustrator CS4 does not revolve around new paintbrushes or tools but efficiency enhancements. One of the latter is the new Gradient controls that appear on top of objects with applied gradients. I’ve always hated going back to the Gradient panel every time I use gradients, and now the same controls are available right on the object! Working with the controls take a little practice but they’re fairly self-explanatory and very forgiving with mistakes.
Another good development in Illustrator gradient technology is transparency control for individual gradient stops. With this, gradients can now fade anywhere. Photoshop has been doing this as long as I can remember, and only now has Illustrator caught up. The two applications handle transparency differently (Illustrator uses an Opacity slider, Photoshop uses “transparency stops”) but the end result is the same.