Adobe Illustrator CS4 Review

Preview

I have been working with the new Illustrator CS4 everyday for the past week. To test out the functionality and new features of CS4, I worked on logos, illustrations, web designs and more. There are some great improvements in the CS4 version of Illustrator. What are the new functions? How do they work? Is it worth it to upgrade? I’ll answer these questions in my review of Illustrator CS4!

Adobe Illustrator CS4 Review

In the review that follows I highlight some of the new and most prominent features of Illustrator CS4. It is broken down into Workspace Tools, New Drawing and Coloring Tools, Improved Core Functionality, and Enhanced Integration at Export (these are the new feature listed on Illustrator CS4 help site, accessed through the New Feature link on Illustrator CS4′s Welcome Screen). After the short description of the new features in each category, I give you my take on it. Further down the review you can also see my concerns, performance review and if you should upgrade.

Below is a breakdown of the system that I installed Illustrator CS4 on. Also, the type of work that I have been creating when reviewing it.

  • I reviewed Illustrator CS4 on a 3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo iMac with 4 GB of ram running Mac OS 10.5.5.
  • The past week I have created logos, illustrations, and web design elements with Illustrator CS4. The files sizes have ranged from 196 kb to 120 mb

New Workspace Features

Multiple Artboards

Replacing the Crop Area tool, multiple artboards can create documents that contain up to 100 artboards of varying sizes. The artboards can overlap, appear side-by-side, and even stack on top of one another. You can also print, save, and export these artboards independently or together.

I have to say that I rarely used the Crop tool. So I am happy with the Multiple Artboard replacement. Having multiple artboards makes it much easier to work with multiple documents compared to previous versions of Illustrator. I usually need multiple documents for a project or illustration series. Being able to have these documents on one artboard is great. It is easy to create new artboards with the Artboard tool, adjust the size and placement and quickly crop the artboards with the Control Panel.

The only problem I ran into with the multiple artboards (I just might be missing the solution), is that you can’t change the numbering on the artboards. If I wanted to make the first artboard the third one, I can’t. Granted, you can drag the artwork from one board to another, but it would be easier if I could just number them differently.

Multiple Artboards

Tabbed Document Windows and Document Arrangement Panel

In the new CS4, you can display multiple documents in a tabbed view or orientate the documents side by side from the Arrange Documents window.

This new feature has drastically cleaned up my workspace. Before, I would have many floating windows all over my screen. Now I can navigate the tabs of my open documents or even display the open documents in a nice arrangement of my choosing.

Tabbed Document Windows and Document Arrangement Panel

Workspace Switcher and Application Bar

In the new CS4, there is an application bar. With the application bar you can quickly jump to different workspace configurations depending on your needs. You can also access Adobe Bridge from the application bar.

I have always liked using different workspaces for different projects. I have workspaces set up for illustration projects, logo projects, web design projects and so on. Placing the workspace switches on the Application Bar is a slight change, but it is a welcome one. It might just save you a few clicks, but over time that can amount to minutes or even hours. I can see how some people might not like the extra space it takes up , but you can easily remove bar if you want.

Workspace Switcher and Application Bar

Practical Smart Guides

In the new CS4, the smart guides are more practical. The appearance and behaviors are more unobtrusive and pop-ups will appear with alignment and measurement information.

The updates to the Smart Guides are great. Before the CS4 version the smart guides could sometimes get confusing and diminish my focus, but the new guides help in this respect.
Practical Smart Guides

Key Object Alignment

The new CS4 provides you with quick access to the key alignment option. A key object is the object you want the other object to align with. To specify and key object, select all objects and select the desired key object again.

Alignment is important for me when working in Illustrator. I’m glad Illustrator makes it easier to designate a key object to align the other object with. Ultimately, this has sped up aligning objects in Illustrator for me.

Key Object Alignment

New Drawing and Color Tools

Blob Brush

With the new Blob Brush you can draw paths that merge with existing artwork and draw paths that are fill only.

I was very excited when I learned about the Blob Brush after Adobe announced CS4. It has lived up to my expectations except in a couple regards.

First off, the ability to draw filled paths has sped up my work flow. Before I would create a Calligraphic Brush, draw the path, expand the appearance, and clean up the paths. With the Blob Brush, I only have to draw the path. Used in conjunction with a pen tablet, you can create some great fluid elements.

The only part of the Blob Brush the sometimes creates problems for me is the merging feature. With a Calligraphic brush, I can draw a bunch of overlapping paths and still be able to rotate, size and edit the path. With the Blob Brush, the paths are merged so I can’t change the size, orientation, and so on. I can still use the Calligraphic Brush in CS4, but it would nice to have the option of no merging with the Blob Brush.

Blob Brush

Expanded Gradients Panel and Tool

The new enhanced Gradient tool lets you interact with gradients on the object itself by adding or changing color stops, applying transparency to color stops, and changing the direction or angle of a linear or elliptical gradient. The Gradient panel has been updated as well. The Gradient panel now provides a menu of saved gradients, directly access color panels, and apply transparency to individual color spots, among other things.

The new Gradient tool and panel are amazing! These expanded features take a great deal of the guess work that came with creating and editing gradients in previous Illustrator versions. The ability to interact with the gradients directly on the object is more intuitive then playing around with the location and angle previously. Moreover, the Gradient Panel has the same great feature of editing that the tool does.

Expanded Gradients Panel and Tool

Transparency in Gradients

In the new CS4, you can define the opacity of individual colors in a gradient.

This is one of the most welcome improvements to Illustrator. Being able to create transparency in gradients makes it easier to create compelling drop shadows, vignettes, and more. Because of the updated Gradient panel and tool, editing the opacity of a certain color stop is easy.

Transparency in Gradients

Separations Preview Panel

In the new CS4, you can now preview separations before printing. Helping avoid color output errors, unexpected spot colors and unwanted overprinting.

This is another new feature that has finally came to Illustrator. No complaints here, the feature does what it says and has already helped me with a couple of projects. Having this feature saves me the trouble of opening an Illustrator file in another program just to see the separations.

Separations Preview Panel

Improve Core Functionality

Clipping Masks with Clear Simplified Appearance and Access

Clipping masks in CS4 now displays the masked area while you are moving and transforming a masked object. Double-click the masked object for isolation mode, where you can edit, and views the mask independently of all other object.

The updated clipping masks has already greatly improved my productivity and quieted frustration. If you have worked with multiple clipping mask objects and tried selecting object around them, you know what I mean. The isolation mode is a great feature as well. It makes editing the masked object much easier than before.

Clipping Masks with clear simplified appearance and access

Updated Appearance Panel

With the updated Appearance panel, you can view and use the enhanced full-featured controls including: effects, strokes, fills, and visibility.

I wasn’t excited about the updated Appearance Panel until I actually had time to play with. Now you can do a great deal of object editing in one panel. This helps the bouncing around from the stroke panel, to the color panel, to the swatch panel, and back and forth. The Appearance Panel is quickly becoming my favorite panel to work in.

Updated Appearance Panel

Enriched Graphic Styles Panel

The updated Graphic Styles panel provides you with a quick and easy way to view and apply styles to objects. You now have options to view the thumbnail preview as it would appear on text or on a selected object. Effect-only styles now display the outlines of the object on which the style was created.

Sometimes I have a Graphic Style with many effect-only elements. I love the fact that I can actually see the outline of the original object that it was applied to now. The thumbnail previews are a nice extra bonus I found myself using when applying Graphic Styles to text.

Enriched Graphic Styles Panel

Enhanced Integration at Export

Support for Flex Extensions

Efficiently deliver more editable, workable content to developers for web, interactive, and RIA projects.

I haven’t had to use these feature yet, so I can’t speak to the added functionality it brings. Still, added functionality is usually welcomed.

Multiple artboard Export Support

Multiple artboards now makes it easy to export multi-page documents. You can export artboards to any of the following formats: PDF, PSD, SWF, JPEG, PNG, TIFF or import a multiple artboard Illustrator file into Adobe InDesign or Adobe Flash.

The multiple export support is great. Testing the different formats I did not run into any problems. Exporting multiple artboards to a multiple page pdf has already saved me time and headaches. Moreover, when you save down to an earlier version of illustrator you can save each artboard as a separate file.

Multiple artboard export support

Performance

I did not do any benchmark testing with the new CS4 and older versions of Illustrator. However, I did not see any boost in speed when launching the application, opening documents, and overall performance. Likewise, didn’t see any downgrades in the performance. I am using a Mac so I would have loved to see the 64 bit integration that occurred in the Windows CS4 version. If any of you are working on Windows, have you seen a difference in the performance?

Bugs, Concerns, and Headaches

From using Illustrator over the past week I have only run into one little annoyance. I run into this problem when I use the Subtract and Intersect functions of the Pathfinder Panel. It used to be that I could create multiple objects, group them together, and Subtract or Intersect the group with another object. CS4 won’t let me do it. Illustrator will now subtract just the bottom most shape, not the grouped shape. Still, I have found a way around it. Instead of grouping the object together, I create a compound path out of the objects. Now when I Subtract or Intersect, it works fine. This is a little annoying because it adds an extra step. But, the new pathfinder panel takes out the step of having to expand the the shape after pressing one of the pathfinder functions. So I guess it equals out.

Bugs, Concerns, and Headaches

Conclusion

I’m happy with the upgrades and new features of CS4. In particular, the Gradient tool and panel upgrade, multiple artboards, and Appearance panel update have impressed me. These new functions have improved my productivity significantly, making it an essential upgrade for me.

Should You Upgrade?

illustrator CS4 has many compelling reason to upgrade. If you are a productivity freak like me, it will be worth it to upgrade. After only using CS4 for a week I have become more proficient in Illustrator. If you don’t care about speeding up your work flow, you might want to upgrade because of certain features. If you use gradients all the time in Illustrator, you should upgrade. If you work with projects that require a couple of documents, you should upgrade. CS4 has a little something for everyone, just check out the feature and see if it has something for you!

But…

If you are a “light” user of Illustrator, you are not clamoring for one of the new features in CS4, you don’t care about proficiency, or you do not have the money, you will not fall behind the curve if you don’t upgrade. If you are still using Illustrator 10 and below, now is a great time to upgrade.

Are You Going to Upgrade?

I’m curious to see how many readers are going to upgrade. Are you?!

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58 thoughts on “Adobe Illustrator CS4 Review

  1. Will I be upgrading? I can’t tell you how long I have been waiting for the blob brush and tabbed document windows! It’s probably been since I learned how to use Illustrator 9! I can’t wait until I get my copy to play around with

  2. Great review — one of the best I’ve seen so far. I’ve upgraded already and agree that from a productivity/workflow perspective, CS4 really helps speed things up. The gradients and the blob brush are just awesome.

    One issue I’ve noticed occurs when working in isolation mode. When using CS3, the eyedropper would collect the original color of “dimmed” artwork when working in isolation mode. Admittedly, I use the eyedropper quite often AND I use isolation mode pretty often as well, so this comes up for me a lot. In CS4, the dropper collects the dimmed color instead of the original, which is really frustrating. Honestly, does anyone really want to sample the dimmed version of a color? I sincerely hope this is just a bug.

    Also, really cool monsters in the sample images, Rype.

  3. The Key Object Alignment issue, however, is present since Illustrator CS2, if not even before. I used this for sure from CS2 and, actually, CS3. So it is not a new function inside CS4.

    ;)

  4. Great review!

    A small note for anyone interested in upgrading:
    Just trying out Illustrator CS4 and apart from not checking out any new features (yet), I was eager to test the famous “rj-graffix.com” path selection plugin (most notably it’s open and unfilled path selection capabilities). Sorry to say it doesn’t work in CS4 (hope RJ fixes the compatibility);/

  5. @Chris Leavens

    Thanks! Didn’t run into that bug yet. I going to check it out, this could get really annoying!

    @Domen Colja

    I ran into this as well. Rick Johnson is usually pretty good at updating his plugins quick. So hopefully it comes soon!

    CS4 gives you the option to select “Stray Points”, but not the other great selection options of the Select Menu Plugin.

    In the meantime you can open up the Document Info Panel, open the pop-up menu, and select Objects from the list. Select all of your objects and the Document Panel will show you how many open paths you have. This technique doesn’t compare to the Select Menu plugin, but it helps.

    When I was working in CS3 I was finding myself using the Select Menu Plugin less and less. Once you have selected all your open paths, you still have to close them. It is easier for me to use the Close Open Path script, http://www.williammpark.utvinternet.com/scripts.zip, to just close the paths. The good thing is, that this script still works in CS4

    Still, the Select Menu add more selection options other than “select all open paths”, so it is a great plugin!

    • How do I turn the duplicate file feature off? I save in CS4 and end up with a file and a duplicate file -01 appendage to the name. Can you help me. Thanks ,Kevin
      I love the gradient transparency feature. I love gradients in general but this is killer!

  6. yep, i’ll be upgrading… i’m still running 10 at home, but have had access to cs3 at a former job… so now i’m jonesing for the latest and greatest… maybe in a couple months for christmas!

  7. You can create editable Compound Shape with Path Finder panel holding Alt key when applying different modes.

    One thing I’m really missing is Clipping Area functionality while Exporting for the Web and Devices. It allowed to save for preview chosen areas of the work.

    Everything else works perfect. Improved Gradients and new Appearance panel are just amazing. You can also have separate masks for each Fill or Stroke now.

  8. Great article… great detail in your review. One of the more informed reviews I’ve read so far! :) Wasn’t sure about upgrading, but this swayed my decision. I like productivity perspective; I can totally identify with that.
    Thanks for this well written article.

  9. Pingback: VECTORTUTS
  10. I’m upgrading for sure!
    Why I’ll be upgrading is ceratinly because of the expanded gradient stuff. Finally you can change the opacity’s, seriously, FINALLY! And because of the blob brush. Two things that were seen in Flash for years. And I guess I’ve been waiting for these features since the first time I opened Illustrator, lol.
    The tabbed document view will fasten my flow up too.

  11. I think I know a big bug (and I say “I think” because maybe something in my work is wrong).

    When I export a 100×100 cm (cm because I am Spanish :)) poster to a PSD or PNG file, Illustrator advice me that there aren’t enough memory for do it.

    I’ve 4 GB of RAM and many space in the hard drive of my MacBook Pro, what’s the problem?

    Maybe I need more RAM memory? I don’t know…

  12. To make a large bitmap from a ai-file, and not get the out of memory error, you can do it as follows: Create a large new file in photoshop (100 x 100 cm 300 dpi) and than use , from the menu and select the ai-file.

  13. To make a large bitmap from a ai-file, and not get the out of memory error, you can do it as follows: Create a large new file in photoshop (100 x 100 cm 300 dpi) and than use File, Place from the menu and select the ai-file.

  14. Never has a new Adobe version been riddled with so many bugs. I actually have to trash everything and move back to CS3. How can something as fundamental as the PEN tool not work properly? Take a look: when you set up a constrain angle (command-K), the smart guides should automatically be reset along the specified guide. Not anymore! This is so fundamental to any kind of vector drawing and cartography, that this makes CS4 a REAL MISTAKE TO PURCHASE!

  15. Regarding Illustrator CS4

    Anyone who hails the new clipping mask behavior is clearly asking to be called a shortsighted amateur, the level of flexibility that allowed the “classic” clipping mask behavior was unparalleled by any other “alternative”, the isolate clipping mask (reminiscent of the edit powerclip feature that corel did have since the early 90′s) is not as efficient as selecting the clipping mask, selecting inverse (custom command command + i), locking everything else, doing your edit and then unlock all, all this without navigation menus or control clicks. CRAP NOW I CAN’T EVEN DIRECT SELECT STUFF OUTSIDE THE CLIPPING MASK PATH TO MAKE QUICK CHANGES WTF!!

    Some people says that the hide clipped artwork outlines is a nice feature, but what about the command + h function that we had in previous versions?

    Even to make simple operations like selecting a clipping mask FROM A GROUP OF OVERLAPPING CLIPPING MASKs now get all messed up, because now there is no way someone can tell what’s inside overlapping clipping masks!!! and NO THEY HAVEN’T FIXED THE GROUP RELEASE CLIPPING MASK BUG!!! so if i accidentally release the clipping mask (trying to know what belongs to where) without first direct selecting ONLY THE CLIPPING PATH and press cmd+shift+7 your artwork will also be releasing any other nested clipping mask that were inside the original clipping mask… then you UNDO and get ready for this: YOU ARTWORK TOTALLY DISAPPEARS!!!

    In trying to appeal a small non-power user base, adobe has really fucked it up with the professional, efficient-leaned user base in not including at least an “Use Classic Clipping mask behavior” option on the preferences…

    and NO THE EDIT CM CONTENT IS NOT ENOUGH TO MAKE IT UP FOR THIS BULLSHIT!!! THEY ARE ADDING 3 STEPS TO DO WHAT WE COULD DID WITH ONLY ONE, LESS CONTROL AND A LOT MORE HEADACHES

    THE ISOLATE/REAL CLIPPING MASK LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER BUT ON A PRODUCTIONS/DESIGN IT’S A COMPLETE PRODUCTIVITY KILLER.

    This ILLUSTRATOR UPDATE, BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT IT IS AN UPDATE, NOT A NEW VERSION really had it messed up in one of the most important and most used features of adobe illustrator, let’s hope the goons at adobe that had the “vision” to bring this “amazing new crippling feature” FIX THIS PROBLEM ASAP!!!.

    • riverini, you and I must have some similar workflow. I agree with you %100 on the mess that is the new way clipping masks works. I’m also not interested in the tabbed windows, but if you untab the windows in Windows, it completely breaks the interface. The document window actually floats above all pallets and toolbars! They’re basically forcing you to use it. With the Mac version, using untabbed windows is still workable. And on the mac version, tabbed windows is a huge disadvantage. The fastest way to switch between open documents within a single application was provided by the OS itself. This functionality is broken if you use tabbed windows in Illustrator or Photoshop. I’m going to skip this upgrade personally, my company made the upgrade immediately. I’m not using Photoshop CS3, and Illustrator CS4. Photoshop has much worse problems with CS4 than Illustrator. I’ll check back with CS5 I guess.

  16. You forgot to mention what masks look like in Outline view (Preview off). They show all the artwork, including the hidden parts.

    Yes, once again, Adobe introduces half of a new feature. What makes it worse of course is that every other competing drawing program has offered the complete feature for years (or, in Freehand’s case, decades).

    adobe had become the Microsoft of the graphics industry. They have a near monopoly on the industry, and their products keep getting bigger, more expensive, and worse.

  17. The overlapping anchorpoints bug from CS3 ist still here in CS4!

    By converting an outlined object into a solid object, you get multiple overlapping anchorpoints. You can pick these up with the white cursor.

    This also happens with the pathfinder tool.

    I know lots of people who reported this bug to Abobe when CS3 came out.

    We all hoped this would change in CS4 – It’s still here.

    So CS4 still has reported bugs from CS3. Hello, Adobe???…

  18. Thanks for your review! I’m a Photoshop user since times beginning and I always had Illustrator installed.
    Illustrator and Photoshop are old programs but in recent years Photoshop have picked up speed and become quite a modern application usability wise.
    In every new release I start up Illustrator and trying to use it for a couple of hours but always give up depending on its steep learning curve and its really awkward handling of easy tasks.
    I do not create vector based images much as you can tell but when need comes for it, as it does from time to time, it would be nice to use AI instead of all substitute apps I’m using now.
    So my question is; have Illustrator matured or is it the same old Illustrator as it always been usability wise?

  19. In response to Chris: ” Honestly, does anyone really want to sample the dimmed version of a color? I sincerely hope this is just a bug.”

    I don’t think it’s a bug, this behavior now matches the eyedropper on PS and fireworks. I petitioned for this change to be made for over a year and it makes me happy to see that they put it into place.

  20. I’m trying to find a good program for newsletters, invites, tickets, writing cookbooks, etc., can anyone recommend a program that would be good to use as a relative new beginner? thanks.

  21. @ Vanessabbott

    I suggest using InDesign for creating the collateral you are talking about. You can create this collateral in Illustrator, but you will find the InDesign tools much more suited for page layout.

  22. the one problem i find with ai cs4 for ,windows version atleast, is that there are no plug-ins for font auto-activation of all font manager softwares available yet. so for example im doing a document with several artboards and a lot of fonts on (doing design studies), next time i open the ai file i would have to manually activate every font i used on that document. takes the efficiency out of the game. but other than this problem i find ai cs4 very good. hope external companies can support this plug-in soon.

  23. The new illustrator cs4 features are just awesome, if you have some talent but still a newbie at the interface, things will be alot easier as soon as you learn the different functions.

    How do you all feel about the adobe illustrator cs4 regarding your computers performance ? Do you have a decent computer with more memory or more cpu power. What works best ?

  24. did they consider adding the blending mode option in gradient transparency? can`t see it on this sample provided.

  25. “But, the new pathfinder panel takes out the step of having to expand the the shape after pressing one of the pathfinder functions.”

    If you hold down the option key while pressing one of the pathfinder buttons it automatically expands the shape.

  26. I ‘m trying to create a new caligraphic brush and I’m going to calligraphic brushes panel, then I’m going to ”new brush” then I’m going to ”new calligraphic brush” and then apear the ”calligraphic brush options” but the options ”pressure, stylus wheel, Tilt, Bearing, Rotation” doesn’t fuction! They are deactivated! Why? How can I fix this?

    Thank you

  27. Hey there I just got illustrator cs4 and i was wondering if when you use your pen tablet does the pressure sensitivity work with any brush? b/c the pressure sensitivity on my wacom doesn’t work with illustrator but it does work with pscs4. i’m talkin like that is no line value at all everything i draw no matter how hard i press down is one single size

  28. Nice review, i’m curious to try the new gradients and smart guides they sure do sound great.. interact with the gradients instead of playing around with the location and angle .. that alone is a great reason to upgrade

    might get it done this weekend.

    thanks for the review bro

  29. I’ve just started to use this new version and so far like it!
    Love tabs, gradients and smart guides.
    I’m using windows XP (31 bits) and feel it works faster than CS3.
    The only problem I have is when saving as pdf. I open the file in pdf and vector graphics appear awful (like shaking). Maybe this is because I’m using trial version?

    I was hoping we can preview character from the character window in this version, just as displays on Mac, but this still is not possible in Windows :(

  30. Anyone familiar with doing scale downs for banners. I want to do a banner 6 X 20 feet and Illustrator art board only goes to 227 inches (13 inches short of 20 feet). I can do a scale down to 6 X 20 inches, but the printer recommends taking dpi up to 900. Anyone help on how to get dpi to 900 in illustrator. I am using CS4. Thanks in advance for helping this old man.

  31. Hi, Love your website!! I upgraded to CS4 recently, yes took me awhile :(

    I had in CS3 a plugin Select > Object > Open path, stray points, unfilled paths etc etc. But this is no longer working. I was wondering what do you use for CS4?

    Thanks!

  32. Have been using illustrator since it was…ahhh…illustrator 2, I believe. Have gone with the changes. Hadn’t upgraded for a while and used it mostly for small vectors and logos. I now have a job doing output for Super large format and they use illustrator for practically everything. So I have gone from CS where I haven’t spent a ton of time to CS4.
    Talk about out of the loop on things. I try to use keyboard commands that no longer seem to work. Workflow patterns that I have used for years are out the window. I hate the fact that when I save multi layers with a clip for the proof that I go back to edit I have this big multi grouped mess, that I have to screw around with to separate. Isolated is okay, but would just rather, ungroup the objects I want ungrouped and leave what I want where I want. I am slow as molasses, where I was once speedy.
    I guess it will take some getting used to, but my co-workers are not happy with the speed or lack of that I am working with. I am getting used to the tabs and the multi-art board is a nice feature but I think there are some they could do without.
    My biggest beef seems that when I am working on huge files I have problems selecting objects. I don’t know if it is buggy or I am just not doing something right, but it is really frustrating and yes I have had my artwork disappear as well. It a tight deadline driven environment this is not a good thing. I find that is getting clunky like Corel. Too many features and not enough pratical. If you are designing and drawing at your leisure, I guess it can be quite cool. But for large output it is giving me a regular butt ache.
    After all this and all these new features, why hasn’t adobe come up with a keyboard command for placing? It’s a trial, I will tell you that much. I hope I can keep my job long enough to say that I am back in the loop! No thanks to Adobe.

  33. Hello. Can anybody help? How come if you subtract two object, there is a slight difference (about 1 or 2 px) between the artwork after and before the subtraction? I mean is it the precision in subtract-pathfinder-tool problem? Thanks

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