Adobe Illustrator CS2 Beta

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Adobe Illustrator CS2 Beta

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This pricey, but powerful illustration program shines as a component of Adobe's Creative Suite 2.0

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It's not often that a single new tool can genuinely transform how you use an application - especially a program as venerable as Adobe's Illustrator (a vector-drawing mainstay since 1987). But if your digital art projects ever begin with a scanned traditional drawing, Illustrator CS2's Live Trace feature really does change everything. Live Trace and a related feature called Live Paint are the most interesting new tricks in an upgrade that adds lots of worthwhile stuff, though it also leaves a few things undone.

With a single click, Live Trace can turn an imported bitmap image into vectors that you can edit just as if you'd created them from scratch in Illustrator. That's a huge advance over previous versions, which offered only a rudimentary Auto Trace feature. And it finally renders Streamline, Adobe's aging stand-alone tracing utility, officially obsolete.

What's most impressive about Live Trace, though, isn't how easy it is, but how good the results are: It replicates traditional line drawings as vector illustrations with remarkable precision. (A sketch I did with a ballpoint pen still looked pleasingly scratchy as a Live Trace vector image.) You can fiddle with Live Trace's settings if need be, but I rarely had to, since it produced beautiful results with the default options. Adobe brags that Live Trace's handiwork "rivals that of the most skilled Illustrator artist." Judging from my experience with the feature, that's no hype.

Normally, when you apply color to an Illustrator drawing, you're working with multiple layered objects, which quickly become unwieldy with complex graphics. Illustrator CS2's Live Paint takes a different approach by treating a drawing as a single object with multiple regions, each of which you can color separately. Among other things, this lets you add color to scanned black-and-white line drawings quickly and accurately.

Ingenious settings in Live Paint called Gap Options solve an age-old problem with scanned artwork whose lines don't all end in seamless intersections. In the past, such drawings were hard to color properly in an illustration program. But Gap Options can intelligently fill in broken lines for you, so the color doesn't spill out - or it can simply fill a shape with color as if the gap wasn't there at all.

Live Paint can also produce an attractive effect with drawings you've created from scratch in Illustrator, but it has one significant gotcha: It isn't compatible with all of Illustrator's other effects. For instance, if you use any of Illustrator's nifty brushstroke effects on a shape, and then convert the shape into a Live Paint object, the brushstroke will revert back to a plain line.

I usually could devise workarounds to get the effect I wanted. Still, doing so can get complicated - which flies in the face of Live Paint's goal of making things simpler.

Illustrator boasts a variety of other new capabilities, such as its ability to save artwork in new variants of the SVG file format, which are designed for cell-phone content. But beyond Live Trace and Live Paint, Adobe has mostly focused on making the program work better with Photoshop and other Creative Suite 2 applications. For example, you can pull up Photoshop's Effects Gallery from within Illustrator, letting you browse, apply, and tweak image filters on the fly. Illustrator CS2 also supports Photoshop's Layer Comp option, which lets you save multiple versions of an image in one file. Like Photoshop and the other CS2 apps, Illustrator uses Adobe's new Bridge application to wrangle media files. Bridge is powerful, but I found jumping back and forth between it and Illustrator to be somewhat unwieldy. (That may be less of an issue if the shipping version of Creative Suite is snappier than the beta I used.) I also found that Bridge didn't display SVG graphics properly, but Adobe says that this problem should be fixed in the shipping version of the software.

Illustrator CS2 doesn't just play better with Photoshop - it also looks more like it, thanks to its adoption of Photoshop's Control Palette. This context-sensitive toolbar provides quick access to appropriate settings and options for the tool you're using at the moment, letting you spend less time burrowing around in Illustrator's multiplicity of crowded palettes.

The Control Palette will help Illustrator newbies become productive more quickly, and even old pros should appreciate it. But it doesn't resolve all of Illustrator's usability issues (if you can figure out what the icon for Gap Options is supposed to represent, you're smarter than I am). All in all, CorelDraw still offers the friendliest interface among the major illustration programs.

Speaking of CorelDraw, both it and Macromedia Freehand cost less than Illustrator. Yet they both let you create multiple-page documents, something that Illustrator still can't do after 18 years. Nor does Adobe's app match its rivals' Visio-style features for rapidly constructing flow charts and other technical diagrams.

One last criticism: Illustrator's tools for creating 3D objects, introduced in the previous version, haven't changed. They're clever and useful as is, but there's plenty of room for improvement. (The rendering quality, for instance, remains relatively crude compared to full-blown 3D packages.) Ultimately, Illustrator CS2 is most impressive as part of Creative Suite 2. As an excellent artists' tool that's well integrated with Adobe's other programs, it really lives up to both the "Creative" and "Suite" parts of the proposition.

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