by Seth Rosenblatt / May 11, 2010
The bottom line: Photoshop CS5 greatly expands the toolset that Adobe offers in its flagship product, charting new ways to make image manipulation easier while making older tools work better than before. Don't worry about the lack of a new interface; the new ways to get your project done make this version a must.
Photoshop has been in the English lexicon as a term to edit images for a long time, but the latest version of Adobe's flagship program stretches the canvas of manipulation much further than ever before. The look of the program has changed so little from Photoshop CS4 that users of that version should be instantly comfortable with this major update, but Photoshop Creative Suite 5 Extended gives photographers, artists, designers, and LOLcats obsessives a stunning array of new tools. Among the new features in Adobe's flagship image-editing software are automatic lens corrections, High Dynamic Range toning, automated editing tools, and significant improvements to creating 3D images.
Installation and setup
Photoshop installation is straightforward, although it does require an Adobe account. Users can choose to purchase a license key immediately, which you will receive by e-mail, or try out the program for 30 days. When you receive your key, you can copy and paste the entire string directly from your e-mail into the first dialog box, and the other boxes will automatically populate. Both Photoshop CS 5 and the Extended come from the same 980MB installer for Windows, or 1.1GB on a Mac.
Depending on your Internet connection, Adobe says that users can expect download times of anywhere from 14 minutes on a corporate LAN to nearly 90 minutes on slower connections. On a Windows 7 computer with 2GB of RAM and a 2GHz processor on a T1, the download took around 40 minutes.
The Adobe installation process doesn't play well with Mozilla programs such as Firefox and Thunderbird, so those must be shut down before the installation can be finished. You can use other programs while installing, but CPU slowdowns are likely on many computers.
Adobe still refuses to have a Windows installation process that's respectful of standard program installation behavior. Associated program icons do not install into an Adobe folder in your Start menu, but are rather unceremoniously dumped into your Start menu's All Programs pane. First-time upgraders should note that Adobe will not override your previous installation of Photoshop, so you'll have to remove it manually. This may be annoying to some, but it's actually reasonable behavior given the cost of the program and the desire of many users to fully explore the trial. It would be nice if Photoshop came with a utility for removing previous versions, instead of having to go through the imperfect Windows uninstallation tool.
The installation and uninstallation frustrations aren't deal-breakers, obviously, but a little bit more attention here from Photoshop would result in a smoother process.
Unlike the dramatic interface overhaul that accompanied its predecessor, there's so little new to the look and feel of Photoshop CS5 that it's barely worth mentioning.
The Workspace switcher has been modified so that you can drag it out of the drop-down menu across the menubar. Doing so can push the menubar itself down to a second level, which might take up too much screen space for some people. Pre-existing workspaces can be deleted, custom ones added, and generally the workspace concept has gotten a bit more user-friendly.
Toolbox icons have been redrawn with a softer touch. This has the unfortunate effect of making them look mushy and out-of-focus against their gray background. At least the iconography is the same, so the spot healing brush tool still looks like a band-aid, but this was not a welcome change.
Despite lacking the aesthetic sensibility of its cousin Lightroom 3 (Windows|Mac), the overall layout of Photoshop remains consistent. It's not easy to use, nor is it hard to get used to the modular layout of adjustable panels. Further optional improvements can be made courtesy Adobe Labs' Configurator, for customizing some parts of the navigation. Although the CS4 interface improvements were appreciated, the UI is essentially mundane and in desperate need of refinement. It's sadly ironic that the premiere image editor looks like a cockpit.
Features and support
The new features in Photoshop CS5 completely sell the program. It's a bit hard to fathom that a program that's been around for 20 years continues to innovate and improve as much as Photoshop has, but this version of Photoshop, officially v12, doesn't just stretch itself here. It expands the limits of editing achievement, simplifying previously complex tasks and introducing new ones. It's not reinventing the wrench as much as it's making it do new things that everybody can immediately understand. This review won't cover all the new features and enhancements since there are more than three dozen feature changes alone, but we'll look at some of the best and most important.
The new Mini Bridge should directly affect every user's workflow. It opens a functional version of Adobe Bridge in a panel, speeding up processing by cutting down how often users have to jump out of the main Photoshop interface. Mini Bridge can be launched from the top of the interface to the right of the menubar, from the MB icon. As with any of Photoshop's panels, the Mini Bridge can be resized and moved around the window as needed.
On first launch, the Mini Bridge took longer than expected to read files before it could be used. After that initial sluggishness, it loaded smoothly, even after rebooting the computer. It was noticeably faster to launch images from either Bridge or Mini Bridge into Photoshop compared with the previous version, but sticking Bridge access directly into Photoshop is a long-overdue innovation.
Automatic Lens Correction automates a task that previously could be completed by hand only. As CNET has noted elsewhere, Adobe based the tool on close measurements of multiple camera bodies and lenses so that Photoshop can take over the time-consuming effort of removing barrel and pincushion distortion, darkened corners from vignetting, and colored fringe on the edge of images from chromatic aberration.
You can tell that Adobe expects this feature to be a big selling point because it's one of the few new features that comes bound to a hot key. Ctrl+Shift+R will bring up the lens correction panel, also accessible from the Filter menu. You can toggle on or off vignetting, chromatic aberration, and lens distortion correction, which are the three major fixes that the filter looks for; adjust how the filter affects the edge of the image; edit camera and lens profile search criteria; or create custom profiles. The camera profiles seemed to be limited in our testing to more-recent models. For example, the tool lacked profiles for Canon bodies older than the 50D.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing debuted back in CS2, but it's been greatly enhanced for this version. A new feature in the Merge to HDR panel called Remove Ghost will tidy up any minor alignment issues between your three HDR source images, and you can select which of the three images to base the final image on. The new HDR toning under Adjustments lets you fake that trendy HDR look without having to merge multiple images. This works fairly decently, but expect best results on images that have tricky lighting situations or are underexposed.
Content Aware Fill improves Photoshop's ability to intelligently replace part of an image with pixels derived from other, nearby colors, noise, and tone. The feature can be used as part of the spot healing brush tool for fine replacements, or lassoed selections to replace large or unusually shaped chunks from an image.
The feature introduces a redone method of resampling from the image. The differences between how the tool performs here versus in CS4 are not readily apparent since the changes in pixelation and accuracy depend too greatly on the situation. Tests with the spot healing brush revealed no differences to its CS4 predecessor, but that doesn't mean its not working. In general, it felt like there was less of a problem with incorrect sampling, but this wasn't really quantifiable, as it still occurred in some cases.
One of the most difficult Photoshop tricks has just gotten strikingly easier thanks to what Adobe calls "intelligent selection." It allows users to define a selected area, and then gently refine using the Refine option under the Select menu to more accurately include challenging selection areas such as fur, clouds, and feathers. It worked extremely well with hair, and slightly less so with the more discernible echidna spikes.
It sounds simple, but the introduction of the Smart Radius and Decontaminate colors functions in intelligent selection provides a stunning breadth of control during image masking. Following the tutorials for this is essential, because learning to do it right can impressively enhance your image control while cutting down on your workflow from CS4.
Puppet Warp sounds like it could be a filter to Muppetize people in your photo. It's actually a localized warping tool that gives you the ability to accurately recompose selected aspects of an image, such as changing a straight leg to bent. It can't add content where it hasn't existed, so it works best when used on a subject shot in profile, but the tool itself worked well.
Once you've created a selection, choose Puppet Warp from the Edit menu and apply pins where you want to create pivot points in the image. Playing around with them, you can stretch a selected area between two pins. Unlike the complicated intelligent selection, Puppet Warp took seconds to learn. Of all the new tools, this is probably the most fun to use. The tool may not appear to have much practical use, but it can easily lend itself to basic but creative 3D implementation without having to upgrade to Photoshop Extended.
Photoshop is not the best digital painting program around, but the new Mixer Brush and Bristle Tips features give it a much stronger easel to stand on. Briefly, the Mixer Brush lets you add multiple colors to a single brush tip and then blend them to whatever colors already exist on your canvas. Users can define how wet the canvas is, how fast paint gets re-added to the tip, the mix rate between brush and canvas colors, and whether the brush is refilled, cleaned, or both after each paint stroke. Bristle Tips provides similarly fine-tuned control over the brush tip, including shape, length, stiffness, thickness, angle, and spacing.
Although some photographers might swear otherwise, it's not necessary to use a tablet for photo editing. This was not the case with the new painting tools, where a standard mouse did not provide the kind of detailed control required to manipulate the tools properly. Still, by building out the painting options, Adobe's clearly trying to keep Photoshop competitive across all major disciplines.
Enhanced 3D tools remain the clearest difference between regular Photoshop and Photoshop CS5 Extended. If you don't need them, don't get the more expensive version. If you do, though, there are several notable new features. Adobe Repousse streamlines the process for converting 2D artwork into 3D, then provides a bucketload of options for altering the design. There's nothing revolutionary here except a reasonable, solid effort at reducing workflow. It's effective, and it's hard to argue with less than six steps to creating a 3D letterform.
Photoshop Extended users will get an equally quick workflow for adding realistic textures to 3D models. The program comes with a stack of textures, which users can edit and save as their own, as well as create custom textures from scratch and download new ones off the Web. There's also new options for introducing image-based lights for dynamic light sourcing on complex models, shadow capturing, and improved ray tracing. Much like the painting tools, the 3D options are not a full-on replacement for a 3D renderer, but they will do quite admirably for users looking to regularly add 3D pop to their art without having to shell out for a modeling suite.
Other changes include tweaks to everything from the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in to tool menus. Raw processing has earned itself some better tools for reducing noise, and adding vignettes and grain to give stills a more filmlike quality. The Raw tool in general also feels less jittery than its CS4 predecessor, and it now will automatically downsample your 16- or 32-bit raw image down to 8-bit JPEG when you save it. The relatively complicated process of straightening images has been replaced by a Straighten button in the Ruler tool. Throw in the Alt or Option key and you'll straighten without cropping. (Note that to fully undo the straighten, you have to go back through your Actions panel. Ctrl/Cmd+Z won't work.)
When cropping, you can add an overlay grid after you set your crop boundaries. You can now prevent the Sharpen tool from creating artifacts by using the Protect Detail option, copy colors as a hex number, and gain a modicum of collaborative tools via the deeper hooks to Adobe's online CS Review. This crosses over tightly with Illustrator (Windows|Mac), Premiere (Windows|Mac), and InDesign (Windows|Mac).
You can now change the opacity of more than one layer at a time, create layer masks from transparent layers, and use lens correction profiles when stitching using Auto-Align in Layers. Layer settings will also remember your previous settings.
Mac users will see some specific improvements for their computers. A 64-bit Photoshop is no longer a pipe dream, with a 32GB RAM ceiling. The Finder-to-Photoshop workflow finally supports drag-and-drop, and the Cmd+H hot key will ask you whether you want to hide Photoshop or hide Extras the first time you use it. Trackpad gestures can be disabled, too.
There's no doubt that the major features changes create a strong framework for CS5, but its the addition of these detail-oriented fixes that sell the picture of CS5 as an upgrade worth getting.
Photoshop support is available on several levels. There are the free Adobe-sponsored forums, FAQs, and knowledge base articles. Given Photoshop's popularity, these should be sufficient for individual users. However, Adobe also offers per-incident support that can range in cost from $29 to $249. Technical phone support is available Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. To 7 p.m. PST, and customer service phone support is available seven days a week during the same hours.
Though this may seem stingy, Photoshop's complexity is best-suited for users who don't mind learning stuff on their own or from a forum. The Help menu also comes with a direct link to Adobe's Photoshop Support Center, which provides an Adobe AIR-based interface for accessing Adobe's collection of how-tos and community advice.
For users who didn't make the jump to CS4, the new version of Photoshop will feel like it's got jet boots on. It opens faster, opens complex raw, PSD, and TIFF images faster, and processes faster. There are still noticeable lags during resource-intensive tasks, but without a doubt it feels like a better-performing version.
As noted above, CS5 is fully compatible with Mac x64, although it won't run on legacy PowerPC computers or any version of OS X older than 10.5.7. Windows XP users should have Service Pack 3, whereas Vista users are recommended to use at least Service Pack 1. Of course, Photoshop is compatible with Windows 7 as well. The minimum requirements for basic Photoshop CS5 and Photoshop CS5 Extended are fairly rigorous, so if you've got an older computer it's recommended that you make sure it's compatible before purchasing.
Benchmarks from CNET Labs will be added to the review when they become available.
Because of its position as the industry standard for professional image-editing and the use of its name as a colloquialism for all kinds of image manipulation, many users mistakenly believe that Photoshop is a must-have program. It's needed for professional work, but contains far too many tools, far too much power, and is far too complicated for casual use. Not convinced? Hopefully the $699 price tag ($199 for upgrades) will scare you off. There are effective alternatives to Photoshop, including Adobe's own Photoshop Elements (Windows|Mac), as well as a multitude of freeware.
That said, some photographers might not want to wait for the upcoming Lightroom 3. For them and others considering upgrading or buying new, there's simply no reason not to get it. The comprehensive range of improvements to Photoshop CS5 makes this version compelling and nearly impossible to ignore.