Is a single-size serving of CS3 worth it?

Adobe's Creative Suite 3 comes in at a hefty $2,500, but do you need all of its components? Are the solo versions of the programs worth the cost?

The math is incontrovertible: at $2,500, Adobe's Creative Suite 3 Master Collection non-upgrade is extremely expensive. However, once you start looking at the cost of the individual pieces of the suite, getting more than two of the major components--say, Photoshop and Illustrator--on their own isn't cost effective, either.

Just those two applications together cost $1,600 for their non-upgrade editions, and that same chunk of change will get you the CS3 Web Premium, which contains Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, Dreamweaver, Acrobat Pro and all the little ancillary apps that Adobe has been giving away.

But let's say you're only interested in editing photos, or you think your copy of Illustrator CS2 will work just fine with Flash CS3, but you need that Flash upgrade? Is there more going on than a new palette layout? Let's break down Adobe's powerhouse gestalt and take a look at the more popular parts that make up the whole: Photoshop for image manipulating and printing, Illustrator for drawing, Flash for animating, and Dreamweaver for designing Web pages.

Photoshop CS3 Extended, Full from $999.00

Despite some serious inroads made by open-source image editors, Photoshop is still the industry standard, with its seemingly endless selection of drawing tools, filters, and color-adjustment capabilities for manipulating items in almost any way. It's undeniably the anchor of Adobe's apps, and more than any of its brethren, Photoshop can stand on its own. (Check out the CNET Reviews Photoshop review and slideshow tour.)

The Photoshop CS3 Extended interface.

Few people remember that Photoshop was originally designed for bitmap images, but who cares, when the behemoth it has become can create eye-catching typography, perform shadow and highlight correction, match and replace colors, parlay efficient layer comps, and preview, search, and share images. Extended differs from the "un-extended" Photoshop in that it includes 3D and motion-based content editors.

Oh, and it's also the premier program for managing home digital-image printing. Is there anything this program can't do?

Perhaps one aspect of this upgrade that could use a bit more attention is the greatly modified Help menu, to take the edge off your learning curve. How-to tutorials are included on everything from preparing art for other applications to printing photos to working with color and type. From lightening dark photos, to improving color and contrast, to adding objects or people that weren't originally in the picture, you could go hoarse singing Photoshop's praises. Of course, it's big and bloated and eats RAM, but it's arguably the most versatile program you'll ever own.

Illustrator CS3, Full from $599.00

Eager to shed Illustrator's stodgy image as a print-only application, Adobe has since taught this old dog many new tricks, and it now features as much usefulness for Web publishing as it does for print. (Check out the CNET Reviews Illustrator review and slideshow tour.)

The Illustrator CS3 interface.

Colors get shown the light in CS3. They can now be grouped as you want them, and you can have the app suggest similar or related colors to you. The new Live Color function lets you easily change existing colors in your image. The app also includes integration with Adobe Flash, minimizing the procedure for creating symbols in Illustrator and exporting them into Flash.

Both programs now share the same hot key for defining symbols, and Illustrator now has Flash's graphics engine, further simplifying the crossover and importing process. Other new features include a vector erasing tool, an improved cropping mechanism, tweaks in Live Trace, overhauled New Document Profiles, and more, but Illustrator is not for everyone and suffers from bloat issues similar to Photoshop.

Flash CS3, Full from $699.00

Flash remains the champ of professional vector software for the Web. However, creating Web pages, interactive games, and videos in Flash CS3 isn't plug-and-play, and as with Photoshop and Illustrator, the complexity remains a barrier for new learners. (Check out the CNET Reviews Flash slideshow tour.)

The Flash CS3 interface.

There are several big changes in the Flash upgrade. The improved Adobe integration means that you can now save time by importing Photoshop and Illustrator layers, so there's no need to convert and name one layer at a time. Prebuilt components such as buttons can be dragged directly onto the stage, then customized. There's an Illustrator-style Pen tool for freehand drawing, as well as Shape Primitives for making shape alterations on the stage. New filters and blends add more creative options.

Everything about CS3 is faster than in CS2, from the compiler to the player, including the new Java-based compiler and debugger. Rather than fishing through your work to find errors, click on a trouble spot in the Compile Errors panel to go straight to the problematic code.

Nevertheless, Flash isn't perfect--particularly with some fine details. It's still hard to zoom into the center of the stage, and there's a disturbing element of uncontrollability with brush strokes, too.

Dreamweaver CS3, Full from $499.00

Dreamweaver is the first rollout of this Web design application since Adobe acquired Macromedia, but is it the same Dreamweaver as before, or has it unraveled a bit?

Dreamweaver\'s CSS interface.

Installation time has doubled, not including Adobe's mandatory registration process, and the interface now resembles Adobe's other products. Still, it should be familiar to those who have used previous Dreamweaver versions, because the Welcome screen, toolbars, and main window are largely unchanged. (Check out the CNET Reviews Dreamweaver slideshow tour.)

Support for CSS now features a large array of templates and new tools to help manage styles, and commentary on how best to use the CSS--including Internet Explorer work-arounds. Improved integration here lets you drag a Photoshop file directly into Dreamweaver. You can also start in Photoshop, copy any area of an image (including layers), and paste that back into Dreamweaver.

Adobe's new Spry framework for Ajax is a JavaScript library of code snippets that makes it easy to add client-side behaviors. It's broken into Effects, which are animations; Data, which binds dynamic data to HTML; and Widgets, which create interactive elements such as pop-up menus.

Even though it's cheaper, bloat warnings and steep learning curves are still in effect.

Downsize me?

Though they are all excellent tools, the trial versions demand a lot of download time, hard-drive space, and RAM for rendering and other heavy tasks. However, all the trials are fully functional, letting you edit, save, print, and export files, making it easier to assess these expensive products. If you are getting into them for the first time, we recommend not treading lightly, but instead spending a lot of time playing around with your single-serving Adobe app to make sure you're not better served by a freeware analogue.