Adobe Creative Suite 5: Should you upgrade?

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About 10 minutes into Adobe’s slick Creative Suite 5 Launch Event on Monday, a thought occurred to me: What if I hadn’t already seen sneak peeks of the applications being introduced? Would any of this sink in? Even I, who’d been privy to some pre-launch information, felt a bit dazed by the deluge pouring out of the screen. The Adobe demonstrators themselves seemed a tad breathless as they rattled off top features of the software that comprises CS5.

Any way you slice it, simultaneously unveiling some 14 applications with a combined 250 new features is a tall order. Implementing that many features is an impressive feat, to be sure. Coordinating that many development teams who were charged with not only creating compelling features for their individual products, but also with reaching across numerous aisles to collaborate on cross-application features, had to take incredible effort and discipline. Kudos to Adobe on its accomplishment.

But from the receiving end, it almost seems like too much at once. In unveiling such a massive undertaking as CS5, the special qualities of individual products got lost in the mix, and it’s the features of those singular products that excite people. Digital photographers want to know what’s in Photoshop. If I hadn’t known of features in advance, I would have walked away from the launch video thinking that Content-Aware Fill is the only notable new thing in Photoshop CS5. (It is really cool. This powerful feature lets you cover over foreground objects or fill in gaps in a background with pixel data gathered from the surrounding area.)

Packaging apps together

The character of the launch event exemplifies a broader question: Does CS5 give Adobe customers what they want? I’m not talking about individual feature requests—we’ve all got our own wish lists. But now, has more become too much—overwhelming—all at one time?

When Adobe launched the Creative Suite concept in 2003, a couple of things became clear. First, packaging multiple applications together resulted in economies of scale for both customers and Adobe. Customers paid substantially less for the package of apps than they would have for separate single apps, and had the added advantage of having them all updated at the same time.

Suites made economic sense for Adobe, too, especially in areas of manufacturing, packaging, and marketing. As the constituent applications evolved to interact more closely with each other, the company was able to take further advantage of centralized development of core software components that span all applications. Reduced overhead means greater profit.

Another benefit to the Creative Suite strategy for all concerned has been customer exposure to different applications. In 2003, Adobe CS served as a Trojan horse that opened the gates for InDesign, which had been lingering in the shadows of QuarkXPress. But escorted by Photoshop, Illustrator, and Acrobat, InDesign was on its way to conquering its rival.

A similar phenomenon happened in the wake of Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia in 2005. A traditional Photoshop customer buying CS3 had access to Dreamweaver, for example, while a former Macromedia Flash customer had access to Premiere Pro. It was a win-win situation. Even so, for many customers, getting Dreamweaver in a suite with Photoshop is sort of like getting a bicycle tire pump with your new car wheels. They represent two modes of transportation, and you can ride only one vehicle at a time. But if you have a bike at home, well then, bonus! You just got something that may come in handy, and at a favorable price.

Economy and exposure

Seven years after the initial Creative Suite was released, these two tenets—economy and exposure—hold true and continue to be reasons to upgrade every 18 to 24 months, when a new edition is released. But those same factors have the potential to backfire, too. The more I think about it, the more I wonder: Where does it go from here?

As I’m pondering the realities of installing and maintaining eight applications in the CS5 Design Premium, I remember a time when I thought that an Adobe uber-app would be a wonderful invention. InDePhotoStrator was an early moniker some industry pundits gave it. And you know what? The all-for-one, one-for-all strategy worked. My Illustrator skills improved as a result of interactions with InDesign and Photoshop. I’m hoping lightning will strike again and I’ll finally get around to using Dreamweaver, but I don’t know. As more Web features are incorporated into InDesign, will my need for Dreamweaver grow or lessen? I think that’s a real issue facing Adobe—and us. What’s the real value of having so many apps all at once?

Back to economy and exposure. For many users, the question of pricing is tricky. On the one hand, CS5 editions are a bargain: Design Premium is $1,899 for eight applications; Web Premium is $1,799 for nine applications; and Production Premium for $1,699 for nine applications. Premium edition Upgrades start at $599, depending on which suite version you currently have. Still, for many folks, even that can be a significant investment, especially today.

Being exposed to different products is all well and good, but there’s the question of relevance. If InDesign is your bread-and-butter application, do you really care about Flash Professional? Adobe wants you to: after all, creating animations in InDesign for export as SWF files is a key feature of the new version. But if you design pages for print production (long may ye wave) or if you have a dedicated Web staff, you’re more interested in features like straddle heads than animation. In that case, maybe you’re better off purchasing the CS5 Design Standard for $1,299 (upgrades start at $499), which strips out the extraneous apps, but includes only the standard version of Photoshop.

Upgrade logic

So the ultimate question is: Should you upgrade to CS5? I’m going to be bold and say yes. There are a number of technical and feature-driven reasons to upgrade—64-bit, Flash Catalyst, HDR imaging improvements—but here’s my thinking.

If the last version you purchased was CS3 or before, then yes, definitely buy CS5. It’s commonly held that most users leapfrog versions anyway, so if you skipped CS4, your turn is up. But it’s more than that. New features in flagship products like Photoshop and Flash are worth the price of admission. In addition, the interoperability between applications is much smoother and more sophisticated than you’ve thus far experienced. If your exposure to the other apps in the suite is limited, you may need to see how the products are starting to gel as synthesized media-creation tools. Even if you’ve always avoided writing Flash code, I think it’s important to recognize the role Flash could play in your workflow, and thanks to Flash Catalyst, you can now experiment with Flash without having to write code.

Take note, though: if you fall into the camp of CS3 or prior, you may be using a PowerPC-based Mac. CS5 runs only on Intel-based Macs. You’ll need to factor in the cost of a new machine in addition to the $599 upgrade from Creative Suite 3 Design Premium, in that case. I admit that this system requirement gives me pause. I do my design and imaging on my trusty G5 tower. And quite frankly, my purse strings are tugged tighter than they used to be. Forking over the $599 to upgrade from CS4 is one thing; another couple thousand for hardware is another. I’m not criticizing Adobe’s decision to make this requirement—it makes sense. I’m speaking as a freelancer scrabbling for work in a tight job market.

If you’re up-to-date on your software and hardware, the decision to adopt CS5 may be trickier. Personally, I’m an InDesign/Photoshop/Illustrator kind of gal. I could get by on CS4 for a while, even if I did have the right hardware. The Content-Aware Fill and Refine Edge features in Photoshop are pretty darn nifty—jaw dropping, even—but neither are essential to the work I do, although I’m sure they’d quickly become essential if I had them. The journalism geek in me loves being able to track text changes in InDesign CS5. But I’ve been able to work around that thus far in CS4. I could cite other examples, but you get my train of thought.

Adobe CS5 is more than just a sum of its products, however, and that’s one of the reasons I want to upgrade. It’s an important step toward entering a media landscape in which content is delivered across a wide variety of devices, such as smart phones, tablet computers, connected televisions, net books, and so on. (Let’s set aside the Apple-Adobe iPhone-Flash kerfuffle for now.) It’s a dynamic world out there. Not so long ago, the idea of that quintessential print application InDesign being able to export Flash animation would have fallen in the category of, “what are you smoking?” In today’s media environment it makes perfect sense. Just ask Wired or The New York Times, both of which use InDesign and Flash in coordination to prepare print content for the Web and adapt Web video and animations for smart phones and tablet computers.

Given the state of the publishing industry, I’m a firm believer in developing as many skills as possible so you can have as many professional options as possible. I see a future in which print, online, and mobile media all live and work together in harmony, each one doing what it does best and reaffirming Marshall McLuhan’s statement that the medium is the message.

Online developments

There’s another aspect to upgrading that’s worth considering: The online tools included in CS5 extend the serviceability of the applications, among them CS Review for coordinating contributors on design critiques and Adobe BrowserLab for previewing Web designs in different browsers. Adobe will continue to roll out these online services and apps (think at a more aggressive pace in the coming years. You should become familiar with this approach to Adobe software sooner rather than later.

With CS5, Adobe shows once again that it keeps pace with, and even stays a step ahead, of our changing times. When thinking about upgrading to CS5, it’s reasonable to want to sprint, to take the shortest route to the fastest result at the lowest price. I wouldn't blame you for thinking that way. But if you can, train for a marathon instead. Consider that the investment you make now will pay off in the future when even more twists appear in the road and the route alters its course. Me? I’m hocking some old jewelry to enter that race with a new Mac and a new pair of Adobe running shoes for the long road ahead.

[Pamela Pfiffner is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, Oregon, and the former editor in chief of many Mac and design publications, including, MacUser, Publish, and InDesign Magazine. She has also written several books on Adobe, most recently Page by Page, a look at the 10-year evolution of Adobe InDesign. Download the PDF here. ]

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