Reigning Drawing Program Offers Flexibility

SAN FRANCISCO (07/27/2000) - To say that Illustrator 9.0 is packed with tools for creating Web graphics is like saying a jackrabbit is a very fast runner -- it had better be. The explosion of Macromedia Flash animation on the Web has made Macromedia FreeHand the logical choice for creating the graphics to go with it. To compete, Adobe Systems Inc. desperately needed to address the online issue with Illustrator, and it has done an admirable job with version 9.

Although Illustrator is no jackrabbit and still doesn't have the upper hand in Web animation, this upgrade offers an abundance of groundbreaking new tools and enhanced flexibility. Only the most narrow-minded Net head will be able to resist giving the new Illustrator a spin.

Deceiving Appearances

In Illustrator 9's parlance, appearance denotes the changeable outer aspect of an object, be it a path, an imported image, or text. This appearance is nondestructive, or live, meaning you can edit it or its underlying object independently at any time. Take a circle and totally transform its appearance by piling on the effects; underneath still lies the same simple circle you started out with, ready to be reshaped at your whim. You can conveniently store appearances in the Styles palette, from which they can be called up as needed, edited in the Appearance palette, and reapplied.

You can also apply separate effects to an object's strokes and fills in the Appearance palette. This, in fact, is the key to one of Illustrator 9's most intriguing live effects (though it's woefully undocumented): the ability to create shapes that automatically resize to accommodate the length of the text they contain. Unfortunately, whenever you apply many of the most useful effects, you first have to click the Preview check box to see what you're doing. That gets old fast.

In previous versions, you had to choose your words carefully because when you needed to apply effects to text, you first had to render it uneditable. Now text is just another object, ready to assume any appearance but equally ready to be rewritten. The ramifications of this newfound flexibility are profound: it lets you experiment endlessly and make any number of last-minute changes.

The Clearness of You

Illustrator is hardly the first vector-drawing application to offer transparency, but now it boasts the fullest implementation around. You can make absolutely anything translucent -- individual paths, entire layers, strokes, fills, and bitmapped images. To create effects such as a subtle fade over a block of text, you can apply transparency on a character-by-character basis.

Illustrator's new opacity masks are another powerful way to accomplish gradual fades. Designate any object (even an imported bitmap) as an opacity mask, and that object's luminosity will define the transparency for the layer underneath.

Not Just a Flash in the Pen

With the release of Illustrator 9, Adobe is strongly supporting SVG -- a new, completely open vector-animation format that could be viewed as a rival to SWF, Macromedia's Flash format. But in an effort to ensure that all bases are covered, Adobe has also made Illustrator decidedly Flash-friendly. Version 9's Release to Layers command lets you take objects that you've placed on a single layer and instantly redistribute them so that each object is assigned its own layer. From there, it's a snap to export the layers as SWF frames, making Illustrator a great tool for generating Flash animations.

As Adobe will be the first to remind you, however, there's a great deal to be said for a company's cross-application homogeneity, and FreeHand has the home-team advantage when it comes to Flash. Nevertheless, if your focus on Web graphics is broad enough to include GIFs, JPEGs, and PNGs, Illustrator 9 is the place to be. Adobe's efforts to ensure that we're all happily coexisting in the same color space extend well beyond Web-safe colors and hexadecimals; Illustrator 9 offers expanded support for ICC profiles, color proofing, even an Overprint Preview for print folks who don't care a whit about the Web.

Family Resemblance

How much you like Illustrator 9's interface will probably depend on how much you use other Adobe programs. Illustrator 9 adheres firmly to the Adobe-standard interface, making it much easier for Photoshop users to learn than the confusing FreeHand. In fact, Adobe has drawn many of Illustrator's new features from its sister applications.

The most welcome of these is Blending Modes, long a vital part of Photoshop.

That program's excellent Save for Web window is now an indispensable part of Illustrator's Web tools. For those who prefer roping their points and paths, Illustrator has its own version of Photoshop's Lasso tools. From InDesign, Illustrator inherits keyboard shortcut editing (though you can't apply skewing effects to type on a path as with InDesign). And After Effects' The Smoother is present as the Simplify Path command, which can retrace your pen-drawn or penciled-in path with fewer points.

Slow on the Draw

Illustrator's new features might have you dancing in the streets, but you'd better make it a slow dance: live effects and transparency definitely take their toll on performance. If you're upgrading from version 8, you'll be aghast at how long screen-redraw takes when you're working with blends in version 9.

(If your blends don't use transparency, following Adobe's advice to turn off the Knockout Group option does indeed decrease redraw times significantly.

However, this advice is found only in the Read Me file, and even there it's not explained in any depth.)You can speed things up by allocating more RAM to Illustrator, but version 9's preferred amount of RAM (46.3MB) is already more than twice as high as version 8's (20.6MB). There's also a palpable sluggishness in day-to-day use, even when you're not taking advantage of version 9's new features. Let's hope Adobe addresses these speed issues soon in a free upgrade.

Illustrator 9.0

PROS:Live effects and transparency; powerful Appearance and Styles palettes; flexible text editing; excellent Web features.

CONS:Sluggish; no effects for type on a path.

List Price: US$399

COMPANY:888/724-4508, Adobe Systems

Advice:If you want to use a vector-drawing application solely for creating Flash animations, nothing Illustrator has to offer outweighs the great bundle pricing available for FreeHand and Flash. But Illustrator's newfound flexibility extends its reign as the king of drawing applications for the Mac.

Despite an unpleasant decrease in speed, you'll find Illustrator 9 worth the wait.

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