Adobe Illustrator 7

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After a very long wait, Illustrator 7 recovers much of the ground it had previously lost. However, without any outstanding strengths of its own, its appeal relies heavily on its integration with Adobe's other products.

Adobe is pushing the new version of its Illustrator program as "the industry-standard illustration software", trying to position it as the vector equivalent of its bitmap editor Photoshop. In market terms this might make some sense on the Mac where the program's only real rival is Macromedia FreeHand, but it certainly isn't true on the PC where Corel Draw is completely dominant. In fact over the last three years it looked as if Adobe had abandoned the PC platform entirely with the Windows version of Illustrator allowed to fall a full two releases behind its Mac counterpart. With simultaneous Mac and Windows releases of Illustrator 7 it's good to see that Adobe has recognised the importance of the PC, but how successfully does the new version live up to the claims made for it?

Clearly a lot has happened in the three years since the last PC version of Illustrator came out. To begin with there's Windows 95 itself. Illustrator is now fully 95 and NT logo-compliant which means that the program supports all of the features such as context-sensitive menus, tooltips, OLE 2.0, long file names and so on. More to the point as a native 32-bit application, and with a new image caching technology, Adobe claims a major increase in speed. There has been some improvement, but the program is still comparatively slow especially when launching which takes a full forty seconds on a fast system.

When Illustrator does finally load, the environment is immediately familiar with the printable page in the middle of the screen and a floating toolbar to its left. In the past, the drawing tools on offer for adding objects were very basic with just the core rectangle, oval and line. Now these have been supplemented with various "plug-in" tools such as those for producing stars, polygons and spirals. While these are welcome they are certainly not state-of-the-art. To change the appearance of a star, for example, it is necessary to specify the radiuses within a dialog box rather than interactively onscreen.

More useful and more powerful are the new paintbrush and reshape tools. Rather than drawing separate vector lines, the paintbrush tool creates its strokes as filled shapes. The end result is more like doodling with a felt tip than real painting, but it is still much more liberating than using the line-based pen. The paintbrush tool makes drawing much more flexible and the reshape tool does the same for editing. Previously lines could only be edited through dragging on their defining nodes, but using the reshape tool it is now possible to treat each path as a single organic object.

The Illustrator toolbox does not just contain tools for adding objects, it also contains tools for transforming objects. In particular it offers separate tools for scaling, rotating, reflecting and shearing. The advantage of this is that the centre of each transformation can be set directly. However, as such transformations are usually combined, it soon becomes irritating having to repeatedly swap tools. Many Mac programs work in this way, but I find the Windows tradition of manipulating bounding boxes for moving, scaling, skewing and rotating, far simpler and much quicker.

It's not just the handling of objects that is more complicated, the actual process of selection also seems unnecessarily difficult. Rather than a single selection tool, Illustrator has three: one for selecting objects, one for selecting paths and one for selecting objects within a group. Selecting multiple objects is particularly difficult as lasso selecting selects all objects touched by the marquee rather than just those that are fully contained. To a certain extent these problems are just a question of familiarity but, for anyone who has used a PC-based drawing package, the shift in working practice is difficult to come to terms with.

The biggest innovation that Adobe claims for the Illustrator interface is the introduction of Photoshop-style tabbed and dockable palettes. There are now a full dozen of these to choose from including a new Transform palette for moving, sizing, rotating and skewing objects precisely and an Alignment palette for arranging and distributing objects. The problem is that with these on screen there is little room left for the drawing. It's ironic that just as Adobe has standardised on its cross-application palettes, Corel has moved towards a context-sensitive property bar. Again I much prefer the cleaner and more modern PC-based solution.

Another direct import from the Photoshop environment is Illustrator's dedicated Filters menu. This now offers access to over 50 Photoshop-compatible plug-ins ranging from artistic to textured effects. These are the same set of filters that now come with the latest Photoshop and PageMaker and were previously available separately as Gallery Effects. The filters can be applied to imported bitmap images and, thanks to Illustrator's new rasterization capability, to converted vector objects. When rasterizing, options are given to control resolution and anti-aliasing and also to automatically create a mask for non-rectangular shapes.

Illustrator does not just offer bitmap effects it also offers a whole series of vector filters arranged into categories such as colour and pen effects. Some of these, such as the punk and bloat effects for turning a star into a flower, are definitely useful tools to have in your armoury. However the third-party origin of the filters gives them a rather miscellaneous feel and ultimately they are lacking in real power. The Free Distort filter, for example, allows objects to be contorted by manipulating a surrounding bounding box, but this can only be done in a dialog preview rather than directly onscreen. Compared to Corel Draw's freeform envelopes, the control offered is minimal and clumsy.

Another example of Illustrator's rather awkward and indirect approach to producing effects are its Pathfinder filters. These are used for combining existing objects to create new objects. No opportunity has been missed with fourteen separate filters ranging from trim and outline through to intersect and crop. The filters also include two options for creating transparency effects. However, in both cases the apparent transparency is produced by creating a new shape where the selected objects overlap and filling it with the appropriate derived colour. This works fine so long as you are only dealing with single colour vector shapes in their final positions, but fails completely with bitmaps, complex fills and, most importantly, if you later need to rearrange your artwork.

Illustrator's pseudo-transparency falls a long way short of the true transparency offered by Corel Xara and Draw. At least it has caught up in the area of gradients with a new palette allowing the creation of multi-coloured effects. However gradients can still only be linear or radial and, with limited patterns and no fractal or realistic bitmap textures, Illustrator's formatting capabilities remain weak and dated. This is highlighted by the innovation that Adobe is most excited about - the introduction of RGB colours. Since the RGB system is the one all computer monitors work on, most users will instead be amazed to learn that Illustrator didn't support the system in the past.

In fact the introduction is important as it marks a shift away from Illustrator's past emphasis on purely print - and therefore CMYK - based production. In particular it recognises the increasing importance of screen-based design and of the Internet. Illustrator 7 has added a number of new Web-orientated features on top of its RGB support. Graphics can be exported in both GIF89a and JPEG format and using the Attributes palette it is possible to link objects with URLs to create image maps. Even so, compared to competitors like Micrografx and Macromedia, Adobe's Web-based features remain limited.

It's much the same story when it comes to Illustrator's handling of text. This has undoubtedly improved out of all recognition with the new Paragraph and Character Palettes offering comprehensive controls ranging from simple justification and alignment through to advanced kerning and tracking. Also new, and crucial to successful text work, is the introduction of tabs. These are applied from an onscreen tab ruler that is very similar to the PageMaker system. Illustrator even manages to outshine PageMaker in one typographic area with its ability to hang punctuation outside justified text blocks.

Against this though, there are as many limitations as strengths. While formatting is generally good, for example, there are no options for applying graphical text bullets. Likewise, without a separate story editor module, the find-and-replace and spell-checker must be used on the actual layout which slows everything to a crawl. In fact performance soon becomes a major problem with large quantities of text and Adobe suggests that the new automatic kerning feature should only be applied when the layout is finished.

The biggest limitation to the amount of text in a publication, however, is the fact that Illustrator only supports single pages. This huge restriction is glossed over in the supporting manuals and help files as if it is hardly an issue. The suggested solution is to set up a large "artboard" made up of multiple pages and to then reposition the page boundaries when it comes to printing. At best this is a clumsy workaround and until Illustrator offers true pages it immediately rules itself out from the creation of brochures and short publications.

Illustrator has caught up ground then, but at this stage the claim to be the industry standard is looking rather ridiculous unless "standard" is meant to mean the lowest common denominator. In all the major areas of the creation, control and formatting of objects and text, Illustrator still falls a long way behind Corel Draw. To compete it needs its own particular area of strength, an area in which it excels as Corel Xara does in terms of its realisic output and Fractal Design Expression does in terms of its artistic effects. In other words what does Illustrator offer that other drawing programs don't?

Illustrator does have some features that aren't found elsewhere. The graph tool, for example, allows the creation of a whole range of chart types ranging from pie and bar through to stacked and radar. Since Corel Draw has dropped its charting module this really is an area in which Illustrator could score, but the tool is sadly under-powered with no ability to apply 3D effects, for example. Another introduction Adobe is making much of in this latest release is the new vertical text tool. This allows exactly the same text controls to be applied to vertically orientated text as to horizontal. All new power is appreciated, but unless you do a lot of work in Japanese this definitely falls into the occasional use category.

Neither of these unique features is going to set the world on fire and, if Illustrator was a standalone program from a start-up company, I'm afraid it would soon disappear without trace. Of course Illustrator is not a standalone program and Adobe is not a start-up company. Rather than in isolation, Illustrator must be seen as an integral part of the whole Adobe publishing solution. As such the picture changes radically.

The real killer feature Illustrator offers is its integration into the publishing workflow through seamless cross-working with market leaders PageMaker and Photoshop. To an extent this comes down to the similar working environment with identical menu structures and keyboard shortcuts designed to help both novices and experts. More fundamentally there is mutual file support. It is even possible to drag and drop objects directly from Illustrator onto a PageMaker page or into a Photoshop 4.0 image where they are automatically rasterized and anti-aliased. Holding down the Ctrl key while dragging, copies over the artwork as a Photoshop path which can then be used for creating special effects.

In reverse, the process is not quite so complete or efficient. Text blocks cannot be dragged from PageMaker into Illustrator and although images can theoretically be dragged directly from Photoshop this occasionally led to program crashes. This doesn't cause too much of a problem as a better solution in any case is to import the Photoshop *.PSD file directly. Rather than embedding, Illustrator defaults to linking the file which keeps file sizes down and, more importantly, allows the image to be easily edited in a dedicated photo editor.

The integration with PageMaker and Photoshop are certainly important, but just as important is Illustrator's integration with Adobe's Postscript. This is the underlying printer language that ensures that exactly the same page will come out from the 2400dpi imagesetter as from the 300dpi laser printer. Illustrator is absolutely built on Postscript - in fact it's possible to open and save Illustrator files directly in an editable encapsulated postscript (*.eps) format. By working so directly with Postscript the scope for potential outputting problems is largely removed. Advanced transparency and texture effects are great on the desktop colour printer, but unless they work just as reliably when output as colour separated film the serious designer would rather not know about them.

Incompatibility is the professional publisher's nightmare and so the promised integration of Illustrator with Adobe's DTP and bitmap programs and its Postscript printing language is an unbeatable advantage. Illustrator might not be exciting, but for many users reliability is more important. Ultimately Illustrator's claim to be the industry standard is not as ridiculous as it first seemed. In terms of speed, functionality and ease of use it still lags far behind its PC rivals, but in terms of compatibility and integration it leads the field.

For the average user, Illustrator 7.0 is still a full generation behind the competition and difficult to recommend. Paradoxically for the high level professional designer it might just be the reliable drawing tool they are looking for. If Adobe makes sure that the program isn't allowed to fall by the wayside again, over the long term it might even be a case of the tortoise and the hare.

Ease of Use

3

Features

4

Value for Money

4

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Illustrator
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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 64MB of RAM, 105MB of disk space, Windows 98, NT 4.0 or 2000, CD-ROM, SVGA

Tom Arah

February 1998


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