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A Look at Adobe CS4

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on January 19, 2009

The price of software, at least according to the conventional wisdom, is rapidly tending toward zero. That may well be true for consumer applications and even some standard business programs, as offerings such as Google’s and Zoho’s Web-based office suites challenge standards such as Microsoft Office.

adobe_logo.jpgBut don’t even think about free in the world of specialized professional software, where people are prepared to pay big bucks for the tools they need. Two companies that understand this are Adobe and Wolfram Research. I’ll take a look at Wolfram;s Mathematica in a future post but for now, let’s consider Adobe’s new Creative Suite 4. With versions that run as high as $2,499 for a single copy of the all-inclusive Master Collection, contains all the software tools creative professionals need, including Photoshop for image editing, Dreamweaver for Web page design, InDesign for print page layout, Illustrator for drawing, and Flash for creation of Web animations and video, though not all programs are in all packages. CS4 is offered in a variety of configurations with prices starting at $999, or $399 as an upgrade.

The component programs are also sold individually and I’m going to focus on Photoshop, the best known program and certainly the one that I use the most. Considering its maturity, there’s an awful lot new in Photoshop CS4, which starts at $699, or $199 as an upgrade.

I’ve been using Photoshop for years, though I am still far from an expert. The new version incorporates features that will save time for experts while making advanced features far more accessible to the beginner. Two of the most power tools in Photoshop are layers and masks. Layers let you make changes in images that do not alter the underlying picture and which can selectively be turned on an off. Masks let you make changes in a selected part of an image without affecting other parts.

In earlier versions the preferred method to adjust, say the color balance or exposure, of a photo was to create an adjustment layer and then select the appropriate adjustment tool from a menu. The new Adjustments panel offers an easy to use palette of all the adjustment tools. Even better, when you select a tool, anything you do with it is automatically applied to a new adjustment layer. There’s nothing here you couldn’t do before, but you can do it quicker and more simply.

The Curves tool is one of the most powerful weapons in the Adjustments arsenal . It gives you tremendous control over the lighting and color of a picture, but it also makes it very easy to make of complete mess of your image. A new click-and-drag tool helps tame the curves. Drag the tool to a shadow area of your picture and moving the mouse up or down will lighten or darken the shadows. Go to a highlight or a midtone and dragging will change that part of the tonal range


The new Curves panel

Masks are another fundamental Photoshop tool made easier in CS4. You create a mask automatically whenever you use a selection tool such as the magic wand or the lasso and a new Masks panel makes it much easier to manipulate your masks.

One of the most interesting features of Photoshop CS4 is a new tool called content-aware scaling. Often you need to change the shape of a photo, either to fit a specific print size (4x6, 5x7, and 8x10 prints all have different aspect ratios) or to fit a layout in a document or Web page. Often you can get the image to the shape you want simply by cropping the photo, but sometimes you can’t quite the framing right. Content-aware scaling lets you change the shape by compressing or stretching relatively unimportant parts of the image, which Photoshop basically defines as areas of low contrast, while not distorting the key elements of the picture. It won’t work with every picture and you have to be careful not to do it or you can introduce some weird effects, but it is a very powerful tool.


The original image


The image after smart scaling.

Editing large images, especially the high pixel count RAW images generated by the latest digital single-lens reflex cameras, can be very processor-intense. The new CS4 apps are designed not only to take advantage of multiple processors but to make use of the tremendous processing power found on the current generation of graphics adapters. You’ll probably see the biggest boost under either Windows or Mac OS X if you have a relatively recent (GeForce 8400 or higher) NVIDIA adapter with Cuda technology.

Serious amateur photographers don’t find Photoshop’s price too daunting—it still costs less than many lenses. But I hope that these new features make their way into Photoshop’s little brother, the much cheaper ($80) but still very powerful Photoshop Elements in its next version.

Reader Comments


January 21, 2009 5:54 PM

I like the new CS4, but I hate Adobe's documentation and customer support. Their documentation is 100% online and reads like a bad instruction manual translated from some foreign language. Their customer service is a mash of disparate locations between Beaverton Oregon and Mumbai India, and the right hand doesn't talk to the left hand.

The pricing seems like an inevitable result of their purchase of competitor Macromedia, which eliminated their strongest threat, IMHO.

But what can you do? Photoshop is that good, you just have to bite the bullet.

Harry T.

January 23, 2009 10:40 PM

I have used Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, etc.,years... but frankly, I feel like their prices are at the breaking point. It's become a bankrupting prospect to buy more than one product, and their arcane upgrade rules, are making it more and more likely that I will have to find alternatives soon. Adobe is single-handedly creating their own demise by pricing out so mnay people that the pirating of their software is skyrocketing. I know one design firm that is so angry about the prices, that they feel it's blatant gouging of people whose livelihoods are dependent on them, and have labeled Adobe the OPEC of the software world.... as a result, they feel justified downloading Adobe pirated software. I refuse to do that. But I can't shell out $1,500 for the various CS4 products I'd like to use. They only alternative? Use the old versions, and gradually switch to some of the much cheaper, more scrappy software providers that are nipping at Adobe's heels.

I'm sick of it.


January 29, 2009 10:19 AM

The price is cheap if you use the software for actual work. If you are just going to play around or want a simple tool for red eye and small stuff use Elements. People pirate it because they want to, not because they need to. $1.500 would be made back with one freelance job if you were using it for real stuff. Use the GIMP if you don't want to pay but don't tell me anyone NEEDS to pirate software


September 14, 2009 2:44 PM

I purchased the student edition of Adobe Creative Suite CS4 online through, as requested by my instructor at Great Oaks Adult Education Institution, where I am enrolled for a Graphic Design Certificate. I did not realize the restriction for purchasing the student edition was limited to those in no less than a 2 year degree program. The program I purchased was $400, plus about $20 shipping. I had to verify that I am a student to, and they shipped me the product.

My computer struggled with the installation, so I contacted Adobe technical support to help walk me through the process. Tech support would not help me since I was only on the 30 day trial, and they need a licensed serial number from me to help. that was fine; I asked them transfer me to customer service. Customer service kept me on hold for 35 minutes. I hung up, having not spoken to anyone in customer service in those 35 minutes, not even to say where I was in the waiting list and decided to strip my computer clean. I backed up all my files, and tried the install from there. it took all night, and will take even longer to reinstall all of the programs that had to be wiped and restore all my files.

This morning, I sent Adobe the requested proof of enrollment, which kicked back to tell me that I do not qualify for the student discounted version I spent so much time installing, and that if I cannot prove my student status, I will be barred from using the program at all after 30 days.

I tried to contact customer service after the rejection email to try to explain my situation and discuss my options, since I have too much time and money invested so far to send the program back - plus eat the $45 return fee plus shipping required from Adobe for returns. I sat waiting for a single live voice for 40 minutes before noon. Hung up. I tried again after lunch - this time waited for an hour and 28 minutes. Called again just now - another 30 minutes, this time clocked on my cell phone.

So my complaint consists of poor forewarning about product restrictions and the complete lack of motivation to pick up the phone and answer a call from a (highly)paying customer.

They may have lost my business forever.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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