*** From the Archives ***

This article is from April 24, 2012, and is no longer current.

First Look: Adobe Illustrator CS6

There are decisive moments in everyone’s life, events that result in profound changes and mark the beginning of new opportunities. For Adobe Illustrator, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012, CS6 is definitely a milestone.

Once you have passed the odd new splash screen, the first thing you will notice is the adoption by Illustrator of a dark user interface similar to After Effects and Premiere Pro, as well as been shown in the Photoshop CS6 beta. In the beginning the new look is a visual shock, but after a while you get used to it. If you don’t like it, you can change to a lighter look by adjusting the brightness user interface preferences.

Illustrator CS has a new dark interface. Don’t like it? Change it in Preferences. Click on image for larger view.
The true depth of change in Illustrator CS6 lies below the surface of its interface. Illustrator has been completely rebuilt to improve performance, courtesy of the new Adobe Mercury Performance System. Illustrator is now 64-bit native and you will benefit from a better memory-handling scheme that gives you access to all the RAM on your computer.
It feels as if Illustrator has been re-energized. You’ll be able to feel these benefits when you open files, navigate inside complex documents, or zoom in and out of large documents. You also do not have to wait anymore for the endless progress bar of Gaussian Blur, speed enhancements that also apply to other blur types and drop-shadow effects. Modifying these effects in Preview mode is almost in real time. This speed increase and better reliability might not be the sexiest features, but at the end of a day, I’ll be glad I can do more and faster.
“What about new features/capabilities?” you ask. Illustrator CS6 adds three major features to an already full set of creative functionality.
The first new feature is a completely new way to create and edit repeating seamless patterns. With this release, Illustrator CS6 introduces a new Pattern Options panel that allows you to create new or modify existing patterns simply by double-clicking on the pattern swatches thumbnail. In that special pattern-editing mode, you can draw designs and move objects around and they automatically repeat according to your chosen tile type along with other options available in the panel. All this can be adjusted directly on the Artboard.

The new Pattern Options in Illustrator CS6 lets you create seamless tiled patterns with ease. Click on image for larger view.
The second new feature, a long standing requested feature by users, is the ability to apply gradients on strokes. Take a look inside the CS6 Gradient panel, and you will find a series of new buttons that allow you to apply a gradient within, along, and across the strokes of selected objects. With the possibility to apply variable width to strokes introduced in previous release, the creative possibilities are endless.

The ability to apply Gradients on a Path has been a much-asked-for feature. Click on image for larger view.
The third main new capability of this release might not look like a new feature, but the quality of results it provides is definitely new. Inside illustrator CS6 you will find a new image-tracing engine. The Live Trace dialog with cryptic terms has been replaced with a new powerful and simpler Image Trace panel. If you have been deceived by the results of the previous version in terms of tracing, you will enjoy the smooth and more accurate results you now get with Image Trace. The tracing options are easy to understand, and having them available in a floating panel, instead of a dialog, allow you to zoom into your image to better preview the results.
When tracing in color you will like the ability to use any of the color groups already in your swatches panel.

The Live Trace function has been much improved for more accurate results. Click on image for larger view.
These three new functions, along with the fact that the application has been rewritten, have allowed the Illustrator engineers to add a bunch of small enhancements that often make a big difference in our working habits. Here are some of them:
You can rename the Artboard and layers directly in the panels. This is also true for brushes, symbols, swatches, and graphic styles when they are displayed in list view.
In the color panel you now have the Hex color values for RGB. The workspace presets now work like other CS6 applications and require the use of a reset command to return to the saved panel arrangement. A new search field inside the Keyboard Shortcuts dialog allows you to easily find a command.
Here are a few more changes:

  • Many features that were previously hidden in the various panel options are now more accessible directly on the panel.
  • A Make/Release Mask button has been added in the Transparency panel.
  • At the bottom of the Layer panel a new Locate Object button easily opens the layers hierarchy to locate the selected object.
  • Small icons for Caps, All Caps, Subscript & Superscript in the Character panel now appear.
  • The option to enable/disable stroke- and effect-scaling in the Transform panel is also new.
  • Even the Control Panel is more efficient and consistent across options.
  • On the Mac, we can finally change font selections using the arrow keys.

This image shows four of Illustrator CS6’s updated panels. From top left, clockwise: The Character panel includes more options like small caps; the Layers panel lets you Locate Objects in a layer stack; the Transparency panel lets you Release masks; the Transform panel lets scale Strokes & Effects. Click on image for larger view.
It’s easy to feel this release is not that interesting in terms of exciting new features. There is so much we want to be able to do, or do better, in Illustrator. But the-under-the hood work that has been done is huge, and we can already see the benefits in many areas. The performance improvements, the new features, and other enhancements will make a difference at the end of the creative day, and this is what counts the most. I strongly believe this is the start of a new Illustrator.
Let’s explore new paths.
Jean-Claude Tremblay

  • Anonymous says:

    Why in Photoshop will a right click with the magnify tool bring up useful options like zooming to actual size, fit on screen, zoom out, etc. but nada in Illustrator (where you must hold down the Option/Alt key to zoom out?

  • Anonymous says:

    all those bells and whistle, yet it still can’t set type on an oval or circle as easily as Freehand does.

  • Anonymous says:

    OK, great features indeed! But what about the very basic things that haven’t been improved since 80’s? Stars???? Anyone in Adobe cares about editing stars end numbers, depth, etc. at a glance? Sorry to say this but Corel guys have this for decades. Something more intuitive? And circles, elipses, rectangles? Open-close ellipse… Make it Pie, control pie piece?
    All this seems very insane for me. Or just an sick agreement with Plug-Ins providers?

    Both cases are just customer disapintments…

  • Anonymous says:

    I beg to differ that the tracing function is improved in CS6. Extremely disappointing and clunky as it has always been. No intelligence to it.

  • Carl +654 says:

    Thank you so much

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