Review: Adobe InDesign CS4

Pros: New Suite-wide common interface, export to Flash format, great links tracking, smart guides and smart align, conditional text, live preflight, enhanced tables, smart text reflow (that adds or deletes pages), and new IDML format.

Cons: Limited Flash authoring, no video or animation playback in exported SWF files, some issues when combining transparency with interactivity. New interface may rattle some people at first.

Rating: 90

InDesign CS4 is the sixth version Adobe has released since the application was born about ten years. That equals a new version of InDesign every 20 months on average, an aggressive update schedule that’s hard for many users to maintain. To upgrade or not becomes a complicated decision based on your finances, the type of projects you create, and the technology you have in place.

Depending on your mix of variables, InDesign CS4 itself may not convince you that it’s time to shell out more cash to Adobe. But in context with the other Creative Suite applications, InDesign CS4 is certainly worth serious consideration. And if you spend a lot of time on longer documents or interactive documents, InDesign CS4 is also worth a look even if you don’t use other applications in the suite.

But look only if you’ve got pretty powerful hardware. CS4 requires a PowerPC G5 or multi-core Intel processor Mac — it won’t install on a G4 Mac. On Windows, you’ll need a minimum 1.5GHz or faster processor running XP (with Service Pack 2) or Vista (Home Premium or better).

Upgrades for InDesign only are $199. There are the usual package prices for various Creative Suite collections, and that’s the best option if you use more than one suite application.

The Suite Spot
Over the past several years, Adobe has been pulled in directions that lead away from the graphic arts. Many of us worried that changing priorities might lead to some stagnation and misdirection at Adobe. Plus, not all companies can handle big mergers; in this case with Macromedia.

This is really the first version of the Creative Suite that was planned from the start with the combined talent and resources of both Adobe and Macromedia. The teamwork shows in the final results: The products feel much more integrated, and it’s getting easier to see the cross-media vision Adobe has been articulating for quite a while (but was previously unable to deliver on).

With InDesign CS4, this strategy is most obvious in the new interactive-design capabilities. Lots of folks out there have been creating rich-media PDF files in InDesign, thanks to its hyperlink, button, and rollover features. But in this version Adobe adds quite a bit more.

Interactive Design Features
I think many designers have a serious fear of Flash, worried that they’ll be forced to learn code and to look at design through the lens of text commands. With the new ability to export InDesign files as SWF (the playable Flash file format), creating a simple interactive Flash file is now much easier for those of us who aren’t coders.

These Flash files can be used directly as presentations, but more interesting to me is the role that SWF might play in client review and approval. SWF files are very compact and nearly everyone has a Flash player, so SWF could quickly replace PDF in many settings.

Just don’t mistake an exported SWF InDesign file with a full-blown Flash file (which is in the FLA file format). When you export a SWF file from InDesign you essentially get a compressed Flash movie with an HTML wrapper. So you can’t include exported video or animation, and if you use transparency over an interactive element, when the transparency is rasterized, you lose the interactivity. Some design restrictions definitely apply.

Fortunately, you can now also export your InDesign documents in the new XFL interchange file format and then open them in Flash. All the design and text remains intact and fully editable. However, you’ll lose much of the interactivity in the transition and will have to add that back in, along with any video playback and animation.

Figure 1. These two dialog boxes show the choices now available for setting up a new interactive document (left), and for exporting InDesign files to SWF format (right). Print files or documents set up to print specs can be output in SWF, or you can set up the original document to screen dimensions right from the start by choosing from among common screen resolutions. The SWF file output by InDesign is essentially a Flash movie, so there are some limits to what can be contained in the file (no video or animation playback, for example). But you can also save InDesign files in a new interchange format and fully open and edit them in Flash, where you can apply more sophisticated Flash features and use them as a foundation for building Flash Web site.

InDesign-to-XFL files will most likely become the foundation for building more complex Flash implementations. Where I think this will be particularly valuable is for those designers who are already using InDesign or Illustrator or even Photoshop to do mock-ups and comps for Web sites. And if you happen to be familiar with both InDesign and Flash, you’ll likely save quite a bit of duplication once you get a handle on the limits of XFL.

Here are some of the new interactive design features in InDesign CS4:

Page Transitions. The new Page Transitions panel presents a list of the standard transitions you once had to create in Acrobat Professional: wipes, curls, dissolves, fades, and more, with a variety of customizable options for each. You can apply transitions to individual spreads or throughout a document.

Figure 2. If you’re familiar with Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote, you’ve seen page-transition options similar to those in IDCS4. In addition to a variety of standard page fades, blends, wipes and other transitions, you can customize many aspects such as speed, direction, etc. For interactive PDF files, these new page transitions can really liven things up, and previously had to be applied in Acrobat Professional.

Button Panel. There’s a large set of pre-designed buttons, complete with special effects, such as gradient feathering and drop shadows. You can also create your own buttons, choose various states, and apply appropriate actions (Go to Next Page, Go to Previous Page, Go to URL, etc.).

Figure 3. Sporting a new Buttons Panel, IDCS4 provides a variety of stock button designs and common button functions, which can be easily applied to interactive layouts. You can also design custom buttons and designate existing elements as buttons as before. Just be careful when using transparency in conjunction with button design, as buttons appearing under transparent object lose their interactivity when rasterized.

Hyperlinks. My favorite new hyperlink feature is the ability to create a hyperlink simply by selecting some copy and adding a URL in the hyperlink field. You can also apply a hyperlink via a pop-up menu that lists previous destinations, link to other internal places in the document, or have a hyperlink launch an email client. The new Hyperlink Panel is also where the Cross Reference feature is accessed (more on that below).

Back to Document Basics
Of course most designers are using and will continue to use InDesign for print documents, not as a Flash-authoring tool. Accordingly, Adobe added several new features and enhanced others to help streamline the sort of classic layout work we know and love.

Most obvious is the new Live Preflight feature. A Preflight Panel accesses a series of dialog boxes where you create, apply, and manage preflight profiles. Profiles can be as simple as a single specification for color space, or include nearly all of the document elements that might affect output (transparency blending space, bleeds, overset text, stroke weight, etc.). Once you define a profile (or apply a saved profile) and turn on Live Preflight, InDesign checks in real-time against the profile and sounds the alert if you violate the document parameters.

Figure 4. The new Live Preflight feature warns of any conflict with the document specifications. In this instance you can see a warning that the text has overset the text box. Unlike earlier pre-flight features, with InDesign CS4, checks happen as you build the document, not at the end as part of some sort of review process.

It’s particularly helpful when you work consistently with a printer, publication, or service provider, or if you’re a freelancer on a large project. Simply import and apply a common Preflight Profile and everyone working on that project is assured off consistent output. QuarkXPress has had this ability for a while, and while InDesign doesn’t go nearly as far as QuarkXPress’ Job Jackets, Live Preflight is a start in being able to share document specifications up front, as opposed to checking for compliance at the end of the process and going back into the document for repairs.

Figure 5. The Live Preflight function checks against the document profile. These are pretty easy to set up in IDCS4 by simply walking through a series of dialog check boxes that allow you to set up most specifications. Profiles can be based on a simple one-item check or a complex, in-depth look at all of the elements that are likely to affect output. Profiles can be exported and applied to other documents and shared between a service provider and designer (or any other document participants).

Many other features enhance basic document construction and navigation in InDesign CS4:

Conditional Text. This new feature lets you have multiple versions of text that can be turned on or off, depending on the condition. Because you can apply conditional text at the paragraph, word, or character level, you can create a single file in circumstances where before you may have had to create multiple complete versions.

For example, imagine a catalog with two versions: retail and wholesale, each with their own prices and terms. If you make those prices and terms conditional text in one document, you can switch between them depending on which version of the catalog you’re outputting. You can turn individual text blocks on or off or change all conditioned text simultaneously.

Customizable Links. Thanks to a much–improved Links Panel, InDesign can now show document links in a compressed tree view, which makes it much easier to manage, find, and sort links. And along with file names, you now see a thumbnail for each link, so when you’re looking for a picture of a fish, you don’t have to know the file name is DCS4567. Click on the thumbnail and you get a larger view along with information about the linked file, and you can navigate directly to the file from the Links Panel. Information displayed in the Links Panel is customizable.

Figure 6. In the new Links Panel, you can see a tree hierarchy of linked items and by clicking on the thumbnail, bring up a dialog box with details of the item color space, size, title, etc. This new panel makes locating files much easier due in large part to the thumbnail image.

Cross-reference. This is a variation of hyperlinks whereby you can create references between text, either to other text within a document, or to text in another document. For example, if several mentions are made throughout a book to a specific caption or table, you can cross-reference these mentions. Should you then move the caption or table to a different page, InDesign warns you and lets you update the references. This is an important feature of long-document production systems (such as Adobe’s own FrameMaker), and when well implemented, it’s saves time and improves accuracy.

Smart Text Reflow. Some people will like this feature and others may hate it. It’s now possible to have InDesign automatically add or delete pages and text frames based on text length. So, if a story goes long, InDesign can simply add a page and link the text frame to the previous style. The same goes for when you cut text — InDesign auto-deletes the blank page or text frame. This feature requires careful planning when setting up master pages, so be advised that smart text reflow may not be as easy as it sounds when you’re working on a complex document.

Figure 7. A simple set up now allows InDesign to automatically add or delete new pages to a document when text reflow changes the page count.

Styles. InDesign CS4 added powerful features to styles that help you automate your work. You can now apply character styles on a line-by-line basis within a paragraph. You can also now apply GREP Styles within a Paragraph Style. This can all lead to layers of styles that might conflict, so you should know that manually applied styles take priority, then GREP Styles, then Drop-Cap Style, then Nested Styles, then Line Styles. (Thanks to Tim Cole for clarifying this.)

Go to page 2 for Gene’s buying advice.

Posted on: October 30, 2008

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

24 Comments on Review: Adobe InDesign CS4

  1. Thanks for the much awaited description. It is very helpful in my decision to buy or not to buy. I only work in print design, so a lot of the InD CS4 is stuff I don’t need (or need to pay for). Still, can you expand on “the ability to refine the way strokes are created”? Thanks very much for an excellent article and for taking the questino.

  2. Thanks for the much awaited description. It is very helpful in my decision to buy or not to buy. I only work in print design, so a lot of the InD CS4 is stuff I don’t need (or need to pay for). Still, can you expand on “the ability to refine the way strokes are created”? Thanks very much for an excellent article and for taking the questino.

  3. David Bergsland

    October 30, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Actually, you can use it on a G4, but you need a G5 to install it. I run my computer on an external FireWire drive. I installed CS4 on it with a G5 and it runs pretty good on the G4. needless to say, it is a little slow here.

  4. Thanks for the question. In InDesign CS4, you can control several stroke characteristics in the stroke panel. This includes being able to choose if strokes occur on the inside or outside of a text character, and how the strokes are joined. So, if you choose a larger stroke weight, you can, by varying some of these parameters, get better results than before. These options have been in Illustrator previously, but now can be applied in ID.

  5. Thanks David, for the suggestion. I was referencing the “official” specs from Adobe, and didn’t think to try it your way. But you’re absolutely right that the first obstacle is that the installer won’t let you run it on a G4 — your workaround certainly is a clever one (though of course it requires at least one machine that meets the specs, or a willing co-worker or neighbor!).

  6. Thanks for the review Gene. I can’t see any reason to upgrade from CS2 to 4. It sounds like web based flim flam for something to do. I wish it weren’t so.
    It would be nice if Adobe would publish WHO these upgrades are for: Hot shot big magazine publishers, web based database catalogs, print publishers, design mavens, etc. To say that THIS edition is for everyone is disingenuous.
    Photoshop seems to be like this too.
    I’m sure Illustrator could go through a LOT more changes with possibilities.
    Handling normal functions such as (IMO) Adobe’s weak “dictionary” limitations and the ability to handle large translation tables (instead of one at a time or writing scripts until kingdom come). Doing a college catalog with lots of reference numbers, etc. is important–the ability to suppress checks of those numbers, or including them is important. The current limitations are very low and useless. I also work in biographical areas and foreign names are important for inclusion and this fills up the dictionary quickly. How about a method to break a file in two pieces without leaving a trailing back half or vice versa. These are very important tools in the publishing area.
    So WHO is CS4 for? It isn’t the $200, it’s that it doesn’t seem useful to me for what I do and I do chess books and they can be very complicated.

  7. Not sure if this would help at all for the chess books, but I didn’t mention that when you add a custom word, name or phrase to a user dictionary all languages will then treat the term as correctly spelled. A small bit of progress, but could be important for those working in multiple languages! Thanks for the comments–I think it’s safe to say Adobe may be depending on third parties to supply some of the functionality you are looking for.

  8. I’m running the last beta build of InDesign CS4 on my G4 PowerBook…I had no issues or workarounds with the installer and it’s running great in Leopard. WAY better than CS3 ever did. Now, unless something changed from the beta to the final copy (which I’m eagerly awaiting), I don’t foresee any issues. Running: PowerBook G4 1.5GB RAM with 1.67 GHz processor, 10.5.

  9. Well, thanks again for the great comments. As it turns out, my beta version would not install on my Powerbook G4 (1.5 GHz), but I just tried to install the shipping version and sure enough, although it warned me that my system did not meet Adobe’s “suggested” minimum system requirements, it seems to be installing the CS4 Master Collection.

    So unofficially, that’s three of us who have been able, one way or another, to install CS4 on a G4 Mac. But beware of ignoring the installation requirements, and we’ll see how much speed penalty there is. I’ll report back later!

    The good news is, thanks to having to do the review, I found the excuse to get a new Macbook, so all is not lost!

  10. It seems that footnotes are still one of the major weaknesses of InDesign. Can you (easily) put footnotes in a single column at the bottom of a two-column page? Can you put all footnotes at the bottom of the right column in a two-column page? And of course import Word files with footnotes (the preferred format by authors) without any restriction. I don’t think so. O.k. you say, buy a commercial plugin. And my answer is: Have you really found one that can do this easily (comfortable) and correctly? The only one I have seen is pricey, unusable, and has restrictions with importing word files (“Microsoft Word footnotes and endnotes can be imported in CS and endnotes in CS2”). Thus book publishing is still difficult. Or did I miss something?

  11. Is it possible in CS4 to print out the links list? I know that you can do it in CS3 via the preflight report but, as far as I know, it is not customizable and it includes much info that is extraneous to my needs. Also is there a way to see the percentage increase or reduction on the image?


  12. Will CS4 cope with gradients output to pdf. The function doesn’t work in CS3.

  13. It is frustrating as you go to place when using multiple paged pdf files the show options tick drops off, so when in a rush you end up placing page 1 of the document.

    Has anyone got a solution to keeping the show options box checked.

  14. If you use the hollow arrow head, not the solid one, click on the image and it shows the bounding area of the photo/image & also the percentage

  15. I’ve used Pagemaker 7 for a long time, but can’t make any sense out of Indesign. Why can’t they use plain language?

  16. 1. In InDesign CS4, when packaging the document for the printer, where can you decide that maybe you just want the InDesign document, not the fonts, or maybe not the links, because the printer may already have the fonts. In CS2, you could deselect FONTS, LINKS, etc., but where is that option in CS4?
    2. InBooklet allowed us to paginate a document (usually for a quick printer), and Save As another document. CS4 only lets you go straight to print. I just want to be able to PAGINATE.

  17. Good job covering the essentials while keeping it fairly brief….I’ve been looking at CS4 for awhile and with the majority of my projects now involving interactive PDFs this looks like a smart move from CS3. Thanks! – Steven S.

  18. My “bread and butter” typeface: Helvetica Neue Light is no longer available to me.

    Why and what can be done about this?

    Jim Anderson

  19. InBooklet allowed us to paginate a document (usually for a quick printer), and Save As another document. CS4 only lets you go straight to print. I just want to be able tothank you sites sohbet sohbet cinsel sohbet

  20. thanks you print out the links list? I know that you can do it in CS3 via the preflight report but as far as I know it is not customizable and it. includes mirc much info that is extraneous to my needs. Also is there a way to sohbet see the percentage increase or reduction on the image..

  21. I have found CS4 suite a nightmare regarding the pasteboard and tools interface. Its SUCH a clutter now, my paste board has been reduced by 1/3 due to everything snapping all the time, and what on earth is up with multiple files opening with tabs along the top I HATE THAT! especially if you want to work quickly between multiple windows its a NIGHTMARE. really not impressed with CS4 from a mid to high end user point of view i dont care much for all the whizzy flash rubbish i just want to do good print layouts guys!

  22. for the record I’m staying with CS3 its much better from a layout and interface point of view. CS4 is like a car that has the accelerator on the dashboard and the brake on the roof with a steering wheel in the boot its all over the place i can’t stand it. I like to design fast and I’m bloody good at it, the interface and windows snapping like crazy drive me crazy, I’m reluctant to even use photoshop now that’s a whole other nightmare..CS3 was superior.
    AND what is up with release so many upgrades?! this is just a money making scheme. NO more upgrades for me please!

  23. While I’m ranting, why did they make silly changes to CS4 LIKE splitting character features, the tracking used to be along the top bar its now in the character window NOT with font size etc in the top bar. AND here o where is mode change to cmyk in PS CS4? I had to ring a technician to find out that i have to click ‘more options’ to find that! DUMB DUMB DUMB ANDDDD worst of all, windows dont pop to the front any more, I literally have to move them to the side for example if i want to bring a file to the front that is peeping behind another open file I used to just click the peeping file behind and it woudl pop forward, NO NO NO not now thats too easy they have removed this function..thank you so much cs4 you have really made me mad about these changes. they forget US proper designers like functionality, its key to working quickly and well. instead the focuss on adding in stupid web functions and trying to look cool like a mac. screw that! function over form! PLEASE

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