Affordable CS5 Alternatives

The best affordable Adobe CS5 alternative is the academic version — e.g. CS5 Web Premium costs $1799 retail, $599 to upgrade from CS4 (more from earlier versions), and $549 brand new at Academic prices. Design Standard is $1499 vs $449. (There are even cheaper “Student & Teacher” options, but they can’t be upgraded and shouldn’t be used for commercial work.)

To understand how good a deal this is — Web Premium includes Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Photoshop Extended, Illustrator, and Flash. Coda, Photoline, and Intaglio would cost $280, and this doesn’t give you a Fireworks or Flash replacement. And to say that Photoline and Intaglio aren’t full replacements for Photoshop and Illustrator is a huge understatement.

If you aren’t eligible for an academic discoun, then things get more complicated.

The core components of Adobe CS5 are:

Photoshop: there’s no real alternative to Photoshop if you use Photoshop’s high-end capabilities. If you don’t use any of them then you can get away with a much cheaper program, such as Photoshop Elements, Photoline, Paintshop Pro, Acorn, Pixelmator, or even The GIMP. If you want natural media style painting abilities, Photoshop is actually not the best choice, and you should look at Painter or Art Rage (or Sketchbook Pro if you’re using a Tablet PC).

Illustrator: there’s a very good free alternative to Illustrator if you’re willing to live with an X-11 app, and that’s InkScape. Despite being X-11, it actually is very usable (more usable in some respects than Illustrator). Otherwise, there’s Intaglio, Lineform, Zeusdraw, VectorDesigner, and EasyDraw among others. (Sorry, but I’m not familiar with Windows alternatives, and Googling didn’t really help — ah Macs, so starved for software.)

Flash: while there are third-party Flash development tools (SWF is a pretty well-documented format), most are jokes or one-trick ponies. If you want to do serious work with SWF, you’ll need Flash, and you’ll probably need Photoshop and Illustrator since no other graphics tools are well-integrated with Flash.

After Effects: there are lots of alternatives to After Effects, but they’re all in the same price ballpark. If you’re a Final Cut Studio user, Final Cut Pro and Motion pretty much match After Effects’s feature set and are well-integrated. Similarly, if you’re an Autodesk/Avid user then why are you reading this paragraph?

Premiere: there are no good free video editing packages that I know of, although if you don’t need Premiere’s capabilities there’s iMovie and Final Cut Express (on the Mac).

Soundbooth: many, many alternatives, including the free and quite good Audacity.

On Location: there was a really awesome program called On Location, way back, that was essentially like Spotlight only over ten years earlier. This isn’t it. This is essentially a utility for capturing, adding metadata to, and otherwise managing digital footage when on a shoot, and I don’t know of any obvious alternatives (certainly no cheap ones).

Dreamweaver: if you’re not a hardcore Dreamweaver user (or, for example, a Cold Fusion developer), chances are you don’t need it at all. There are plenty of free and cheap web development tools out there. I’d recommend Coda for technically-savvy Dreamweaver users who are looking for an alternative and would like to give up their training wheels.

Contribute: I haven’t used Contribute, but from what I understand it’s a simplified web content editor aimed at people who essentially want to populate templates created by someone else. I don’t really like any of the desktop web development tools aimed at non-technical types, but if forced to pick one I’d probably pick Rapidweaver. Personally, I think this kind of thing is best handled using web-based content management tools such as WordPress.

Fireworks: Fireworks is a strange product. On the one hand most of its functionality is superfluous and it has a truly terrible user interface. On the other hand it has a number of — for UI designers — almost indispensable functions, notably pixel-centric vector drawing tools. If you need it, you need it.

InDesign: the only real alternative to InDesign is XPress (which, if anything, is more expensive and comes from a far more obnoxious vendor), unless you’re not using InDesign’s higher end capabilities, in which case your word processor (notably Pages) is a great alternative that you already know how to use.

Acrobat: again, if you need it you need it. Otherwise, not. Personally, I can’t stand Acrobat and don’t even want Acrobat Reader on my computers; for Mac users there’s Preview and the Print-to-PDF function both of which are far more pleasant to use than Acrobat (until you get technical). There are many better alternatives to Acrobat Reader, until you need to do something complicated, like fill in forms.

Meanwhile, back at Adobe Labs

Prezi exposes Flash's rotten core
Prezi exposes Flash’s rotten core

A colleague recently showed off a slide presentation created using Prezi.com, a Flash-based slideshow program. (The home page of this site is atrocious, which is not a good sign, but I think the idea is actually better than you might guess from the home page.) The basic idea of Prezi is really simple and neat — instead of slides you simply build a giant poster and each slide is simply a subview of this giant poster. The thing that struck me about this is that:

  1. It’s very clever and simple,
  2. I don’t think it will be useful for most presenters who have enough trouble putting together interesting slides as things are, and
  3. It doesn’t work very well (basically, the second slideshow I tried out was a speaker’s package for TED presenters (not that I am or ever will be one) and the frame rate dropped to something like 2fps while performing a simple transition in a small rectangle on my screen — on my late model Dell desktop).

And the reason it doesn’t work very well is Flash.

To be fair, the slideshow that first annoyed me was heavy with bitmaps, so I tried out some really simple slideshows and discovered that it is fully capable of choking on a pretty much empty page (my guess is Flash is really bad at culling — which is a technical term meaning “figuring out what isn’t visible and not wasting time on it”) and surprisingly bad at rendering text (quite a few “prezis” seem to have text so badly misrendered as to be illegible).

The problem with Flash isn’t that it’s not optimized for Macs.

The problem with Flash is that it’s just not very good.

Would all this work better in HTML5? Not without a lot of clever programming. And producing something like Prezi in HTML5 would be a lot more work than doing so in Flash. The problem is that Flash is a “mature” product — it’s been through four scripting languages, multiple virtual machines, and over 10 versions of the IDE (I can’t remember what version FutureSplash Animator was at when it was acquired by Macromedia). Normally, maturity means that a product will have all this deep functionality, but Flash’s utility basically boils down to “it makes it easy to create custom video players”.

If you want a really tragic example, go to Adobe’s online store (yeah, it’s one of those sites that requires you to tell it where you are rather than automatically guessing and letting you override it if it guesses wrong). For some reason, Adobe has chosen to implement its store entirely in Flash instead of, say, HTML. As a result, it looks a lot like a web page but everything works much worse. For example, on Macs mouse-scrolling isn’t supported. On Windows it’s supported but it’s jerky and annoying (versus smooth-as-silk for most web pages of similar complexity in any browser on the same hardware). But hey, it’s only been 15 years and 10 (.1) versions — we’ll get to it.

Basically, if you’re using Flash to display thumbnails, captions, and a few UI widgets it works OK.

Thanks to bad press from Steve Jobs, Adobe suddenly got the performance religion with Flash Player 10.1, which it’s now touting all over the place, but the sad thing is that Flash still doesn’t do anything smart when simply drawing stuff on the screen — and that’s its core functionality — it also implements a whole library of UI widgets that don’t work properly, and it has an IDE which has an absolutely infuriating UI* and still screws up common tasks like importing graphics (from both Illustrator and Photoshop).

That said, Photoshop CS5 looks like being totally awesome.

* e.g. some panels won’t dock as tabs to other panels but need to be on their own, the code view of an external ActionScript file doesn’t go in Action panel where internal code goes so if you want your code in nice large panels you need to constantly futz with the UI, the online help is now on Adobe’s website which by default does not search through Flash’s ActionScript documentation and also, by default, shows links to random outside websites rather than Adobe’s official documentation (you’re pretty much better off using Google to find docs or online help for Adobe products these days).