Adobe CS4 — User Interface Clusterf**k

I’ve been “struggling” along with Adobe CS3 for some time, so finally switching to CS4 is a bit of a shock. To start with under Windows (I don’t have the Mac version) they’ve decided to opt for a non-standard Mac-like UI — the menu bar is at the top of the screen. OK that might be great, except that it’s (a) not the platform standard, (b) ugly, and (c) doesn’t actually benefit from Fitts’s Law because the menus are actually buttons that don’t reach the top of the screen. How hard would it have been to make the menus look (and work) like menus?

Adobe tries to implement a Mac menu bar under Windows and fails.
Adobe tries to implement a Mac menu bar under Windows and fails. Note that the shortcuts become underlined after you hit Alt -- which is both non-standard and annoying.

If you have multiple documents open, by default they’re arranged in tabs in an MDI-like interface (yes, they’ve combined a fake Mac menu bar that doesn’t benefit from Fitts’s Law with a fake MDI interface … if only they’d made everything Metal and put the main menu at the bottom-left of the screen it could have been perfect).

If you actually want to look at two documents side-by-side, well you can “tile” — which isn’t too bad, or you can “float” the windows — which separates the menubar and palettes from the documents. Exactly how this is supposed to be workable I’m not sure. What is definite is that Photoshop CS4 somehow manages to become a total slug when more than one document is visible or you use any floating windows. (When you choose Tile there’s a huge thunk … and I’m looking at empty documents on a late-model PC with lots of RAM.)

And the UI implementation is buggy too. When I tried to see if standard Windows keyboard shortcuts work as expected, well… the UI just went crazy. (They do kind of work, but they also trigger random behavior in the UI, so after pressing Alt, then F to see the File menu, the application had resized itself (beyond full screen) and magnified the underlying image.)

If you’re going to break platform rules, it should be for a good reason and you should do it competently. Adobe Photoshop CS4 feels like a bad X-Windows port.

Good grief.

Illustrator Replacements, Cont’d

It seems like this is a popular topic right now. In Drawing Conclusions Jon Whipple provides a very thorough comparison of Intaglio, Vector Designer, LineForm, and ZeusDraw (he dismisses some contenders for being too expensive, or having terrible websites, and InkScape for running on other platforms — which seems a bit odd since Illustrator runs on other platforms and is expensive). I do like the fact that Mr. Whipple is well aware of Illustrator’s numerous shortcomings (unlike some reviewers who simply assume it’s superior to its competition in all respects).

It’s a long article, so I’ll cut to the chase and say he picked ZeusDraw as his favorite. I’d not heard of it before and will check it out , but he found pretty crippling limitations in all the programs (as did I).

Afterword: after using ZeusDraw for five minutes, I’m pretty irked by the interface. Some things are great — it’s amazingly easy to set up custom brushes, although there aren’t a bunch of nice presets — but the user interface is unstable (it morphs into different forms based on the selected tool, and often deselects the object you’re working on for no reason) and the bezier tool is gratuitously different and worse (i.e. less interactive) than the one we’re all used to.


Illustrator Replacements

While Photoshop is seeing a bit of competition from Core Image based apps, Illustrator is seeing a lot more competition thanks to Cocoa’s excellent support for typography and Quartz’s support for PostScript (i.e. PDF). The serious contenders I’ve come across so far are:

  • Intaglio — the closest thing to a lightweight Illustrator replacement
  • Lineform
  • VectorDesigner
  • DrawIt
  • EazyDraw

And then there’s Inkscape, which is free, open source, and cross-platform, and — despite being built on X11 — quite usable (unlike The GIMP, showing us that The GIMP’s UI isn’t X11’s fault).

The best discussions of Illustrator alternatives I’ve come across are this head-to-head comparison on The Unofficial Apple Weblog and this collection of interlinked reviews from MacLife. Neither review discusses all the available options.  TUAW’s article covers DrawBerry, which I don’t consider a serious option. Neither review mentions Inkscape (screenshot below):

All of these programs have free demos (or are plain free) and are worth a look. DrawIt has the most radical interface and, if it actually allowed you to import and export vector files (such as SVG and editable PDFs) it might be a lot more useful. VectorDesigner suffers from this problem and the inability to transform more than one vertex at a time. Lineform is hampered by a lack of useful primitives (such as polygons and stars) but this doesn’t affect its use for freeform illustrators.

In general, for simple stuff, most of these programs are remarkably less annoying to use than Illustrator, but remarkably less precise. Illustrator offers powerful snap and guide options that none of these programs come close to matching, and explicit control over the rendering of stroke joins, dashed lines, and so on. Ultimately, I think two of these programs (Intaglio and Inkscape) are perfectly useful for almost anything , but ultimately only Inkscape offers anything approaching Illustrator’s precision.

In this case, the best option also happens to be free. Interesting times ahead for Adobe.

Photoline: The Usability Tipping Point

My proposed Photoline icon

There’s some point at which a program becomes sufficiently functional and usable that it becomes a “go to” application. You can have all the functionality in the world but a crummy user interface (e.g. The GIMP) and no-one will use you if they have access to anything decent. Similarly, you can have an absolutely fabulous interface, but if you don’t have some key, specific feature(s) then, again, no-one will use you (e.g. iMovie ’08).

Of course, needs and tastes vary. I’m sure some people are very happy with The GIMP (I can only assume because they are hardened open source zealots with no taste) or iMovie ’08, but I think that most people will tend to reach a frustration point with a piece of software, and then give up. I’m not sure whether being more experienced or familiar with other software has much effect beyond a certain point, either. While I may know how to use dozens of word-processors, and my demands of word-processors may be greater, I’m also likely to be able to figure out stranger user interfaces and be better at finding work-arounds.

Today on a whim I decided to redesign Photoline’s abominable icon.

Photoline's abominable icon

Photoline’s current icon. Judge for yourself.

I’ve had very nice things to say about Photoline in the past. Of the potential low-priced Photoshop replacements out there it is by far the most functional and stable. Unfortunately, compared to Photoshop CS3 it’s still a sad joke, as we shall see.

I was determined to use Photoline for all the 2d bitmap editing in creating the new icon (and I did) but I encountered enormous frustration along the way. Indeed, the 3d modeling took perhaps half an hour, while messing around trying to produce the screen image was an exercise in frustration.

First, I found an image of a Nikon D3 to use for the computer display. The idea was simply to pull the camera out of the background, stylize it a bit (exaggerate the contrast), remove branding information, rotate it, and then put it against a Mac desktop picture. Simple.

Deep etching (knocking out the background of an image) is one of those things graphic designers do constantly, and Photoline’s magic wand worked reasonably well. If I were doing this seriously (e.g. for someone paying me) I would have used a bezier path to perform the selection (I haven’t tried this in Photoline yet) but I wasn’t, so I didn’t. Photoline did OK selecting the white background, although there was an unsightly fringe, and Photoline doesn’t have Photoshop’s tools for cleaning up the edges of images (e.g. Remove White Matte), but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Note: I went back and verified that Photoline fully supports bezier selections.

Having selected what I didn’t want, I would just invert the selection in Photoshop (command-I, a command etched into any serious Photoshop user’s brain). But not only is this not command-I in Photoline, it turns out to be buried under Tool > Mask > Invert Mask. There’s no Selection menu. Oh, and a Mask and a Selection are very different things. This is just terrible, but easily fixed. There’s no question that Photoline’s menus could use some better naming and organization.

Importing the backdrop was nasty. I couldn’t just drag the document into the window I was working in or drag the layer from one document window to another (or layer palette to window) as I would in Photoshop. (Oddly enough, despite not being very Mac-like, Photoline actually looks much more polished on the Mac than on Windows.) So having opened the file and copy-and-pasted the image into my working document, I overwrote the camera layer. What? After a lot of random fiddling I got it to work, but was never sure how. Whenever you paste something into Photoshop (except for vector objects copied from elsewhere in Photoshop) you get a new layer — a wise decision, I think.

This is the halftone effect I was going for.

This is the halftone effect I had intended to go for, but sadly Photoline doesn’t have that filter.

Stylizing the image turned out to be a royal pain. First, I wanted to use a non-destructive Levels or Curves filter on the camera but I couldn’t figure out how to restrict it to just the Camera layer (and not the background). So I ended up having to use a destructive filter. Oh, how very Photoshop 6. The next thing I had planned to do was turn the camera into a halftone image with gigantic dots, but Photoline doesn’t have that filter. Indeed, Photolines filters are bizarrely organized into two menus and eight submenus. The term “Filter” and “Effect” are used interchangeably despite the fact that Effects are quite clearly intended to refer specifically to what Photoshop calls Layer Styles. Some of Photoline’s “Effects” are just filters, others aren’t. Ugh.

I eventually concluded that there was nothing stylish I could do to the D3 image that didn’t make me puke, and that the D3 is kind of butt ugly anyway, and that DSLRs, being black, don’t make for very interesting photographs.

So I decided to knock together a stylized camera manually, and to use the (to my eye) more attractive D80 as my basis. So I googled a suitable photo, imported it into Illustrator, and quickly produced the graphic image I wanted. I then saved the vector artwork as SVG and tried to import it into Photoline.

Important Note: at this point I do Photoline a grave disservice. Had I not been frustrated at this point I might have tried using Photoline’s vector tools to do what I ended up doing in Illustrator. I went back and tried to do this and found the tools pretty decent (indeed, in some ways superior to Photoshop’s vector tools, although — of course — no match for Illustrator’s).

No dice.

Photoline, which rivals GraphicConverter in terms of supported graphic file formats, and has fairly strong vector tools, apparently can’t load or save SVGs. So back to Illustrator and I saved as PDF (Acrobat 4.x). Photoline opened this, and I could see the image, but I couldn’t select it properly, or scale it (it was tiny), or rotate it. So back to Illustrator again, and I save as PNG at a suitable resolution. Now, I know Photoline can import PNGs, but when I rotate the PNG the quality of the rotated image terrible. I guess I’ve just gotten to taking Photoshop’s incredibly well-implemented bitmap rotation for granted. (And on the Mac you also get Core Image which is equally excellent, but Photoline is cross-platform and doesn’t use Core Image, I guess.)

Important Note: I went back and checked this, and it turns out that Photoline by default rotates a layer as an object (so the pixels aren’t changed, the entire layer is rotated) and uses quick and dirty rendering to show the results. You can right-click on a layer and click “Fix Layer” to burn the results into the bitmap, which produces results equal in quality to Photoshop. So Photoline’s equivalent of Photoshop’s layer transform tool is non-modal and non-destructive. So this is actually a case where Photoline exceeds Photoshop in functionality, and while it may not be obvious to a Photoshop user what’s going on, it’s not like the Photoline’s UI — in this case — is any worse than Photoshop’s, just different.

So, back once more to Illustrator where I pre-rotate the image and export as PNG. And I’m done.

Photoshop CS4? If Photoline were Photoshop, my icon would have turned out this way.

Photoshop CS4? If Photoline were Photoshop, my icon would have looked like this.

Except that all I’d managed to achieve in Photoline is to stick one alpha-channeled image in front of another. This isn’t Rocket Science. Heck, I could have done either in Pixelmator or Acorn (or heck, possibly even the Iris beta). I could probably do it in QuickTime Pro (QuickTime Player is a pretty darn good compositing tool). Still, having gone back over some of my greatest problems with Photoline in this little project, I find that two major issues turn out to Photoline’s advantage. While it may not be able to import SVG, it has excellent internal vector tools, and its apparently poor layer transform tool turns out to be better (modeless and non-destructive until you’re ready) than Photoshop’s.

Lessons Learned

Some of my problems definitely resulted from Photoline’s poorly organized (and named) menus, and some other UI nastiness (e.g. the PDF import is a disaster). Most of the problems either stemmed from unfamiliarity with Photoline’s slightly different (and sometimes better) ways of doing things, and my wanting Photoline to be Photoshop, which it’s not and it’s unfair to expect it to have, for example, a specific cool filter from Photoshop (although, darn it, Core Image provides it too). I think it’s safe to say that if I were as familiar with Photoline as I am with Photoshop I’d probably be very nearly as capable and productive as I am with Photoshop. That said, Photoshop is part of a highly integrated ecosystem and in the end it’s simply a superior tool. But Photoline’s near-instantaneous launches are pretty damn easy to like.

Why I hate Adobe. Expensive Upgrades & Software that Phones Home

I’m in a quandary. I have Adobe CS3 Web Premium through work, but I don’t have my own license. I have Adobe Creative Suite (the original version) which comprised Photoshop 7, Illustrator 10, and InDesign 1, which were the first OS X native versions of each product, and I have After Effects 5 (for Windows).

Assuming I can convince Adobe I own a “CS” license, I can upgrade to Adobe CS3 Design Standard for $599, and upgrade After Effects for $299. If I want Flash and Dreamweaver that’s another $699 and $399. Total cost of upgrading: $2000. The Master Suite (licenses for absolutely everything) costs $2499.

This is (one reason) why I hate Adobe.

This is the way Adobe used to price products. If you wanted one product, it cost you $700. If you wanted most of them, it cost you $1000-$1300. If you wanted the super duper version of After Effects it cost you $2000.

If you owned Adobe Photoshop N, and wanted N+1 (or N+2) it cost you $300, but for $500 you ould get the “most of them” package, etc.

This is how I, who basically use Photoshop every day and Illustrator once a week, and the other stuff occasionally, ended up with licenses for pretty much all their software. (I have licenses for all Macromedia’s stuff too — I’m trying not to get too complex.) It makes sense too: software is free to give away once written, so it makes sense to sell bundles of “all our stuff” for a bit extra if we can get a solid chunk of change for one item.

But now Adobe has created a mind-boggling byzantine upgrade system (so complex their online tool to tell you which upgrade path to use is down for maintenance) which basically makes it almost as expensive to buy everything again as to upgrade it, even though I only really want one thing.

Here are my alternatives:
1) Upgrade Photoshop ($199). I don’t get the “extended edition” … but I’ll live. It irks me that Adobe has created two (or is it three, if you add Elements, or four if you add Lightroom?) tiers of Photoshop, but then it’s really their one indispensable product, so I wouldn’t be surprised if CS4 brings us Photoshop Elements, Photoshop LightRoom, Photoshop Professional, Photoshop Production Professional, and Photoshop Production Professional for After Effects.

I considered buying Photoline (~$90, see previous blog entry)… but I really like Photoshop, and I know it really well. Also the one thing about Photoshop that really irks me (launch time) isn’t really solved by Photoline. So saving $110 may not be worth it. Photoline upgrades are roughly $45, but it’s at version 14, so I guess it revs more often than Photoshop.

2) Get Intaglio ($89). It’s not as good as Illustrator, but it will do the job, and launches instantly without phoning home. (Illustrator 10 would often fail to launch or hang on launch because Adobe’s servers were offline.)

This is (another reason) why I hate Adobe.

Adobe recently got into some hot water over its software “phoning home” to a suspiciously named server that turned out (according to Adobe) to be some kind of left over Macromedia initiative they didn’t know about. This ignores the fact Adobe’s stuff has been phoning home for at least seven years.

3) Give up on After Effects. After Effects is great. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to use than the heavyweight tools, and does a very good job. But now there’s Shake, whatever replaces Shake, and for simple stuff there’s Final Cut Express/Pro and Motion. So … buh-bye.

4) Give up on InDesign. I never really got to love InDesign. I really did love Framemaker, but Adobe’s clever strategy of (a) never updating it, and (b) dropping Mac OS support (even though it runs on UNIX variants) forced me to give up on it (I tried using it under Classic but eeew). I don’t know much DTP these days, so Pages (flawed as it is) will serve me.

The Macromedia side of things, which I’ve ignored thus far, is much easier to deal with.

Flash — well I use it for work but I don’t need to think about it any other time. If I have to, I’ll upgrade one of my licenses. (Again, Adobe is selling multiple SWF development tools…) Oh, and I might just wait to see what happens to ActionScript, since AS3 did not become ECMAScript and is utterly incompatible with AS2 … so will there be an AS4, and will it be similar/different to AS3 or AS2. I mean, WTF?

Dreamweaver — always kind of sucked, and now there are far nicer, cheaper alternatives. (Coda!)

Director — hasn’t received a worthwhile update since 8.5 (although they did make an OS X native version and charged through the nose for it). Probably dead. That’s OK, there’s Unity.