Hands on: Adobe Creative Suite 4 review

Adobe CS4 is the best graphics suite ever released – as long as you can run it

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Before the end of the year, the full Adobe Creative Suite 4 product should be launched.

PC Plus magazine tested a feature-complete beta of CS4 to find out if the new version will be a milestone - or a millstone around Adobe's neck.

Photoshop CS4

It's no secret that despite the 21 other apps in the Adobe Master Folder, Photoshop is the flagship product in the new CS4 line. The new photo editing tool has four main innovations, making it an impressive upgrade.

The first innovation is it now runs in 64-bit mode. Keep in mind that you need to have the 64-bit version of Windows Vista or Windows XP, as well as a 64-bit processor, and it won't hurt to have at least 8GB of RAM too. 32-bit apps can only access 4GB of RAM, but some workstation computers can support up to 32GB.

According to John Nack, an Adobe Product Manager who blogs at http://blogs.adobe.com/jnack, 64-bit memory addressing improves performance by about eight to 12 per cent for most operations. However, when dealing with extremely large images (say, a four-gigapixel image), he says that performance can be as high as 10 times that of a 32-bit app.

The second innovation is new Pixel Bender support (formerly known as Hydra), an Adobe technology that allows Photoshop to access your high-end graphics card directly. The HP DV7 uses an Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT 512MB adaptor, so the Pixel Bender support is important because Photoshop can swap memory in RAM and use the graphics card for graphics rendering, giving a one-two punch that speeds up every filter and editing function.

We'll save the detailed benchmarks for a proper review, but suffice it to say that Photoshop CS4 is much snappier than Photoshop CS3. We tested CS4 on an HP Pavilion DV7 high-end notebook with a 2.8GHz dual-core processor, 4GB of RAM, Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit and two 300GB drives. We used a 10,000 x 15,000 image that was 430 MB in size.

A complex fresco filter that takes several minutes on CS3 took only 20 seconds in Photoshop CS4. Most filters – including a basic blur and unsharp mask – were instantaneous. Liquify filters, new layers, artistic brush treatments and image resizing took only a few seconds.

The third innovation is a brand new interface that's a departure from even the previous release. It doesn't follow the typical Windows Vista or XP conventions and hints at a day when Adobe will move their powerhouse apps to the web.

Finally, Photoshop CS4 has several new editing features. You can now rotate the canvas without rotating the image, select parts of an image in the Refine Edge dialog box, use new multi-channel and abstract colour channels and implement tweaks to the dodge and burn tools that improve the effect on colour saturated images.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS4

Premiere Pro is the only application in the Master Collection suite for CS4 that was not upgraded with the new interface.

New support for hard disk-based (what Adobe calls 'tapeless') video cameras is supposed to be a key feature, but we could not get Premiere Pro to work with a JVC Everio GZ-HD6U camcorder, either in terms of recognising the device as a capture medium or reading the files directly from the hard disk drive on the camera.

Adobe is likely working out the bugs on camera support, but we did expect the leading feature to work out-of-the- box. New encoding options for portable devices and a separate batch-encoding program called the Adobe Media Encoder are nods to the mobile and web markets who are constantly shooting video and want to take it on the road or upload to YouTube.