An invitation to a new CS. I can at least guarantee “It’s going to come in a really big box.” Photo by Ian Usher, via Flickr.

Adobe is back with another Creative Suite update, and touting (accurately) “bigness”:

Adobe’s biggest software release to date includes Adobe Creative Suite 4 Design editions, Creative Suite 4 Web editions, Creative Suite 4 Production Premium, Creative Suite 4 Master Collection, as well as 13 point products, 14 integrated technologies and seven services.

So, what’s in there? The big pluses for me, certainly for the kinds of people who read this site, are real motion tools and inverse kinematics in Flash, badly-needed editing tweaks and format support in Premiere, 3D and 2.5D improvements in After Effects, and smarter Photoshop editing. Unfortunately, while companies like Apple and Sony have slashed their prices, Adobe still seems to be betting on a now-burst bubble economy for digital artists, with suite upgrade prices around $600, and confusing, over-complicated bundling (Premium? Web? Production?), despite editorial calls for them to slim down their offerings. (Hey, if it’s making them money, I can’t really argue.)

Here’s a look at some of the feature highlights, which I couldn’t resist following with a word on the Joy of Simplicity — a bit like wanting to stare at a green wall after looking at absurdly bright sunlight:

  • Easier Photoshop editing: Photoshop CS3 added lots of new stuff, but not so much in the bread-and-butter Photoshop area. CS4 adds new tools for smarter scaling, auto-aligning, and auto-blending. GPU acceleration should make even 2D editing faster and smoother, as well.
  • Painting on 3D models, 3D/2D connections: I was intrigued by the idea of Photoshop CS4 Extended as a 3D tool, but with the ability to paint directly on 3D surfaces and easily merge 2D files onto 3D surfaces, plus increased performance, this may be more useful in the real world. Still, I imagine for many people 3D remains a sideshow — meaning that aforementioned bread-and-butter stuff is more important.
  • Mobile integration: Device Central was interesting but limited in applications in CS3. Now, you can directly target mobile devices from, say, inside After Effects CS4. I can imagine dumping motion graphics to a mobile device, plugging a video out cable into a mixer, and VJing. It’s not a reason to buy the upgrade, given other tools, but you might use it if it’s there.
  • Bridge may be useful now: Don’t get me wrong – Bridge has always been nifty in theory. But now that it actually beefs up camera import and views and integrates better with Photoshop, I might actually use it.
  • Speech search: Word is this is a little rough in practice, but Premiere and Soundbooth can now translate dialogue to searchable text. Transcription may be impractical, but I could imagine this would help editing interviews and the like. Not directly applicable to CDMotion, but I’m very eager to try it.
  • More 3D in After Effects: After Effects now imports 3D layers from Photoshop, adds independent x/y/z keyframes and 2.5D motion tracking, and reworks the 3D interface. 3D in motion graphics tools generally has been a big challenge usability-wise, so it’ll be interesting to see how this has improved.
  • Generally-tweaked AE: After Effects also has lots of user interface, workflow, integration, and performance improvements; I’ll leave it to an AE expert to look at that in more detail.
  • Flash does more motion – and adds bones to the meat: Flash now does what Adobe calls “object-based animation,” complete with motion editing, motion presets and auto-generated motion paths, and in a huge leap for animation, finally adds inverse-kinematics in a cleverly-titled Bones feature. Flash also integrates more tightly with AE, including those paths, so this is really reaching some of its potential as a motion graphics workflow.
  • Flash 10 does sound: This deserves a separate post over on CDMusic, but the important news is that Flash now does real-time sound — after a community of developers pushed them for this feature. That should make other rich platform developers (I’m looking at you, Sun) stand up and take notice — rich media really means rich media, including real-time capabilities and extensibility you may not expect the average designer would want. (Hint: they have skilled coder friends.)
  • Smarter Premiere editing: A combination of better pasting, selection (particularly with multiple clips), snapping, and workflow and keyboard shortcuts could give Premiere a new edge on quick video editing — huge for visualists, of course.
  • Premiere finally supports the formats you need: Tapeless HDV, native AVCHD editing, Panasonic P2 — all with proper metadata — compatibility is finally there. (For the record, that’s now native editing with RED, P2, XDCAM, and AVCHD in addition to existing formats.) My only question: how’s performance? I haven’t been blown away in the past; the new version has background encoding, so we’ll see if that fixes the constant rendering I was doing when trying Premiere.
  • OnLocation CS4 now does capture not only of DV but HDV and DVCPROHD direct-disk. It also appears to have better clip/metadata management and Premiere integration.

The bigger part of the market, certainly, appreciates bigness, though I am always impressed by independent artists and live visualists who focus instead on “smallness.” We’re now getting closer to the 1.0 release of Processing, which you might think of as the anti-CS4. It’s capable of “radical workflow breakthroughs that bring down the walls between designers and developers,” as Adobe says of CS4. But it has no user interface, entirely focusing on code, a simplified syntax, and emphasizes building from scratch just what you need to complete a job. It’s free, open-source, and community-supported, and never shows up in a giant box of paper as CS4 does. And, interestingly, it’s not impossible to create some of the same results. That’s to say nothing of the years of demoscene art in which talented artists work in kilobytes of code. Because something like CS4 and something like Processing are opposites, of course, I’m not suggesting this is a comparable either/or choice (rather, I’m delighted it’s not). You can (and many do) also use both. But it is worth mentioning.

On the other hand, while we’re talking about trends mainstream press seems to miss, another thing that should be readily apparent is that nothing in this release lends itself to translation as a Web app. There are all kinds of subtle performance improvements, native OpenGL GPU acceleration, and highly detailed refinements of UI. Adobe, of course, is in the unusual position of advocating both massive-codebase conventional software and (via AIR/Flex/Flash) rich Web apps. But it’s clear both have their place, and that as engineering problems, they’re fundamentally different things.

As far as creative use of this Creative Suite, we are indeed interested in an absurdly small, unique niche community — but that’s often an important world in creative work. So I’m curious: what here matters to you, if anything? Or are you happy hacking away on an ancient copy of Photoshop and some software you wrote yourself? (All due respect to Adobe, we love both early adopters and the Resistance.)

Let us know in comments. And I imagine we’ll follow up on the new CS4 stuff, so let us know what you’ve seen or what you want to know.