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Arrange and clean up panels
There are dozens of tools tucked away in different panels in Illustrator, only a few of which are available from the panel well down the right side of the screen, which stacks them neatly or shrinks them to icons. The fastest way to get the tools you need is by switching between the eight preset workspaces using the Essentials dropdown; you can also design your own custom workspace with the panels you need open on-screen and with the tools you need from the toolbar torn off and dragged out for quick use. If you close, open and move panels while you're working, the Reset Essentials command puts everything back where it belongs.
Simpler, bigger colour tools
Drag the colour panel out of the dock and you can resize it to make it easier to pick the colour you want quickly. Use the menu to switch between colour modes, including full RGB and Web-safe RGB. If you know the hex value of the colour you want, you can type that in directly on the panel; alternatively you can mix the colour here and copy the hex value out to use in a web authoring tool. If you find it easier to pick from existing palettes of colours, there's a wide library of swatches — from natural colours based on vegetables to gradients designed to look like gems and jewels.
Fast image tracing
If you want to start an illustration with a photograph, Illustrator has always been able to convert it to a vector version by 'tracing' the edges, but the results have generally been slow and of poor quality. The new Image Trace panel is both faster and more effective than Live Trace. Select a bitmap and use the range of preset tracing options to get quick results that make the photo look like a photo (even though it's now vector art), make it look like a sketch or a greyscale drawing and similar effects.