The new features in Illustrator CS6 concentrate on making the program faster, better organised and easier to work with. Tracing and creating patterns, in particular, get big improvements.
Illustrator is in three CS6 suites — Design/Web Premium (£1,509 ex. VAT; upgrade from £298), Production Premium (£1,509 ex. VAT; upgrade from £298) and Master Collection (£2,223 ex. VAT; upgrade from £397). On its own, Illustrator CS6 costs £476 (ex. VAT; upgrade from £190). Illustrator CS6 is also available via a Creative Cloud subscription (£38.11 ex. VAT per month on an annual contract).
64-bit and GPU-accelerated performance
With a venerable program like Illustrator that already has a significant range of features, adding new tools isn't always the most important thing. In Illustrator CS6, Adobe has concentrated on improving performance with a 64-bit version of the application (important for dealing with large files that can have thousands of objects and layers). Even on older systems, the Mercury performance engine should speed up complex files, especially when you preview effects. This image has a large number of objects — the hair alone is made up of ten layers. Changing colour fills and blurring the effects isn't real time on an older PC like a first-generation Core i5, but it's fast enough for you to experiment until you get the effect you want.
Screenshots: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet UK
The other main area of improvement is the interface, from the overall look to customisation options. Acknowledging that Illustrator is used with both image editing in Photoshop and video work in After Effects and Premiere Pro, the interface is similar enough not to be jarring next to either of them. You can even change the interface colours, picking from the same four shades of grey and black as Photoshop CS6 or using the same custom slider to get the same brightness as After Effects. And if you want a white canvas you can now set that, whatever shade you chose for the interface.
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.
Advanced tracing options
You can still go in and work with the full range of tracing options. You can drag the slider to control how many of the colours from the original image are reproduced, or click Advanced and choose how closely the validation paths fit the original shapes in the photo, how pronounced the angles of the curves are, whether paths overlap or not, whether to keep curved lines curved or straighten them and whether to simplify the image by ignoring very small shapes. This gives you fine control when you want something more stylised than photorealistic; click the eye icon next to the View drop-down to see the original photo for comparison.
Patterns made easy
If you're using Illustrator to draw or for commercial illustration, you need to be able to create patterns — for wallpaper, for fabric or for effects like grass where you want to have the same element repeating over and over again. In previous versions you had to do this by laboriously grouping, duplicating and arranging multiple objects. In Illustrator CS6 you select the objects and choose Object / Pattern / Make and you have a new pattern on the Swatches panel to use as a fill. You can choose how to lay out the tiles of your pattern; in rows and columns, overlapping like bricks or in a hexagon arrangement. And the objects in the pattern are always live and editable if you need to make changes later on.
More gradient options
When you apply a gradient of one or more colours to a stroke, Illustrator CS6 gives you more options for how the colours are applied. A gradient that runs from one side of a complex shape to another doesn't look very natural — the spiral on the upper left has a gradient running within the stroke and if that was part of a drawing, it probably wouldn't be the effect you require. Applying the gradient along the stroke, like the spiral on the right, or across the stroke as in the spiral below provides a more realistic effect in a complex image.