Photoshop CC 2015, First Take: Useful UI, cloud service and feature improvements

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The 2015 version of Photoshop for Adobe Creative Cloud (CC) users adds some excellent new features, more cloud options, new design tools for mobile, plus and a whole new interface designed to attract new designers who aren't familiar with what's become a rather convoluted UI over the years.

The beauty of cloud services is that they can continually add new features, and the latest major update of CC enhances both the desktop and mobile apps and includes useful new cloud services.

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The 2015 version of Photoshop has new tools for creating, previewing and exporting designs intended for mobile devices. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

It also tries to give Photoshop a makeover, which is a tricky proposition after 25 years. If you've kept up with Photoshop all along, or if you're familiar with recent tools and tricks, the powerful but complex interface of menus, toolbars, palettes, inspectors and panels -- all customisable -- gives you all the features you need. But if you're new to Photoshop, especially if you come from the development and app design world, that interface can easily be confusing and intimidating. The dropdown on the toolbar that switches you between workspaces configured for different roles and tasks is one way of approaching the problem, but the new Photoshop Design Space is a much more radical solution. Or at least, it might be when it's developed a bit more.

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The simple new Design Space interface makes Photoshop very easy to use -- but doesn't let you do much. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Design Space

As long as you have Mac OS X 10.10 or a 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 or 10, you can flip to this much simpler interface -- which is built in HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, using code you can find on Github. You won't find it in the View menu or the workspace list where you might expect, because it's still a technical preview. To access it, you have to enable previews under Preferences on the Edit menu and then enable Design Space itself. That puts you into the new, minimal interface and you can flip back and forth using the Window menu, or use a keyboard shortcut.

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That removes the tools and the toolbars, trims down the menus to just six (plus Help), all with far fewer entries, and replaces the complex layout of panes on the right with a simple tool and layer palette with only a handful of options. The new Select tool lets you double-click on objects to select groups and layers, and the fields let you type in simple maths rather than specific numbers: if you know that you want an object to be a quarter the size of a 1024-pixel-width screen, you can type 1024/4 and let Photoshop do the sums.

Design Space is intended for designing apps and websites -- you're drawing boxes and styling text, working with a vector pen tool to draw shapes, or aligning objects rather than editing photos or adding effects beyond simple styling like opacity and drop shadows. Default new documents in the Design Space view use the iPhone 6 template, or you can pick templates for various iPhone, iPad and web sizes, as well as the two Apple Watch sizes, Surface Pro and Surface Pro 3 or a generic Android 1080p size, or work with the new Artboard layer groups for more complex layouts.

Making Photoshop easier to use when you're doing the simple early steps of designing a website or app is a nice idea, but the minimal tools make it rather too simplistic to be useful at this stage. Try it out, give Adobe feedback on what would be useful and then check back when it includes workflows for actually creating a whole design.

Artboards and the new device preview are a lot more useful for web and app design.

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Start working with artboards by adding the board for your first device when you create a new document. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Artboards

Artboards work a bit like layers and a bit like an over-sized document -- they're the kind of thing many designers were doing by hand already, but made a little easier. You select Artboard as the document type when you make a new document and pick the first artboard size to put on it from the list of presets (easy), or convert an existing layer group to be an artboard (more fiddly but useful for work in progress). Then you add other artboards for device sizes that you care about and position those on the canvas. You can move elements between artboards and Photoshop will try to put them in the same relative place, and show you guides to help you align an object to the same object in another artboard on the canvas. But what you're likely to do is create your layout on multiple artboards so you can quickly compare how the same elements work on a phone, an iPad and a PC screen. When you're done, you can export those artboards as images, or even a PDF with a slideshow effect to make it easy to show off.

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Artboards for multiple devices let you see how the same layout works across platforms. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

That's part of the new Export options, which don't yet address all the issues, like image bloat on websites, but it's an improved process. The elderly Save for Web tool is now too old for Adobe to keep working on; it's still there and isn't going away, but it won't get any new features. Get ready to start switching to the new Export feature for your workflows, which uses Adobe Generator and uses PNGQuant image compression. Quick Export saves to PNG with transparency, but you can change the default format, set a location to save to without asking or use the new dialogue to choose settings each time.

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The replacement for Save As Web will get more features; so far, you can choose the file format, scale and resampling algorithm. Image: Mary Branscombe

That's all handy, but the way Artboard tools are split between the toolbar -- which appears when you long-click on the Select tool and switch to the Artboard tool -- and the layer panel takes some getting used to. You place a new Artboard from the toolbar, picking a device size to use each time or dragging out a custom size, but you have to select it as a layer when you want to rename or move it.

Cloud tools and services

When you want to see what one of those artboards -- or any other Photoshop design -- looks like on a real device, you can use the Preview CC app, as long as that real device is running iOS. This is one of the increasing list of cloud and device apps that come with your Creative Cloud subscription. With this release, Adobe has updated the Comp, Mix, Sketch, Brush, Shape and Color apps for iOS and brought out Android versions of Brush, Shape, Color and Mix (there's nothing in the way of Windows Store apps yet though).

These apps let you get some design work done on the move, while Preview CC lets you see what it looks like on a target device.

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Connect an iOS device to your Photoshop system and you can see your open document on the device; if there are multiple artboards, you can swap between them. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Preview CC
To use Preview CC, you install the app, open the Device Preview pane in Photoshop the first time you want to connect, and then either put both systems on the same wi-fi network or connect them over a USB cable, whereupon you'll see your Photoshop document on-screen. If there are multiple artboards in the document, you'll see the one that's closest to the device resolution, with a menu at the top to switch between artboards.

This is an option that needs to be on far more platforms than just iOS (and it's only iPad and iPhone 6/6+): Dreamweaver manages it for multiple devices, and a web preview, at least, should be available for every common OS. It also needs a button to turn rotation lock on and off inside the app.

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Add images, colour swatches and brushes to libraries and you can work with them across devices. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

CC syncing
Creative Cloud syncing is more useful in this release too. It doesn't just sync the files you're working on between different computers; you also get the images, fonts, vector graphics, brushes and colour swatches in your libraries synced between your devices -- including shared team libraries.

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When you use a graphic from a library, what you get in your document is a linked asset that you can update easily in multiple documents. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

If you update a graphic in a team library, other people in the team will see an icon on that graphic in their library pane and layer pane; your changes don't get applied automatically, but they just need to relink the asset from the library to update it. That means you can keep assets in sync, but the designer gets the choice to apply changes.

Adding items to libraries is as simple as draging and dropping them there, and when you use a graphic from a library it becomes a linked asset (like a smart object) that syncs changes across devices. And this works very well with Adobe's new stock image service, the eponymous Adobe Stock.

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Search for images on Adobe Stock and you can save them straight to Creative Cloud libraries. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Adobe Stock
Having noticed that 85 percent of stock image buyers use Adobe tools like Photoshop, Adobe has spotted an obvious opportunity to reach a captive market, but the way Stock is built into the new tools is certainly convenient. It's not intrusive, but when you first open Photoshop the Library panel has a link to Stock. That goes away as soon as you add anything to your default library, but the Stock button on the panel is always there. Both of these (and the search link on the File menu) take you to the Stock website instead of letting you do the search from inside Photoshop, but that does integrate back to Creative Cloud quite nicely.

The Stock website has the usual search options, including looking for similar images to one you like the look of (that tends to find pictures from the same artist or photographer, and usually the same photoshoot, rather than doing some kind of smart search). But when you come to pick an image you can save it directly to a Creative Cloud library -- including making a new library straight from the web page, so you can browse for inspiration and collect images in one place for yourself, or for your team.

You don't have to buy an image straight away; you can add the free, watermarked version of the image to your design and edit it any way you want as you work on the document. If you have to get the design signed off by someone you can get everything finished, and once they like the image you've chosen you can go ahead and pay for it from the Library -- at which point Photoshop applies all the edits to the licenced image. This is a workflow designers have been used to for years with high-resolution scanned images (apply your crops, rotations and effects to a low-res version of the image for speed and have them re-applied to the full-resolution version when you're ready to print).

Adobe Stock isn't the cheapest way of getting images, but the images you get are better quality than some cheaper services. How much you pay depends on whether you want one image or a regular supply (and you pay about a third extra if you don't have a Creative Cloud subscription); for Creative Cloud users, it's £7.19 (inc. VAT; £5.99 ex. VAT) per image, or £23.99 (inc. VAT; £19.99 ex. VAT) a month for ten images a month -- and unusually, you can roll over any of those ten images you don't need to the next month, for up to a year, which is useful if you work on seasonal designs like magazines or catalogues. The bulk rate of 750 images a month for £143.99 (inc. VAT; £119.99 ex. VAT) a month is quite a saving -- and both of these subscriptions can be shared by a team of designers.

There isn't currently any way for designers to upload their own images to Adobe Stock from the Photoshop interface, which would seem like the logical next step.

Adjustment improvements

There's also a good selection of 'classic' Photoshop features, some small but helpful and some more significant. You can now place multiple layer styles on one object -- say a drop shadow and a gradient overlay, and for some layer styles you can have multiples of the same style. So you can have up to ten strokes, ten colour overlays, ten gradient overlays, ten strokes and so on. The Layer Styles dialogue shows a plus sign for styles you can apply more than once, and there are now options for choosing which effects you see in the dialogue.

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You can now stack up multiple layer styles on the same objects, even duplicating some style types. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Image adjustments -- like brightness, saturation and so on -- can now be applied directly to objects as smart filters that are non-destructive, so you don't have to make separate adjustment layers.

Photoshop finally gets a Glyphs panel, so if you're looking for punctuation, superscripts, currency symbols or fractions, you can see them easily. This also gives you a way to get at the alternates in OpenType fonts without digging through the Characters panel; if you want to work with the full features of the fonts you're paying for, this finally lets you do it.

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Use the new Glyphs panel to see specific types of glyphs or to get at the stylistic alternates in OpenType fonts. Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Photoshop also gets one of Lightroom's best new features -- Dehaze. This can rescue photos that you thought were unusable. It makes pictures much clearer and sharper in a single step -- experts could get a similar effect with a lot of tweaking, but getting rid of haze quickly, or adding haze with the slider if that's the effect you want, is undeniably impressive.

As usual, you can push the effects too far and get something that doesn't look real, but Dehaze can be a huge timesaver. You can also now add grain back in as part of a blur effect, so you don't end up with something that looks unnaturally smooth compared to the rest of the image.

There are more improvements to the repair tools that make it easier to fix problems in photos. Adobe says the healing and patch tools are 120 times faster than the same tools in Photoshop CS6. That's quite an old version, and if you've been using Creative Cloud all along you'll have seen performance improvements in most of the Photoshop updates. Even so, these tools do seem a bit more sprightly in this new version.

They also feel faster because instead of greying out the area and showing a progress bar, the Healing Brush shows changes more or less as you make them -- you still get a black brush as you paint on-screen, but the correction appears straight after, so it's much more like rubbing out the part of the image you don't want.

There are new options for the content-aware tools; if you're moving an element of the image with content-aware move so that it fits into the background automatically, you now get transform handles when you drop it into the image so you can resize, flip and rotate the selection in its new position. That makes content-aware move more useful; instead of only being able to quickly move objects horizontally, you can move them further away from the viewer because it's so fast to make them smaller. It's so useful that it's odd you have to turn on this new Transform On Drop option.

There's also a new content-aware Fill Transparent Areas option in the Photomerge dialogue for making panoramas; this fills in any areas where the images in the panorama don't quite line up by recreating the pixels from the image that was merged in. The tool knows where the edges are because it created the merge, so this is much easier than doing it manually (which would take another three or four steps in every panorama). It's always been odd that Photoshop has lagged so far behind Adobe's other photo-editing tools for creating panoramas (at one point, the Adobe consumer tools were doing a better job) and it's nice to see more of this getting automated.

Conclusion

There isn't a single feature in the Photoshop CC 2015 that you can point at and say 'it's worth upgrading for this', although they're all useful and well worth having. The beauty of a cloud subscription is that Adobe no longer needs to have big-bang feature updates that drag people into updating: pay the monthly fee and Photoshop keeps getting better, including a major update like this once a year. The individual features may not seem major on their own, but the combination makes for a definite improvement. Designers, in particular, will save time and have a smoother experience across multiple devices. Adobe just needs to speed up bringing the handy mobile tools to more than just the latest iOS devices.

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