Adobe Illustrator CS5 (Creative Suite 5) offers something inspiring for just about all users, from artists and technical illustrators to web and Flash designers.

New features such as variable width strokes, Bristle Brush, Perspective Grid, anti-aliasing text for the web, Flash Catalyst integration, and better performance make Adobe Illustrator CS5 a compelling upgrade.

But Adobe Illustrator CS5 is far from perfect. The Perspective Grid feature feels half-finished, text anti-aliasing doesn't work without a second, secret option, and many requested features were ignored. See our Adobe Creative Suite 5 review.

Adobe Illustrator CS5: Stroke revival

Among the most noticeable improvements in Adobe Illustrator CS5 are those applied to the painting system. These include variable-width strokes, stretch control for brushes, brush corner control, enhanced dashed lines and arrowheads, and a new tool, the Bristle Brush.

First among the new features in Adobe Illustrator CS5 is the ability to vary the weight or thickness of strokes from start to finish. To make use of this new feature, begin by creating a path - open or closed - and assigning a stroke colour to that path. With the new Width tool selected, hovering over any place in the path's stroke presents a small diamond that can be dragged outward to increase the width of the stroke at that point, or inward to decrease the thickness. The new thickness will taper down (or up) toward the ends of the path or the next corner anchor points, which will retain the path's original thickness.

Each stroke may also have multiple width points, enabling subtle or dramatic oscillation of a single stroke. Thus using Adobe Illustrator CS5 it's simple to create robust, variable weight strokes with a natural, not stuttering feel. You can even save stroke width alterations as profiles that can be applied from the Stroke panel to other paths. One complaint with the variable-width stroke ability is that isn't applicable to brush strokes, just plain old path strokes. Plus, if you apply a brush stroke to a path, the variable-width disappears.

Brushes did get some serious love in Adobe Illustrator CS5, though. Art and pattern brushes have long suffered with the handicap of being equally distributed along their paths. Now you can define which parts of a brush get stretched and which don't. For example, with a banner brush, not only the middle of the brush would stretch to fit a long path; the decorative ends would also stretch, suffering unsightly distortion. In the Brush Options dialog, you can now specify that the ends of a banner (or other) brush don't stretch, that they remain the same no matter how far the middle section of the brush art or pattern stretches to fill the path between the protected ends.

A new Bristle Brush tip mimics natural media painting while remaining vector. Creating a new Bristle Brush lets you begin with either round or flat brushes in one of five styles each - point, blunt, curve, angle, or fan. From there the brush can be completely refined with options for bristle length, density, and thickness, paint opacity, and stiffness. The results of painting with Bristle Brush brushes are astoundingly natural. Adobe Illustrator CS5 won't yet replace Corel Painter for lifelike, natural media painting, but then again, Painter doesn't paint in vector.

Brush cornering is also greatly improved in this version. In places where pattern brushes round corners or wide angles, or where path segments of different lengths meet (for instance, in a rectangle with long and short sides), how the brush pattern traverses or joins at those points can be precisely controlled to avoid awkward collisions or empty space.

Similar refinements were added to dashed lines to enable them to look better, to avoid stuttering at path angle changes or where path segments of different lengths meet. Precision scaling of arrowheads that were formerly locked into sizes proportionate to stroke weight completes the refinements of strokes and brushes.

Adobe Illustrator CS5: web and application design

Those who design for the web or Flash Platform application user interfaces will be pleased by Adobe Illustrator CS5's new features.

Many web and interface designers felt that earlier versions of Adobe Illustrator CS5 weren't fit for making web graphics that include text because of its lack of anti-aliasing support. Illustrator CS5 has adopted Photoshop's celebrated text anti-aliasing system. Now you can optimise the rasterisation of type destined for the web or mobile devices by setting its anti-aliasing to be Sharp, Crisp, Strong, or not anti-aliased. Unfortunately, it doesn't work - at least, not by default.

In order to make the text anti-aliasing you've chosen from the bottom of the Character panel work, you'll have to take the extra step of going to the Image Size panel in the Save for Web & Devices dialog and changing the unlabeled drop-down menu at the bottom to the Type Optimized option.

Flash Platform developers using Flash, Flash Builder, Flex, or Flash Catalyst will also find Adobe Illustrator CS5 a compelling upgrade. The program can now save directly to Flex in the FXG format, and includes support for roundtrip editing with the new designer-centric Flash Catalyst CS5.

Begin by designing your user interface - the entire thing or just an element or two - in Adobe Illustrator CS5 and open that file in Flash Catalyst to add interactivity. Even after adding components and actions in Flash Catalyst, you can return the design to Illustrator for further tweaking without losing your work from Flash Catalyst.

NEXT: Perspective drawing >>

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See also: Adobe Creative Suite 5 review