First Look: InDesign CS4

The newest version of InDesign, expected to ship in October, is a nice update, but not an essential one. Much of what's new in this sixth version of the page-layout program is under the hood, with new underlying file formats based on the XML standard and programming hooks that over time should make it easier to use InDesign files and functionality in automated publishing environments. But those under-the-hood enhancements won't do anything for today's designers, so they're not reasons to get excited about the new version.

Here's what you can expect from the US$699 InDesign CS4 when the new version comes out with the rest of Adobe's CS4 releases next month.

Get smart

Based on a look at the beta software, the most exciting addition for layout designers is the trio of "smart" tools that make it easier to precisely work with document objects via the mouse. Designers often ignore the precise placement, sizing, and rotational controls available in the Control panel and instead eyeball objects' locations, dimensions, and angles.

The new smart guides feature in InDesign CS4 helps you precisely place, size, and rotate objects as you work with them by popping up alignment indicators as you work on the objects. At top, the new object (at right) is being sized. In the middle, InDesign displays an alignment indicator so you can make the new object's bottom match that of a nearby object. At bottom, it pops up an indicator that lets you space a third object at the same distance from the second object as the second object is from the first object.

With the new smart guides, spacing, and dimensions, InDesign CS4 constantly compares the position, size, and rotation angle of the object you're manipulating with the mouse and displays on-screen guides when your eyeballed placement matches that of nearby objects.

For example, if you are moving a text box near two others, InDesign CS4 highlights when the space between the object you're moving matches the space between the nearest two objects. The smart dimensions feature takes the same principle and applies it to sizing, so if you are creating a series of frames, it indicates when the new one matches the size of a nearby one. And when you rotate an object, it displays an onscreen indicator when the current rotation matches that of a nearby object. I love how unobtrusive but helpful this feature is. If there's a must-do reason to upgrade to InDesign CS4, this is it.

I was pleased to see one of my ongoing requests finally addressed: You can now set a nested style to have character styles applied to a specified number of lines in a paragraph, not just to a specific number of sentences or characters. That means you can now do things like set a paragraph's first line to be in all small caps, even as the text changes.

An enhancement to the nested styles features in InDesign CS4 means you can apply a character style automatically to one or more lines of text.

Targeted changes

The rest of InDesign's new capabilities are useful but targeted to subgroups of users. For example, the ability insert cross-references in text to other parts of your layout is most welcome if your documents use cross-references (such as "See Chapter 3 on page 45"). InDesign CS4 also extends its pervious text variables feature so these references can contain not just page numbers but chapter names and other attributes. A related capability called variable text will be very useful for catalog publishers--you could have one document contain dollar, euro, and pound prices, for example, printing a separate version for each from one master file.

Production chiefs will like the new preflighting engine, which now identifies violations to printing standards as you create your document. Plus, you can now set your own prepress rules, so the violations that are highlighted match your production requirements, not an arbitrary list from Adobe. It's easy to set up the preflighting rules, and if the running tally of violations at the bottom of the document window annoys you, you can turn it off.

Adobe has also added a Flash export capability that lets you create SWF animations from your layouts, which can include video, sounds, and page transition effects. You can also create Flash project files for further development in Adobe Flash CS4 Professional.

The Flash support is not as strong as what QuarkXPress 8 offers, since you can't actually animate anything in InDesign CS4 other than select page transitions for a slideshow effect as users turn pages. And much of what you'd expect to export to the Flash file, such as hyperlinks to e-mails and external files (such as PDFs), as well movies and sounds, don't survive the export.

Other enhancements

The rest of the additions are minor. InDesign CS4 of course gets the tweaked user interface that the entire Creative Suite gets--the use of tabbed document windows, a cleaner separation of panel controls, and more nudge buttons in various controls. InDesign CS4 itself now gives you more controls of how new pages are added automatically as you flow in text, lets you display current object coordinates as you move the mouse, and lets you rotate spreads on screen to more easily read rotated text. (The rotation is just for display; they do not print rotated.)

InDesign CS4 continues to have an awkward set of hyperlink tools and limited export of various hyperlink types. Although Adobe has updated the hyperlinks tools, they still remain hard to use, and it continues to amaze me that hyperlinks from objects such as graphics still aren't retained in exported HTML files.

The most annoying new feature is InDesign CS4's imposition of workspaces--collections of menu items and panels. When you start the program, you get a minimal set of menu options and panels (the Essentials workspace), which is too little to do anything useful. I recommend you switch to the Advanced workspace immediately, which has a more reasonable set of panels. You can then turn on other hidden panels using the familiar controls in the Window menu and save them as a new workspace.

The hidden menu options are harder to get back because the option for getting them (choose Window -> Workspace -> Show Full menus) is two levels down in the user interface. If you didn't realize Adobe decided to hide its capabilities from you, you could easily think features were removed. And note that by default, workspace settings include hidden menus, so if you switch to another workspace, you may see menu items disappear. Fortunately, you can override this annoying menu-hiding behavior in a workspace preference setting.

Still, it amazes me that the default user interface setting in a professional program is so dumbed-down. Perhaps Adobe should consider creating an InDesign Elements version instead.

First impressions

Based on the beta version, getting InDesign CS4 is a no-brainer if you're upgrading the whole Creative Suite (whether as part of the $1,399 Design Standard, $1,799 Design Premium, or $2,499 Master Collection suites). As a stand-alone product, it's tempting but not essential. I'll have a full review InDesign CS4 when the update ships.

[Galen Gruman is a freelance writer in San Francisco and a long-time Macworld contributor on publishing tools.]

This story, "First Look: InDesign CS4" was originally published by Macworld.

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