Adobe Photoshop CS6 Review: Faster Performance, Useful Editing Enhancements
At a Glance
Adobe Photoshop CS6, the latest version of the cornerstone of the company's Creative Suite of applications, borrows a little magic from its suitemate Premiere Pro. Of course, Photoshop CS6 ($699 as of 6/1/2012) adds a little magic of its own in this significant upgrade.
Improved GPU Acceleration
Photoshop has had some sort of GPU acceleration for at least a few versions, but Photoshop CS6 improves on that with a new Mercury Graphics Engine, in similar fashion to Adobe Premiere Pro CS6's Mercury Playback Engine, which is responsible for that video editing application's astounding performance. In Photoshop CS6, several tools are GPU-accelerated, including some filters, the substantially updated cropping tool, and 3D functions in Photoshop CS6 Extended. It lets you open and work with larger files and larger brushes, and, according to Adobe, it "helps you navigate documents and your workspace more fluidly."
To test the engine, I opened a 600MB image with 20 layers using a four-year-old dual-Xeon workstation, with graphics acceleration turned on and then turned off. In either mode, the image opened in the same amount of time, and I had no trouble flicking the image around my screen. But with GPU acceleration turned on, the image continued to glide a bit after I'd let go of my mouse.
Furthermore, some features, such as the new Oil Paint filter, refused to work with GPU acceleration turned off, and the Liquify tool strongly suggested that I please turn it back on. With acceleration enabled, those features flew--no matter what setting I tried, no matter how big the brush--and I never had to wait for a progress bar to complete. You aren't limited to choosing from only a small number of graphics cards, too; see Adobe's list of cards that it has tested and confirmed to work.
The updated cropping tool has many new features. It encourages a new way of cropping, which is nondestructive--meaning, when you crop an image, you can choose to retain (but hide) the cropped pixels, so that if you need them back later, you can get to them without starting over. You can also save cropping presets--your website's standard size for thumbnail images, say. New overlay grids help you to crop with precision.
The brand-new Perspective Crop is an excellent tool--with it, you draw a cropping box over an image that has been taken at an angle that skews or distorts the image, then adjust where one or more of the corners of your image should be. The tool can straighten the image and subtly enlarge portions of your image that are down-perspective (farther away) to make the entire image look straight.
A new GPU-accelerated blur tool adds many features, too. In a window with on-image controls, you can control the amount of blur, set areas that do not get blurred, the amount of feather, and the angle of blur. These give you great control, though I wasn't wowed by the control that sets the amount of blur--you spin it like an iPod wheel, but in a tiny area. The window has sliders you can use instead, though.
But the tool I found most impressive is Content-Aware Move. As with Photoshop's other content-aware tools, this one analyzes existing pixels to clone large swaths of pixels for use elsewhere in your image. For example, in an image of a person in front of a background only I half-liked, I was able to draw a rough selection around the person, then use the Content-Aware Move tool to clone the desirable portion of the background over the undesired area in one step, leaving the person untouched, even though the selection I'd made was far from perfect.
I had less-good results with the updated Patch tool. As with the previous version of this tool, it often picked up pixels I didn't want it to when I used it to erase objects in an image. In certain spots, it works fine, though.
What's Your Type?
For some projects, especially ones that that incorporate text, I've found that I have to choose between Adobe Photoshop and Adobe InDesign. That may happen less often now that Photoshop CS6 has ramped-up text tools. CS6 regards text as so important that it now has a Text menu, and it has several new controls over text, including the ability to format ordinals and fractions properly. A new type-rendering engine, which supports OpenType, makes text appear cleaner and sharper. You can even paste in lorum ipsum placeholder text automatically, and you can copy the style of one block of text and apply that same style on text elsewhere.
Photoshop has had a 'Save for Web' feature for a long time, but it still doesn't compress images as well or as much as its suitemate Adobe Fireworks does--Fireworks produces significantly smaller file sizes than Photoshop does. So, if you need Photoshop's tools for your Web-bound graphics, you still should create in Photoshop, save your Photoshop file and open it in Fireworks, and then export your final image. That's not an ideal workflow, though.
Photoshop has had basic video editing features for a few versions, but its capabilities have been enhanced with CS6. You can open 70 different video formats in Photoshop CS6 and add layers--er, tracks--trim, add basic video and audio transitions, apply effects and the like, and then export the result as a video in one of three formats using a built-in version of Media Encoder. Adobe says Photoshop does video because of the popularity of shooting video with digital SLRs, and I suppose this is a great addition for folks who don't have or want to learn Premiere Pro, but otherwise, it simply doesn't do enough for me to see the point.
I certainly do see the point in the addition--finally--of a new interface-text-size setting. Those of us who have been peering at computer monitors for most of our lives and have the poor eyesight to show for it will appreciate that Photoshop now lets you set the menus to display small, medium, or large text. With the rectangular marquee tool selected, I measured the difference in the size of the toolbar on my screen; the "small" setting measured 796 pixels wide, the "medium" setting came in at 845 pixels wide, and the "large" setting came in at 888 pixels wide. That's only about a 5 to 6 percent increase per step, and it's barely noticeable--but it's still welcome. Unfortunately, none of the other CS6 applications have it.
Another small but useful interface addition: The Layers palette now has filters, so with the click of a button, you can show only text layers, or only pixel, adjustment, shape, or smart-object layers (or combinations of those types), and you can toggle the filtering with the click of one small button. It's a killer feature if you're working on documents with lots of layers.
Speed Is of the Essence
GPU acceleration has had a huge benefit in video editing software--well, mostly Adobe's video editing software--so it's nice to see it receive such emphasis in Photoshop. It makes Photoshop CS6 seem fresh, and fast, and if the course followed by Premiere Pro is any indication, those features are merely the beginning.