Adobe Creative Suite 5: Why buy when you can rent?

Adobe rolls out its new subscription pricing plan. Does $348 a year to lease Photoshop sound more attractive than $700 to own?

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography | PCs and laptops | Gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
4 min read

While tablet fans slaver over iPad apps and creatives ideate over the new features in Creative Suite, I think investor relations folk will be the ones scrutinizing Adobe's adoption of a subscription plan for its Creative Suite products and what it might mean for Adobe's still-strong bottom line. (Never fear, though. You can still buy everything outright.)

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I'll preface this discussion by saying I'm not a big fan of software rental, or really rental of anything that has to hit a server every time you use it to check eligibility as a method of DRM. Like my mother says, "It's just one more thing to go wrong." (Though she says it about newfangled all-electronic cars, not software.) Plus, it's rarely financially advantageous, probably has little effect on software cracking, you can't resell it, and in extremis, it can be used to censor. That said, consumers--myself included--have a long history of paying for convenience and being attracted to small monthly sums over the monolithic initial payout.

Adobe plans to offer two subscription plans: annual, with monthly payments--note that you can't pay the whole thing up front--and a month-to-month plan with higher prices but no 12-month commitment and the ability to rent for discontinuous periods. Every 30 days the software hits Adobe's servers, checks to make sure your credit card is still valid, and pays itself. If for any reason it can't pay itself, you get a five-day grace period to resolve the problem before your software becomes 2GB of useless bits cluttering up your hard drive. At that point, Adobe will e-mail you and the desktop Application Manager will notify you; the company will also send out an e-mail 10 days before a card expires with a warning.

Here's how Adobe's current pricing breaks down across various options. Note that I haven't included enterprise licensing schemes or academic pricing; the subscription plan doesn't currently (yet?) address those segments:

(per month/total)
Month-to-month Buy Upgrade
Design Standard $59/$708 $99 $1,299 $499
Design Premium $89/$1,068 $129 $1,899 $599
Web Premium $89/$1,068 $129 $1,799 $599
Production Premium $89/$1,068 $129 $1,699 $599
Master Collection $129/$1,548 $199 $2,599 $899
After Effects $49/$588 $69 $999 $299
Dreamweaver $19/$228 $29 $399 $199
Flash Professional $29/$348 $49 $699 $199
Illustrator $29/$348 $49 $599 $199
InDesign $29/$348 $49 $699 $199
Photoshop $29/$348 $49 $699 $199
Photoshop Extended $49/$588 $69 $999 $349
Premiere Pro $39/$468 $59 $799 $299

One important side note to take into account is Adobe's simultaneous move to a 24-month revision cycle, from an 18-month cycle, for the Creative Suite products. Personally, I think that's terrific. When working with professional software, you want certain aspects to update more frequently--for example, churning out Camera Raw codecs for photographers--but the main program itself needs to stay stable and consistent. To a professional, Creative Suite is like an operating system, with a carefully balanced ecosystem of supporting products. Patch it up and keep it running, 'cause migration is a headache. In some ways, that works against the subscription model. There are a lot of reasons people don't upgrade to the latest version, only one of which is cost. Frequently, you don't upgrade because it's a hassle, or because you don't have the time right then and want to put it off until you do. On the upside, Adobe says that you'll be able to subscribe as far as two versions back, starting with CS5.5.

Unfortunately, the pricing schedule is incredibly confusing if you want to do a comparative cost analysis. For example, as far as I can figure, if you want to buy CS Design Standard and plan to upgrade every cycle for only two years, it actually makes sense to subscribe; by the third upgrade cycle, you've paid more than it would have cost to buy the product and upgrades. On the other hand, if you want Master Collection, that crossover point occurs after the first upgrade cycle. (Calculations are based on the 24-month cycle.) And as far as I can tell, it always makes a whole lot more sense to get the Academic pricing if you qualify instead of renting for a semester.

Finally, in case you were wondering, there's no rent-to-own option. If you've shelled out $294 renting Photoshop CS5.5 month-to-month for six months and then decide to buy, you still have to pay the full $699. I hope that changes.

I wouldn't want to be one of the first onboard with this program; I suspect Adobe will have some technical and philosophical kinks to work out before we can give it a thumbs up (or down) and make sense of the use cases. But it's certainly a grand experiment I look forward to watching.