Adobe revs Photoshop's engine (hands-on)

Along with the new features -- a few whizzy, the majority eminently practical -- the launch of Photoshop CS6 marks Adobe's first major step toward its revamping of the Creative Suite business.

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
6 min read
The first thing you notice about Photoshop CS6 is the new all-gray interface. Lori Grunin/CNET

There's so much big news surrounding Photoshop CS6 that I'm not sure where to start. This is Adobe's first-ever public beta of its most important product (expected to ship sometime in the first half of this year). It's the first Adobe product to incorporate the company's new DRM architecture. It's the first version of Photoshop to take video seriously and to make it into the Standard Edition of the product rather than the extra-pricey Extended version. It's the first version to integrate the company's GPU-accelerating Mercury Graphics Engine (MGE). And for the first time in more than 20 years, Photoshop goes dark.

The beta, which is actually the Extended version of the product, is downloadable from Adobe Labs or Download.com, though at a hefty 1.8GB, it's not for the bandwith-constrained. While you can't run it simultaneously with previous versions, like every Adobe update it installs completely separately so that you can keep predecessors.

Dear Adobe: while that's very convenient, I still want the option to actually update from the previous version. I am tired of the cruft Creative Suite leaves behind every time a new version comes out; on my previous system, I had random directories left over from at least three generations of CS. Given that your new subscription model is designed to drive users to more-frequent updates, you'd better deal with better ways to clean up behind yourself.

The expanded lighting rendering options include the ability to layer multiple effects, just like in the Filter Gallery. (Click for full size) Lori Grunin/CNET

That said, Photoshop CS6 finally adds tools to migrate your presets from previous versions. I do have some nitpicks -- the interface needs the capability to see what's in the preset files and selectively choose, and there's still no way to automatically migrate the New Document presets (you can do it manually like this). But it made configuring the beta a much less profanity-filled process than it's ever been, and for that I'm extremely grateful.

However, before you can even get there, you'll have to create an Adobe ID, if you don't already have one. This is a key part of Adobe's new software-management architecture, driven in part by Creative Cloud. In the future, you'll manage all your Adobe software purchases centrally using this ID, allowing for redownloads and deactivations in a very iTunes-like fashion. This makes sense if you use several Adobe products and/or several different systems, but the lone, Photoshop-only single-system user may find it intrusive. There will be an installation grace period so that you can still use the software if the licensing server or your connection is down. But I hate it when companies require that I sign up and provide personal information, no matter how innocuous, in order to use their software -- especially really expensive software. Semi-anonymous activation based on a serial number is one thing, but mandatory membership is another.

Once you've leaped that hurdle, you notice that the interface has been completely redrawn. Like other photo-editing applications, Photoshop has finally given up the ghost-white background and inverted to a white-on-gray UI plus a user-customizable background color that defaults to selectable neutral grays. There are some functional differences as well. For instance, properties panels now fly out instead of expanding down and sticking in the right pane. The crop tool now works more like Lightroom's, where you move the image around to frame the selected crop rather than move the crop rectangle. You can easily revert back to the traditional operation if you want. Overall, I'm indifferent to the changes. I wasn't unhappy with the old design, but the switch was pretty painless.

If you work with complicated multilayer files, you will welcome the new capability to filter layers by kind, name, blend mode, effect, attribute, or color. I have to say, my frustration with filtering in Lightroom and Bridge now extends to Photoshop, though; I wish you could filter stuff out.

You might feel a bit of pain if you rely on Adobe Camera Raw, though, which now uses the same adjustment controls that were introduced in Lightroom 4. If you haven't seen them, gone are standbys like Fill Light and Recovery, replaced by better, finer controls over highlights and shadows. If you're used to processing raw files on autopilot, the changes will initially feel like speed bumps in your workflow; ultimately, though, I think they're more powerful and deliver better results. Also, if you're planning on using the beta I think you'll miss out on the latest set of camera codecs that were rolled out for CS5.

The new, rather odd, oil paint effect. (Click for full size) Lori Grunin/CNET

The performance is great, at least on Windows 7 -- that includes the 64-bit version of Bridge -- and the MGE makes all the filters significantly faster. I kept expecting it to slow while working with the Nikon D800's raw files (to get them into PS CS6 I cheated by opening them in Lightroom and exporting to DNG), which grow to more than 200MB when opened as 16-bit, but it handled them without problems. While I encountered a few glitches, the beta seems stable enough for production use, especially with the new background save/recover feature.

And on to the new.

While I wouldn't say I was despondent when Adobe dropped character and paragraph styles from the CS5 launch, I was kinda sad. But they're back! In fact, Adobe has incorporated a lot of the text and design tools from Illustrator, including the full text engine (with support for non-Western characters) and more Illustrator-like operation for shapes, plus rudimentary parametric shape entry (you can enter the size but not the coordinates). The text Styles options are pretty complete, though there's still no Glyph palette or other method for inserting nonstandard characters.

Photoshop's new Blur Tools and Effects allow you to create faux tilt/shift and depth-of-field effects. (Click for full size) Lori Grunin/CNET

There are also some new filters, including a Blur Gallery with Iris, Tilt-Shift, and Field blurs. They're easy to use and render well, but they're more suited to producing oddball effects than reproducing the types of blurs generated by real lenses. So while it's hard to simulate real depth-of-field with the tool, you can do nice selective blurs. Another addition is the Lighting Effects Gallery, which significantly updates the interface and capabilities of the older Lighting filter. You can now easily layer the effects. The Adaptive Wide Angle filter lets you fix problems with perspective and wide-angle lens distortion by drawing lines and polygons as references.

Adobe has also worked on its algorithms for automatic fixes, and they do seem better. Auto Tone and Auto Contrast actually do a nice job, provided you start with an image that's not too skewed toward one end of the histogram or the other. They're still not great on grossly over- or underexposed images, as they seem to be a bit too conservative. The painting engine now offers erodible brushes -- brushes whose effect lessens as you use it -- plus enhanced airbrush tips. You also get a much better real-time preview of the bristles, and a great head-up display can show you how the brush tilt and rotation is registering within the application when using a pen and tablet.

The skin-tone aware masking tool needs to use some face-detection tricks in addition to color to work more accurately. There's too much dog in my selection here. (Click for full size) Lori Grunin/CNET

Then there's the stuff that seems to demo better than it works in practice, at least when I try to use the tools. Adobe has expanded the capabilities of its Content-Aware fill to include Content-Aware Patch, an update of its Healing Patch, and Content-Aware Move, which is supposed to automagically fill in the hole when you move a selection. These, and the skin-tone aware color masking, seem like they either only work well under a limited set of conditions or are just difficult to get the hang of in real-world images.

Adobe has essentially turned Photoshop Extended edition into a tool specifically for people who need 3D capabilities, moving the video-editing tools down into Standard edition. (Read all about it.) The 3D capabilities and interface sound like they've been substantially improved, with faster and better raytracing and extrusions, interactive shadows, and 3D stereo viewing and printing. I haven't yet gotten a chance to work with the 3D features, though.

And, of course, there's a boatload of user-requested tweaks and bug fixes, including the restoration of the Contact Sheet II and PDF Presentation automation scripts that Adobe had dropped with CS5, to great complaint.

Overall, Photoshop CS6 looks like a solid update with some really useful additions and improvements. But the best thing is, you can try it yourself and blast your feedback to Adobe. Don't be shy.