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With CS6, Photoshop delivers something for everyone. Again.

Improved performance, better camera-raw processing and enhancements to text, painting, 3D and video make it an upgrade almost all existing users should consider.

The first thing that will strike veteran Photoshop users about PS CS6 is the default dark gray interface. You can change it if you want, though. (Click for larger image)
Lori Grunin/CNET

I'm not a big fan of Adobe's new business strategy, in which it begins to channel all its users toward subscription-based usage (although Stephen Shankland does a good job explaining why it's good for Adobe); to me it looks a lot like the way cable companies operate. But -- despite some gripes about incomplete implementations -- but with only a few reservations, I am a big fan of this release of Photoshop.

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 (which is moot if you buy via Creative Cloud). 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.

(If this review gives you a sense of deja vu lit, it's because I've lifted large sections of my preview for it.)

A lot of my complaints from the beta stand. On install, 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 the new subscription model is designed to drive users to more-frequent updates, the company needs to figure out better ways to clean up behind itself.

And while Photoshop CS6 finally adds tools to migrate your presets from previous versions, I find them inconsistent and incomplete. I can't view it as a 1.0 version that will eventually get better: this is 2012, and even Microsoft Office migrates everything seamlessly. Why, out of the entire suite, does only Photoshop have any migration tools? 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). On my home system, it didn't automatically detect any presets to migrate from my CS5 version. Thankfully, I had assumed it wouldn't work and used the manual Preset import tool to migrate them from my backup on the server. But if you can't assume a tool like this will work, it might as well not exist at all. And why do I still have to start from scratch and rebuild my Bridge favorites?

The character and paragraph styles in Photoshop use the same type engine as in Illustrator, though with a far less elegant interface. (Click for larger image) Lori Grunin/CNET

However, before you can even get to that soul-sucking operation, 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's a seven-day 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.

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. That said, it only saves the styles within a document, so if you have styles you'd like to use in multiple documents, you have to import them from either a dummy document you've created solely for the purpose of saving styles or from the original document where you created them. This is the same way Illustrator operates, but Illustrator has a "New from Template" option, compared to Photoshop's seriously outdated New Document presets.

The new color range selection selection option for skin tones, in conjunction with face detection doesn't work very well for me. And yes, I tried it on a much easier variation of this image as well. (click for larger image) 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 heads-up display can show you how the brush tilt and rotation is registering within the application when using a pen and tablet.

This is the type of result I typically get when using the new Content-Aware move tool. (Click for larger image) 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 and improving the interface. It's really good for quick-and-dirty editing in a way Premiere, Premiere Elements, and Lightroom aren't, especially if all you need to do are operations like trim, split, and adjust exposure, grab frames as-is, or apply effects. It uses an Elements-like approach for adding keyframe markers to control position, opacity and style. The biggest hole is audio: you can't strip the sound from the video and/or replace it with other audio, only add other audio tracks.

One of the preset meshes to which you can automatically map textures is a hat. Why ask why? However, the 3D interface is a lot more streamlined than in previous versions. (Click for larger image) Lori Grunin/CNET

The 3D interface has been substantially improved, with many of the capabilities surfaced in a panel for easier, less menu-driven and a more intuitive navigational interface. It's especially optimized for working with 3D text, which remains editable, though beginners may still become overwhelmed with a lot of the options. And It can't handle everything; I tried to use a grunge font, Stomper, and it told me the path was too complex to extrude. Adobe claims faster and better raytracing and extrusions, interactive shadows, and 3D stereo viewing and printing. I don't know if the render speed is faster, but it still lacks the intelligence of a full-fledged 3D package; for instance, it can't render on a per object basis or per area, you have to wait for it to render the entire scene (which it doesn't seem to put on a separate thread). And as far as I can tell, you don't have any control over the quality of the working view. Still it seems much more usable than the previous version, and definitely worth upgrading for if you're a heavy 3D user.

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.

The performance is generally much better than previously, at least on Windows 7 -- that includes the 64-bit version of Bridge, for which the speed of folder switching and thumbnail generation have vastly improved, and the MGE makes all the Photoshop filters significantly faster. Operations such as the new blurs, toss up interminable "Updating..." messages, when working at 100 percent view. (I tested on an HP EliteBook 8650w with a 2.2GHz Core i7 system with 8GB RAM, an Nvidia Quadro 2000M graphics card with 2GB memory.) That said, it may have some memory-mangement issues. For instance, as I'm writing this, I have less than 25MB of images open -- and yet the photoshop.exe process is using 4GB. It looks like it never released it from previous operations.

As usual, Adobe has spread the enhancements around enough that there's something worthwhile for almost everyone. If you work with large files, use a lot of filter operations, or rely on Bridge, it's worth the upgrade for the performance bump alone, provided you have the hardware to take advantage of the GPU acceleration.