Adobe Creative Suite 4 Master Collection review: Adobe Creative Suite 4 Master Collection

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The Good The dozen applications in the Adobe CS4 Master Collection sport streamlined interfaces and integration for designing and editing images, Web pages, mobile sites, desktop apps, animation, film, and print layouts, and support the latest digital formats.

The Bad These costly, heavy-duty applications take long to install, are hard to learn, and hog resources; personal tech support can exceed the price of some applications; some apps, such as Photoshop, offer few compelling reasons for most users to upgrade.

The Bottom Line The CS4 Master Collection contains every application in the Adobe Creative Suite. Although priced for serious professionals, it's a relative bargain compared with buying each ingredient piecemeal.

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8.0 Overall
  • Setup 7
  • Features 9
  • Support 8

Adobe offers Creative Suite 4 professional software in five flavors. Among them, the Master Collection offers professionals the most jam-packed digital toolbox. There are applications for concocting and editing digital pixel and vector graphics, print layouts, video, Web pages, and animation, and then repurposing that content for mobile devices. Those who don't need the whole shebang might consider suites that cost less, such as Web Premium or Standard for Web design, Design Premium or Standard with tools for printed media, or Production Premium for film (scroll down for charts with more details).

The release of Adobe Creative Suite 3 in 2007 was the first to incorporate former Macromedia products, such as Flash. With Creative Suite 4, Adobe has unified the interfaces of all the applications for a more seamless experience. The Flash-based panels within CS4 are more nimble than its predecessors, and handy pull-down menus with preset styles enable you to shift among work space layouts quickly.

The Master Collection will set you back about as much as, say, a Volvo from the 1990s: $2,499 for new or $899 to upgrade. It costs $1,599 for users of other CS3 suites to upgrade, or $1,199 for users with two eligible older versions of the suite. Buying all Master Collection applications individually would set you back close to $6,290, or more than $2,000 if upgrading from CS3 versions. The charts below detail the contents of and pricing for this and other CS4 suites; please click on the images of suites and their individual applications to learn what's new inside of each.

Prices for the individual applications haven't changed since CS3, but we wish that Adobe would lower the costs, or perhaps allow mix-and-match pricing for more flexibility. Artists who access this software from their workplace or purchase it at an educational discount might skip more than a few meals to afford it. Those on a budget who don't need so many tools might consider alternatives, such as CorelDraw graphics suite. The five CS4 packages (see chart below) are a relative bargain if you regularly rely on at least three of the included applications. If so, don't make the mistake of paying full price for the applications individually.

Setup and interface
The Web abounds with complaints about Adobe's installer and updater, and most are justified. Every Windows application installer suggests you close any running applications, but you can usually ignore it and 99 percent of the time everything works out fine. Adobe forces you to close your browser and all Microsoft Office applications, because many of the programs in the suite--primarily Acrobat--spread octopus-like tentacles throughout your working environment. That's pretty appalling in and of itself, but in addition to wasting a large chunk of time installing, you can't do anything else but play Solitaire while it's happening. And as before with the updater, you'll get to relive this delightful close-your-apps-or-else experience on a regular basis. Plus, the installation "progress" bar bears no relation to reality whatsoever, with its two steps forward and one step back movement.

Unfortunately, it took us nearly 2 hours to install the Adobe Master Collection CS4 on Windows Vista and XP machines (we didn't test CS4 thoroughly on a Mac). But that's still less time than with CS3. Adobe's custom installation lets you pick and choose which components to embrace or reject, but there's no mechanism for migrating your settings and all your custom tools.

You'll need powerful hardware to run the heavy-duty CS4 applications: Users of Windows XP SP2 or Vista must have a processor of at least 2GHz, or 3.4GHz for working with high-definition video. Photoshop now natively supports 64-bit Vista, while Premiere, After Effects, Soundbooth, Encore, and OnLocation are certified for 64-bit Vista.

A 1,280x900-pixel display with OpenGL 2.0-compatible graphics card is required, and support for Shader Model 3.0 may be needed, particularly for working with video. Mac users need an Intel multicore processor running Mac OS X version 10.4.11 or newer, at least 2GB of RAM, and free hard-disk space of 26.3GB or higher. Installation comes via DVD. More specifics are available at Adobe's Web site.

If you rely on Adobe software for work, then CS4 could be worth the plunge, depending upon your staple tools. We find CS4 a more worthwhile upgrade than CS3 was. There's not much to wow users of Photoshop who don't work with 3D content, but Illustrator finally manages multipage documents. Flash, on the other hand, takes a big leap forward by slashing the steps required to build animation. Premiere can handle batch encoding and manage footage from tapeless cameras, while it and Soundbooth both convert recorded speech into text.