Adobe Illustrator 9.0: Win98/NT4/2K review: Adobe Illustrator 9.0: Win98/NT4/2K

Transparency and Masking
You can now apply transparency to layers and objects. Choose from Normal, Multiply, Screen, and Overlay, and set the transparency percentage. New masking capabilities give you greater control over which parts of objects are visible. Apply the new Opacity Mask to an object and watch it peek out from behind another. Photoshop users will also recognize the lasso tool now added to the global task icon bar.

When opening a Photoshop file in Illustrator 9.0, you can now preserve masks, blending modes, and transparency, and convert layers to separate Illustrator objects. When exporting an Illustrator 9.0 file to Photoshop, you can preserve layers, opacity masks, transparency, blending modes, and editable type.

Flash Compatibility
Illustrator 9.0 offers new features that make it easier to create artwork for Flash. With the Release To Layers command in the Layers palette, you can automatically generate a separate layer for each object. You can then export the entire artwork as a single SWF file, export each layer to a separate frame in a single SWF file, or export each layer to a separate SWF file. This capability is a great advantage for Adobe users moving into Flash work.

Export Flexibility
Since Illustrator is now based on a PDF format, Acrobat 4.0 and higher will read AI files. You no longer have to export or save your Illustrator files as PDF files. In fact, you can move files from Illustrator 9.0 to Acrobat and back without compromising quality.

A less astonishing but equally useful addition is Illustrator's ability to let you export and save your files in virtually any format, including Illustrator, EPS, PDF, SWF, SVG, GIF, JPEG, PNG, Photoshop (including layers), BMP, PICT, PCX, PXR, TGA, and TIFF. It can read files saved in Illustrator (any version), EPS, PDF (one page at a time), Photoshop (versions 2.5 and later), SVG, Macromedia FreeHand (versions 5.0, 5.5, 7.0, and 8.0), CorelDraw (versions 5.0 through 8.0), BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG, Kodak Photo CD, PICT, PCX, PXR, TGA, and TIFF formats.

In spite of all the great new features, we found a few quirks in the interface. Many items in the Filter menu are duplicated in the Effects menu, creating a redundancy that could be easily eliminated by combining the two menus. We repeatedly noticed our cursor appearing as an hourglass icon even when no processes were running. We were also surprised and disappointed that such a robust application still won't let you underline text. Perhaps the next release will remedy this persistent oversight.

Illustrator's Save for Web dialog box lets you experiment with different formats and check download times at different modem speeds.