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Adobe Illustrator for iPad delivers fluid and feature-packed design tools

The first version of Adobe's long-awaited mobile illustration app is pretty impressive.

Lori Grunin/CNET

It's been a year since Adobe previewed Illustrator on the iPad and a few months since its huge (for Adobe, at least) beta test cycle. Now it's ready to roll, and while it has some holes in its feature set and can't match the desktop version's power, it's probably one of Adobe's most "finished" version 1.0 mobile apps. It's priced like Adobe's other mobile apps, at $10 (£10, AU$16.49) per month.

It starts with a leg up over its predecessors, taking advantage of development done for its sibling Photoshop. It debuts with a fully baked type engine and vector drawing tools, support for keyboard shortcuts (if you've got one connected) and the ability to correctly import Photoshop layers, just to name a random few. There are some new and useful time savers, and a well-designed interface that seems less intimidating than the desktop version. (You still need to understand how paths work, but the rest seems easy to pick up.) It also supports livestreaming directly to Behance so you can share your magic with the world.

There's nothing really novel here, but some of the capabilities are new to Illustrator. Two of my favorite are Repeat and Smart Delete. Smart Delete lets you delete nodes on a path without deforming the path, at least as long as the point doesn't fundamentally change the shape. In other words, it's a way to manually simplify paths that have more points than they need. So Smart Delete works the way you expect deleting points to behave.

Repeat lets you easily create and update complex radial, mirrored and grid patterns from paths or objects. It's extremely powerful yet easy to understand and use. If you've used Adobe XD, that app's grid tool works the same way.

Little touches everywhere make the app feel very fluid to work in. Any numeric parameter has a virtual number pad for precise entry and a granular scroller with tick marks so you have a better grasp of preventing overshooting your target.

This took roughly a minute to create. The control sliders let you adjust the number of repeats, the gap and angle between the mirrored objects and to remove repeated objects from the radial repeat to create a gap in the circle.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Illustrator on iPad may seem like it has fewer tools than the desktop application, but the iPad app consolidates a lot. For instance, the node editing tools are all subsumed by the contextual toolbar below the item you're editing, although you can access them other ways as well. 

Still, some of the features have fewer capabilities. Combine shapes (aka Pathfinder in the desktop app) only has the four main operations -- Combine all, Minus front, Intersect and Exclude overlap, as well as Divide all -- but not others like Trim, Merge and Minus back. 

On the other hand, the iPad app provides a live preview of what the results of each operation would be, which is a huge timesaver if you're not good at quickly conceptualizing what they'd look like (guilty!). You can scrub through the stacking order to move a layer until it looks right without opening up the Layers panel -- which takes up a chunk of screen real estate.

But you'll also find important gaps in the feature set, such as drop shadows, blends and styles. And my biggest pet peeve, the inability to do anything with patterns generated by Repeats, like saving your settings as a preset or convert the entire pattern to curves, a bitmap or turn it into a single vector object. In fact, repeatability seems to be Repeat's biggest weakness. Chances are we'll have to wait for Libraries to catch up with it. Some objects in my existing Illustrator files gave an "unsupported object" error, but didn't say what the issue was (possibly a linked file, which raises a whole set of issues).

I also found that granular illustrations with lots of small objects turned Illustrator's fluid operation into a bog, with screen update lags that rendered it unusable. That's on a current-generation iPad Pro. I don't know where to draw that line, though, because there's no indication within the file information as to how many layers or paths it has -- and it was only 586KB. Though it will work without a stylus, I can't imagine doing so. It supports pressure sensitivity with the Apple Pencil (both versions).

Adobe's near-term roadmap includes the ability to turn sketches into vectors, more brushes and support for variable-width brushes and more effects like drop shadows. Sketch-to-vector will be coming next. 

Some apps you just break out when you have to work and some you just want to waste hours fooling around with. For me, the initial version of Photoshop felt like work. Fresco felt like play. Illustrator feels like a smart balance of both.