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Adobe Photoshop CS6 hands-on preview

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Adobe has been dropping preview links to its upcoming version of Photoshop CS6 for months now, even hyping it up with a Rainn Wilson appearance at MAX 2011. Photoshop CS6 marks one of the app's most drastic visual changes, with a darker visual redesign and streamlined toolbars, and it has all sorts of changes to cursors, filters, video editing, and more in tow. We got some quick hands on time with the app, so read on for our take on Adobe's next-gen installation of Photoshop.

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A new UI

A new UI

A completely fresh interface
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Photoshop CS6 greets you with a fully redesigned UI that's much darker for purportedly a "more immersive experience." (Fortunately, you can revert to the old light gray color theme by going to Preferences / Interface.) If you look closer, all the old favorites from the pen tool to layers panel are still here, but they've been shuffled around a bit and cleaned up. While you can break windows out like in CS5, tabs still rule your window management experience. It works great for browsing the web, but Photoshop's insistence on tabs by default is often frustrating when you're opening several files that you want to see at the same time. For new users, the Photoshop learning curve is still pretty high, but pro users should be able to get situated pretty quickly.

One notable improvement is the new draggable section embedded into toolbars. Photoshop's window management and toolbar management has never been its strong suit, and we've lost track of more toolbars than we can count in older versions of the app. The only fix used to be a hard rearrangement the entire workspace, but now each toolbar has a textured line for easy movements (see the top of the primary tools section to the right). Similarly, snapping toolbars to the side of the main Photoshop window is clearer than before, because the side of the window glows blue to indicate it's ready to snap.

Finally, searchable layers!

The new Mini Bridge feature incorporates a file browsing tool directly into CS6. While you do have to keep the Bridge media manager running in the background, Mini Bridge lets you easily — and visually — browse your hard drives for photo and video assets to work with. It's a nice complement to the usual file open dialogue, and if you stay organized, you can keep your files just a few clicks away.

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You can now search and sort layers by color, name, mode, and attribute with the new layer search tools, a great feature for anyone that has to deal with large Photoshop files with tons of layers and folders. Like Lightroom and even iPhoto, Photoshop's now highlighting adjustments even more than in CS5 in the Adjustments window on the right side of the screen. It's a much cleaner UI this time around, giving you quick access to a range of non-destructive adjustments like curves, color balance, and saturation.

Upending decades of Photoshop precedent, Adobe has added cursors to tools like crop and lasso, and it's a bit confusing at first. Previously, you needed to use the bottom of the lasso as your guide to looping (think of how you "point" with the top left tip of the cursor on a Mac), but now an additional cursor has been added on to the lasso icon. Essentially, you're moving two different cursors around now, and it's a bit like learning to use a mouse again. Furthermore, it's not consistent across all tools, so the eyedropper is still just an eyedropper.

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Content-aware move

Content-aware move

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"Content-aware move" is a new tool in CS6 that lets you move an object within an image and intelligently fill the space it previously inhabited in just one step. For example, you can select a cat on a rug, click the content-aware move tool, drag the cat to another spot on the rug, and release. CS6 simultaneously moves the cat and fills in the area it previously inhabited (based on context). If you did a poor job selecting the object you want to move, CS6 feathers the edges of your selection once it has moved to its new spot. In our tests, content-aware move worked pretty poorly; results always required touching up, especially if the image’s background has any degree of complexity.

The "content-aware extend" tool is a little less delicate, letting you take a geometrical shape and stretch it proportionately. For example, it's simple to extend a flagpole, which has obvious edges CS6 can work from. Extending a skyscraper by a couple stories also works decently enough, while extending something with unpredictable geometrical features (like a person) is impossible. Realistically, there aren't many scenarios where you'll want to use the content-aware extend feature.

Video editing

Video editing

Photoshop + Video is here
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CS6 includes a basic video editor that will come in handy for photographers who don’t want to drop a few hundred dollars on a video editing suite. The key here is that once you drop in a video, you can tool around with it using the Photoshop tools and shortcuts you’re accustomed to. Color and exposure adjustments, as well as layers, work just how you’d expect them to (the left image above is adjusted video, the right shows raw footage) — which is a good thing. If you’d like, you can add borders, textures, filters, and even audio tracks to your video. Once you’re finished editing, you’re presented with just a handful exporting options. It's no Premier, Final Cut, or even iMovie, but Photoshop aficionados will feel right at home inside the new video editor.

Deep features

Deep features

Photoshop CS6 has tons of other changes, big and small. Here's a few:

A NEW WAY TO CROP

The crop tool now functions in an entirely new way as well. On previous versions, you’d select your crop area, and move and transform that selection around the image. Now, you select a crop area, and the window snaps to that selection as a new center — and here’s where it gets weird — you move and rotate the image in and around the crop selection area. It's potentially a more powerful tool once you get the hang of it, but if you've been using the crop tool and its keyboard shortcuts for years, the revised tool may be extraordinarily frustrating to get used to.

Adobe changed how a core tool has worked for decades

It’s not necessarily bad — it’s just changing how a basic tool has worked for years. An upside here is the new straighten tool: simply draw a line anywhere in your image where you’d like to establish a new horizon, and Photoshop automatically reorients the image along that angle. It’s a lot easier than the old method of using the ruler or eyeballing it in CS5.

Background save

One of CS6’s most important (yet nearly invisible) feature additions is "background save," which lets you edit images and other projects while files are being saved. Effectively, any time you habitually press Command + S, you’ll be able to continue working, saving you from having to wait until Photoshop grinds through another save. If your computer or CS6 app frequently crashes, you can also turn on auto-save intervals, which tell the app how often to save your work in case something happens. These two features were among the most requested from Adobe, and will go a long way towards making the editing workflow more seamless.

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Iris Blur and tilt shift

With easy-to-use photo editing tools, filters, and effects available on countless apps on mobile devices, it's only fitting that these ideas are bleeding back into pro apps. Precise tilt shift, lens, and blur effects have never been that easy to do in earlier versions of Photoshop, but tutorials and action packs made it possible. CS6 changes that with new blur tools built directly into the filters menu. The filters are applied directly to the current layer, and give you the option of size, location, blur intensity, and angle of application. Like the tweaked adjustment layer selection, these new filters should make post-production on your photos a smoother process.


requests and more

Adobe is also noting that it has added over 65 new features requested by users, ranging from a Paste Lorem Ipsum feature for quickly filling up text blocks to the ability to bump your brush sizes up to over 5000 pixels. Most of these are pretty minor, but for an app as big as Photoshop that's rightfully spawned Tumblr complaint sites like Adobe UI Gripes, it's nice to see Adobe cleaning up grammar and paying attention to small UI details across the app.


Video Review

Wrap-up

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Looking back to version 1.0, Photoshop really hasn't strayed from its core functions in the past twenty or so years. Lasso tools, paintbuckets, high pass filters, blur, and even primitive type support were there in the first iteration of the app, and followups built on those basic image editing ideas over the years. Photoshop CS6 may look like a huge visual refresh — and it's certainly the most drastic one in recent memory — but it's largely the same Photoshop, good and bad, underneath. You can finally try it out today with the launch of the free beta preview, and the download comes in just under 1GB — start your download here. CS5 launched nearly two years ago in April 2010, and CS6's official release should be available sometime in the first half of 2012. It's $699 new, but you'll be able to upgrade for $199 ($999 and $399 for CS6 Extended, respectively).


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