Adobe have just released a milestone version of their suite of creative tools. Having checked out Photoshop CC 2014, now it's the turn of Illustrator CC 2014. You can download it for free to put it through its paces, before moving on to a Creative Cloud subscription - but should you? In this article we'll take the new version out for a quick test drive, and try out some of the new enhancements.
If you're new to Creative Cloud, you can head to the Adobe website to get started with a free Illustrator CC trial version. If you're an existing Creative Cloud subscriber, you can already install the latest version of Adobe's original artwork tool. Illustrator CC 2014 is available by opening up the desktop Creative Cloud application and clicking on the Apps tab. As well as this latest version of the world's best-known vector tool, you've also got access to the latest versions of Adobe's full creative toolset.
In an interesting departure, Adobe have made a big fanfare about this milestone release, rather than sticking with the iterative update approach they've used in the year since moving to the Creative Cloud platform. Quite why they've done this is up for debate; one possibility is that it helps convince subscribers that they're getting new tools on a regular basis.
Although there's a new (2014) suffix to this version of Illustrator, it's not quite the same step-change release that what we're now calling Illustrator CC 2013 represented. There are a host of nice new features that are useful and welcome, but this release isn't about big headline features so much as improving workflow, fixing annoyances and speeding up the artwork development process.
If you want to get your hands on Illustrator CC 2014 you'll have to take out a subscription to the Creative Cloud. As with the CC releases a year ago, the full set of tools are now only available through the subscription model - there is no option to buy it on disc.
Adobe has added a useful set of upgrades to the latest version of Illustrator including some all-new features, as well as improvements to existing functionality.
The main focus, as we've already seen, is on improving the tools that are already there. For this reason there aren't any super headline-grabbing new features to get excited about, but for regular users of the tool the changes are significant and useful. You'll find enhancements to the pen tool, and the way Illustrator handles paths in general, including closing paths in a more precise and predictable manner.
Anchor points are easier to control than before, allowing for quick bezier adjustments and control over the smoothness of each line segment. Other irritating aspects of working on artwork have also been addressed, including the ability to have Illustrator fetch missing fonts automatically from Typekit (where available).
It's also worth remembering that Adobe has been rolling out updates to the CC versions of its products throughout the lifecycle, so that some additional features have already appeared since the original launch of Illustrator CC. These include Live Corners, Path Segment Re-Shape and Typekit integration - which we reviewed in this article. You can see a full list of the features added since 2013 here.
Adobe no longer thinks of its products as existing in isolation from each other. Rather, they now acknowledge that a particular creative brief might require several different tools within the creative space, so they've worked hard to ensure that everything integrates nicely.
This includes connecting with the likes of tablet-based apps (Adobe have also just released some new hardware to leverage this fully), and specialist tools such as website development tool Adobe Muse.
The Creative Cloud website provides a central hub to allow you to install apps, share files and access resources including tutorials. Adobe have just updated this to reflect the shift towards greater integration, and Illustrator is obviously engineered to be a connected app that provides a starting point for many different potential projects across a range of disciplines.
It used to be that once you'd created a shape inside Illustrator, it was a path and that was that. Now rectangles now have quickly modifiable corners, including independent radius control for each corner.
As well as this, corner attributes are retained if you scale and rotate your rectangle and Illustrator is clever enough to remember your settings so that you can quickly return to your original shape if desired. This is a small tweak but makes a noticeable difference when drafting mockups, for example.
Improvements to the pen tool
The pen tool has been upgraded so that you can now see a preview of the path you're drawing before you click to place the next point. This preview takes the form of a rubberband-like ghost line, showing how your point will affect the path if you click to drop an anchor.
This takes a bit of getting used to, especially if you're a long-time Illustrator user, but it makes the pen tool far easier to understand for new users, and provides a handy preview that allows you to achieve more predictable results first time around.
A long-time bug bear of Illustrator users is the dreaded missing fonts dialog that appears when you open a document that features fonts not installed on your system.
Illustrator CC 2014 goes a way towards solving this annoyance by allowing you to check for missing fonts on Typekit with a single click. It's not going to solve the issue where a custom font has been used, but if you're working on a file with fonts that came from Typekit it essentially solves the issue outright. Handy!
GPU acceleration for Windows
Windows users will be pleased to hear that they're getting a new GPU acceleration mode. This is currently limited to Windows 7 and Windows 8 users, and you'll need an Nvidia card with a minimum of 1GB of RAM to get it working, but if your machine meets this specification you'll find Illustrator can render far more quickly than before, speeding up your workflow significantly when working on complex documents.
Although not exciting to shout about, there have been a number of small but significant improvements to the way Illustrator responds when, for example, using snap-to-grid, and closing paths. This represents the overall focus on improving productivity and usability within the tool.
Is it worth the upgrade?
Unlike traditional software releases, the decision over whether to upgrade to the latest version of Illustrator is largely going to depend upon whether you have an existing Creative Cloud membership. The 2014 and previous CC version of Illustrator can exist side-by-side (and you can even access CS6 if necessary), so there's nothing to stop you grabbing the latest version right now.
If you're still using an older boxed version, and are wondering whether CC 2014 is enough to persuade you to jump to the subscription model, there's plenty here to get excited about. Although Illustrator hasn't come on significantly since CS6, there have been a lot of nice little enhancements that make the experience of using the tool more creatively rewarding. And it's also worth pointing out that Creative Cloud comes with various additional benefits including a Prosite via Behance, a Typekit subscription and the ability to legitimately install all the tools on both a laptop and a desktop machine.
Words: Sam Hampton-Smith
Have you installed the latest version of Illustrator? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.