Hands-on review: Adobe Photoshop CC

Adobe has today released the latest version of Photoshop CC. We got early access and took it for a test-drive to see what's new, and whether it's worth taking the plunge into the Creative Cloud.

Adobe Photoshop CC
Photoshop moves to subscription-only - find out whether it is worth it or not

A new version of Photoshop has been released by Adobe today. The last version of Photoshop was CS6, but this new version will not be called Photoshop CS7 but 'Photoshop CC'. And it's ONLY available via the Creative Cloud subscription service.

That means that if you're already a Creative Cloud subscriber, you'll be getting access to Photoshop CC automatically. But if you're not, you face the choice of continuing with your older version of Photoshop or signing up to the Cloud.

In other words, there will be no boxed set of discs, or one-off download option for Photoshop CC: the new features will only be available by paying a monthly fee to use the software. So is it worth it? In this detailed review, we'll walk you through what's on offer so you can make an informed decision for yourself...

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What's new?

The first thing to note about the CC update is that it brings back a single version of Photoshop for the first time in several releases. There is now no separate extended version of Photoshop; all the features and functionality of CS6 Extended are in CC, alongside a few new goodies that Adobe has cooked up.

So what about the meat of the release? Most notable is the way Photoshop CC brings a raft of time-saving improvements and new features. Many of these focus on speeding up design and providing deeper integration with other tools in the complete package of tools.

For the web designer, focused improvements will make daily tasks easier. For example, Adobe has developed a new workflow that allows you to export Photoshop documents to Edge Reflow when building website mockups. Photoshop also now has the ability to import colour swatches from HTML, CSS and SVG files, making it faster to grab colours from live web assets. A new CSS export option makes it quicker to translate mockups for individual design elements into functioning websites. And a new type-preview function will allow you to get an idea of how live type will render on the web, matching the anti-aliasing of your operating system.

Photographers will love the new smart-sharpen filter, which uses analysis of the image to determine the amount and type of sharpening to be applied, helping to reduce the irritating halo effects associated with over-sharpened photos. This filter also allows you to selectively reduce sharpening in areas of shadow and highlight, for finer control across the image.

Equally of note for photographers is the ability to run Camera Raw, now at version 8, as a filter. This is potentially a huge time-saving feature, allowing for multiple enhancements and adjustments to be applied to a layer in a single pass. Plus a new Camera Shadow Reduction filter makes a decent stab at solving the problem of shaky-hands, although it's some way off being a fully matured technology.

Also debuting in Photoshop CC is the ability to maintain vector shapes as live, editable shapes complete with rounded corners. You can also apply transformations to multiple shapes simultaneously, across multiple layers. 3D has also been improved, with the ability to create instances of 3D objects which inherit any alterations made to the parent object.

Top 5 new features in Photoshop CC

01. Camera Raw as a filter

 Camera Raw as a filter

In the past it's been possible to run the Camera Raw pre-processor on both RAW and JPG images inside Photoshop, but it wasn't very process-friendly if you wanted to use Camera Raw after you'd built-up a series of layers in a Photoshop document.

New with Photoshop CC is the ability to run Camera Raw as a filter on a particular layer, providing access to all the usual adjustments such as brightness, clarity, temperature, vibrance, shadows, sharpening, lens-correction and so on.

02. Camera-Shake Reduction

 Camera-Shake Reduction

Borne out of the blur removal technical demo shown by Adobe several years ago, the Shade Reduction filter allows you to effectively remove camera shake under very specific circumstances.

It's important to understand that this filter isn't a golden bullet to the problem of blurry shots - it hates noise and motion-blur - but it might offer a way to rescue an otherwise lost image where it was captured with just-too-slow a shutter speed.

03. Smart Sharpen

 Smart Sharpen

Smart Sharpen uses adaptive sharpening technology, intelligently analysing the image to determine the degree of sharpening that should be applied, and minimising halo and unnecessary noise side-effects. There's also a new set of controls to target shadow and highlight areas when sharpening, allowing for a finer degree of control.

When compared to the legacy sharpen filter, the new Smart Sharpen produces noticeably less noise, and also has the facility to reduce lens blur.

04. Conditional Actions

 Conditional Actions

One of the biggest limitations to Photoshop's actions in the past has been their dumb nature; they can only replay as recorded, without being able to apply any logical decision-making to the procedural steps. In Photoshop CC this all changes with the introduction of support for conditional actions.

For the first time your actions will be able to perform different steps according to whether a particular rule (condition) is met: a layer is visible; a document is CMYK; or a vector mask is present for the layer. Based on the outcome of this 'if ... then' condition, different actions can be played.

Note that this update was actually released as part of the December 2012 Creative Cloud update for Photoshop CS6, but you would have needed to be a Creative Cloud subscriber to get the upgrade.

05. Liquify works on smart objects

 Liquify on smart objects

The Liquify filter now has a new smoothing brush, which can help to reduce the artificial-looking straight edges that can be introduced while using liquify tools.

More significant is the addition of support for the filter to be applied to smart objects. This means that you can revisit your liquify adjustments later, making changes as necessary. This support for smart objects also applies to the Camera Raw filter.

Is it worth the upgrade?

It's difficult to give an absolute 'yes' or 'no' to this question. The decision to upgrade to Photoshop CC or not is largely dependent upon how you use the software, and what previous version you have.

If you're a designer who relies on Photoshop daily, and you tend to upgrade with each new release, then the chances are you'll actually save money versus the boxed upgrades you'd have been offered in the past. If, however, you're merrily using Photoshop CS2 and continue to be satisfied with the feature-set, there won't be much incentive to upgrade to a monthly commitment that requires you to keep paying to use the software.

Discount offers

Most users will fall somewhere between the two extremes, however, and it's these users Adobe are hoping to attract with a combination of reduced pricing and tempting new features. Most Photoshop CS6 users won't find a huge amount of new features, and in recognition of this Adobe are offering an extra discount for these users of nearly £10 a month (for the first year) over and above the upgrade pricing mentioned earlier. CS5, CS4 and especially CS3 users will see a marked difference in Photoshop itself, which may make the new subscription model tempting.

The ability to get access to the complete toolset of Creative Suite products for a (relatively) low monthly fee will also be tempting to cash-strapped users who might not have been able to find several thousand pounds for a boxed upgrade.

How much does it cost?

Adobe says that by moving to a subscription-only service, new features can be rolled out more often and rapidly than was possible with the boxed software model of the past. For many users this decision caused outrage, although the pricing over a typical product lifecycle of 18 months is broadly similar to the old upgrade cost between releases, and is substantially more cost effective if you use several of the tools and tended to upgrade with each release.

If you're only interested in Photoshop itself, you can buy a single license for a monthly fee of $19.99/£17.58. This is reduced to $9.99/£8.78 a month for the first year if you have a previous license for CS3 or later, although you have to commit to a minimum of 12 months if taking up the offer.

Pricing options

If you use Photoshop with other tools in the suite, the complete package of every Creative Cloud app (including the likes of Dreamweaver, Illustrator, InDesign, Lightroom and After Effects) costs $49.99/£46.88 per month with a minimum one-year contract (or a whopping $74.99/£70.32 per month without the contract), but again there's an offer available for the first year.

If you're upgrading to Creative Cloud from a previous boxed version of the Creative Suite CS3 or later, and make a 12-month commitment, you can get a discount of almost 40 per cent on your first year's subscription rates, bringing the cost down to $29.99/£27.34 per month.

It's also worth pointing out that Creative Cloud comes with various additional benefits including a Prosite account via Behance and the ability to legitimately install all the tools on a laptop and a desktop machine.

Words: Sam Hampton-Smith

Like this? Read these!

This review was based on a pre-release of the Creative Cloud software for review purposes only. If there's any difference in the software you've installed, we'd love to hear about it!

Our Verdict 9/10

A massive upgrade to Photoshop, with a ton of new features, the ability to sync colours, fonts and settings between different machines, and interoperability with other Creative Cloud tools should you opt for the full package. If the subscription model doesn't put you off, this is a must-have for all designers, photographers and other creatives.
  • New Camera Shake Reduction feature
  • New Smart Sharpen feature
  • Typekit integration
  • Sync settings between desktop and laptop
  • Subscription model may not suit light Photoshop users who are happy with an older version.

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