October 28, 2008

Photoshop CS4 Review

About every 18 months, Adobe provides us with the chance to play with and learn new features in Photoshop. Depending on whether or not you’re a photographer, designer, illustrator, graphic artist, etc., each upgrade is of more or less value, according to your particular discipline.

For the purpose of this review, I shall only discuss Photoshop CS4 (PS CS4) from a photographer’s point of view.

The new upgrade brings several new features and a new interface. I’ll try to cover what I think are the most important points in this review.


The first thing I noticed about PS CS4 is that it’s faster. Faster in every way. It boots up faster. It’s makes changes faster. It’s not the kind of fast you need special equipment to notice. It’s just plain faster.


Next is the new tabbed interface with self-adjusting panels. Much like browser tabs, your images now can lay on top of each other on the screen and are only a tab-click away. If you prefer the old look, you can revert to the traditional interface.

Adobe refers to the new interface as “unified” and it does now much better replicate itself across the entire suite of Adobe applications. If you only use Photoshop, this will be of less importance to you. But things generally do seem to be less cluttered and easier to manipulate. It takes some getting used to, but after a few hours looking at the screen this way, I think I prefer this new look.


Adobe no longer calls the boxes on the right side of the screen palettes. They are now called panels. And the new Adjustments Panel offers a streamlined approach to getting your adjustments made quickly and simply. A side benefit of this approach is that the new panels offer lots of presets that will usually get you close to where you want to be with a click of a button. Since these adjustments now automatically create Adjustment Layers, it’s easier than ever to meld the results into something that approximates perfection.

One new Adjustment Panel is the Vibrance panel. This moves the Vibrance control that used to be exclusively available in ACR right into Photoshop. It helps you boost colors.


If you’re afraid of masking in Photoshop, don’t be. The new version makes creating masks a breeze and allows more control over those masks than ever before. It’s very easy to refine and adjust masks now, even if you aren’t a Photoshop wizard.


I’ve already posted a demonstration of this new feature. It’s a bit rough around the edges and will be looked upon by some as a gimmick, but I think it has tremendous potential and hope Adobe will continue to expand and refine its capabilities. For now, it does a good (but not great) job of allowing photographers to make small adjustments to their canvas size without losing valuable image data.


Adobe has refined these tools to help preserve tonal quality. While I didn’t see a big improvement, I did see SOME improvement and that is always welcome.


I really enjoy making panoramas in Photoshop. Enhanced blending combines with new vignetting and geometric distortion corrections to create better results—including the new option to create 360-degree panoramas, and to automatically detect and correct fish-eye lens distortion.

The new auto-blending features are perhaps one of the more exciting in CS4. These features allow for new ways to easily extend depth-of-field using a combination of Auto-Align and Auto-Blend technology to create large depth-of-field. Think of it as HDR for depth-of-field instead of exposure (although the feature also works on exposure and color too.) I plan on creating a screencast that demonstrates this next week since it’s much easier to show you rather than to write about.


If you have a recent computer with a decent graphics chip in it, you will enjoy PS CS4’s new hardware acceleration. Fluid canvas rotation. ultra-smooth pans and zooms and smooth previews are all able to benefit from this feature. While it might not sound like a big deal, it does more than offer a pleasing visual experience. It speeds up your work in Photoshop. And in my book, anything that speeds up your Photoshop experience is a good thing.

You should note that this feature does require a good graphics processing unit (GPU). If you have a really old computer or if you use an older computer without a dedicated GPU, you may not be able to take advantage of the hardware acceleration in PS CS4.


Adobe Bridge has been vastly improved. In fact, if you don’t need the cataloging features of Lightroom or Aperture, you may be able to live with Bridge as an image viewer and sorter.

It’s much faster than previous versions and that’s a good thing. In my opinion, Bridge was always too dog slow to matter. The new version is not only faster, it offers an improved, streamlined interface and new features such as Path Bar navigation, contact sheet and web gallery creation, workspace selection buttons and support for multimedia including 3D and panoramic images as well as video.


Adobe says that PS CS4 offers tighter Lightroom integration. Since I am an Aperture user, I can’t verify this claim. But Adobe says that they have implemented improved cross-application support.


ACR 5 now offers the cool ability to make localized adjustments. These adjustments use a technology that reminds me of Nik Software’s U-Point technology. Theses adjustments are so good that ACR users may find themselves needing to go from ACR into Photoshop much less often. Additional enhancements include Post Crop Vignetting and gradient-based localized correction.


Now this is the part that will have my friend Alex Lindsay salivating. If you purchase Photoshop CS4 Extended, you’ll have access to some very cool 3D features. This offers amazing perspective control over your images and the ability to work with 3D models just as easily as you can 2D images. There are also enhanced motion graphics features in PS CS4 Extended.


The evolution of Photoshop software always includes a vast array of small but important improvements and additions. Extra refinements in Photoshop CS4 and Photoshop CS4 include:

a. Perspective transformations and the option to sample either the current layer or all layers of a Smart Object
b. Higher performance on 64-bit-capable PCs running a 64-bit version of Windows Vista®
c. Support for multi-touch gestures available on newer Apple MacBook Pro and MacBook Air computers running Mac OS X Leopard
d. Clone Stamp and Healing Brush preview cursor for easier, more precise cloning and healing results
e. Spring-loaded keys to temporarily shift between tools by holding down a tool shortcut key
f. Notes panel to keep annotations off the canvas
g. The Clone Stamp and Healing Brush tools now feature a live cursor preview of the source pixels, making it easier than ever to precisely replace or heal specific areas of an image.


Every time Adobe comes out with a new Photoshop version I am flooded with calls from photographers who want to know if THIS update is one they should spend money on.

Comparing PS CS4 with several previous updates, I’d say it’s a no-brainer if you’re a serious photographer who can afford to spend this kind of money on a photo-editing application, buy or upgrade now. You might as well get going with all these new features now.

The new interface takes some getting used to and will translate to a steeper learning curve than usual. But it’s not a big deal. The hardware acceleration features will work best on fast, newer machines. But again, most people who would buy Photoshop will have a fairly fast, new computer.

The one hurdle is price. PS CS4 is $699 Extended is $999. Upgrade start at $199. This is expensive software. The cost is irrelevant if the value is there. In this case, I think it is.

The improved interface, smoother operation, addition of cool new features like Content-Aware scaling and enhanced auto-blend technologies make this a must-have upgrade.

Join the conversation! 12 Comments

  1. Although, like most everyone else, I am just learning CS4, what I have found thus far is that I couldn’t agree more with you. CS4, including ACR 5, is much more photographer friendly. Furthermore, I think that people who are brand new to Photoshop will find it much easier to learn. As a photographer, I used to find that Lightroom had it hands down over Photoshop (I say that even though I used Photoshop for certain things; I still find that Photoshop does Healing and Cloning much better than does Lightroom); with the significant improvements in Bridge, along with the rest of the improvements in CS4, I am amazed at the way that I often just do everything within CS4.

  2. I don’t know if anybody can comment, there are a few of us out there who have Macbooks (non pro) with intergrated graphics. I’m running CS3 and it runs decently. Will there be a noticable speed increase even with the integrated graphics chip? I have pre Uni-Body Macbook, so it doesn’t have the new 9400 integrated chip.

  3. Hi Scott,

    Have you done this review on the new iMacs?


  4. @G Basco I tested PS CS4 on a fully loaded 24″ iMac and a new 15″ MacBookPro w/2.8 GHZ processor.

  5. Hi Scott,

    The new MacbookPro can switch between the two graphics cards. Is CS4 noticeably faster even with the built in graphics card? Last question… Do you see a big improvement when you change it to the better graphics card?


  6. Hey guys,

    I did not see much on the black and white side of CS4, did you see any improvement? Any extras there?


  7. Still be fascinated to know why it cost $699 in US and £569 in UK, the equivalent of $943!!

  8. […] Bourne reviews Photoshop CS4 release from a photographer’s point of view: Via TWIP. Scott says: “Comparing PS CS4 with several previous updates, I’d say it’s a […]

  9. If you want to check out CS4 before buying, they just put up the trial downloads this week…

    The fully-functional 30-day free tryouts are available at:


  10. I’m very interested in purchasing Photoshop CS4 but was wondering if anyone knew the minimum system requirements, i.e. CPU, Ram, Disk space, etc. for a Windows XP setup? I’ve scanned through multiple forums/reviews and have yet to find this information. Even the Adobe website doesn’t seem to make it obvious where this information can be found?

  11. Photoshop is getting too expensive, especially for new users. Yes they are adding some nice features but not enough to justify the price every 18 months. I used to buy software for a large corporation; vendors have discovered that it’s very profitable to charge large annual upgrade fees.

    An unrelated item of interest, Google now “suggests” common search terms, enter “photoshop cs4 slow performance” and see how many hits you get (39,000+). High upgrade price plus possibly slow performance, a sure fire way to attract buyers.

  12. I too am really pumped about the new PS CS4 features particularly how the border between stills, video, and animation seem to be morphing a bit. I did find time last week to install the CS4 upgrade – CS3 Extended to CS4 Extended on my studio iMac (2.33 Core 2 Duo with 3 Gigs of RAM). Have not had much time to kick it around but tonight I did simply tried clean up some studio product shots from a Canon G9 (at full res).

    Has anyone else tried to crop medium to large images yet on PS CS4? When I finished with my product shot images, I saved then flattened, reduced my image size and res, and then tried to crop the finished images. Things on my iMac churned to a halt. All sorts of warnings appeared about my scratch disks being full and needing to close down programs to free up memory. Besides Preview and Bridge, the only thing I had running was Acrobat Reader. I changed my scratch disk to one of my video editing disks but never got PS CS4 to crop my final images. I then moved the exact file over to my Windows workstation on which I still have PS CS3 Extended. I repeated the same sequence and it cropped in the blink of an eye.

    I know this is not a tech support forum and when I get a chance I will pursue this but I wanted to add my name to the “PS CS4 Smitten but Wary” list for the moment. Is this a monster resource hog compared to CS3?

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