First thoughts: CS4 twirls, and occasionally sparkles

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The parts of a product usually featured on a launch day demo may not always be the parts that will satisfy a day-to-day user. But as Angela Gunn reports, the parts of CS4 it chose to show off this morning could genuinely sway opinions.

[ME's NOTE: Today, we welcome into the BetaNews family of journalists the former USA Today correspondent and Tech_Space blogger, and the former co-host of public television's Digital Duo...and more importantly, someone I've been proud for years to call my friend and colleague: Angela Gunn.]

I don't generally trust product demos when my own hands aren't on the keyboard -- not that every company does hinky things to make new software look faster or slicker or more stable than it is, but enough do so a person winds up suspicious.

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That said? Watching an Adobe product manager twirl a multi-gigabyte image onscreen like it was a baton in a high-school marching band was the stuff of great nerd-reporter happiness -- that feeling that if it works anything like I just saw it work, that's a huge deal right there.

Improved rendering performance in Creative Suite 4 can be chalked up to improved GPU utilization, something that's been frankly missing in previous versions of Adobe's wares. It's possible that such gaps are the reason some observers have been carping that CS4 is merely an incremental upgrade to CS3 -- an allegation that's clearly worked its way under the Adobe team's skin.

Good. Decent GPU utilization is long overdue. Now that it's happening, though, I'm impressed with some of the fancier aspects of OpenGL support, specifically the gorgeous zooming and rendering -- smooth and beautiful, which is to say you'll stop remembering how you lived any other way about 30 minutes after you get started. For day-to-day use, this relatively intangible change is likely to be the one that truly motivates the faithful to move on past CS3.

It's usually the fancy stuff that grabs the headlines (and the video-demo time), and the nifty content-aware scaling (a.k.a., seam carving) functionality -- squeeze or stretch backgrounds and image incidentals without distorting the important stuff -- will doubtless be the tool that launches a thousand "hey, look what I just did!" demonstrations. But I'm impressed by the new smarter dodge-and-burn capabilities, which make photo correction a task that feels much less like you're trying to do it with mittens on, and by terrific and relatively speedy abilities to paint directly onto 3D objects. No more futzing with skins for every minor tweak? There's a timesaver.

The wait for better Adobe-Macromedia mind melding has been long, but as Flash 10 edges toward daylight there's progress visible in CS4. Time will tell how creative developers get with the ability to develop third-party Photoshop control panels, but one senses that once the floodgates open, it's going to be pretty spectacular.

As CEO Shantanu Narayan points out, everything in the Adobe-relevant spheres of technology is moving faster than ever -- the drive for interactivity; the river of print-trained folk finally making the jump to the Web design and onward to mobile platforms; the market pressures toward hosted services; the need to manage and share information and assets better. Adobe perhaps can't ride to the lead of every race, but a first look at CS4 indicates that they've gotten serious about saddling up.

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