Adobe Creative Suite 3: Adobe’s Best Upgrade Yet?, Page 1

Could this be Adobe’s best upgrade yet? And does Adobe Creative Suite 3 have a role to play in your private practice or other small business? The bulk of this review focuses on the new Dreamweaver CS3, while the other Creative Suite components are covered in summary.

The Structure of this Review

Each individual component of Adobe’s Creative Suite 3 — including Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, Acrobat, Illustrator, and more — could easily occupy an entire in-depth review all of its own. My aim here isn’t to try and cover every fine detail of each component, but rather to give a flavour of each one, and of the value of the package as a whole. The version I’m reviewing here is Adobe Creative Suite 3 Web Premium for the Mac, but it also comes in several other flavours, some with more components and some with fewer; I’ll cover this in the last section, on system requirements and pricing.

And speaking of pricing… It’s no secret that private practitioners and other small business owners often balk at pricey software suites from the likes of Adobe and Microsoft. Paying several hundred pounds — or over two thousand, in the case of the most expensive version of Creative Suite 3 — can seem distinctly hard to justify, especially if you work on your own and your weekly revenues are also measured in the hundreds. I’ll have a bit to say about that, too, and if you’re already pretty convinced that expensive software cannot be for you (and thus this review won’t seem worth reading anyway), I’d encourage you to skip ahead now and at least skim through the section about return on investment before heading off to greener pastures.

So, here we go. Because their web presence figures so strongly in the business models of most private practitioners or other small business owners who may be reading this, I’ll turn first to Adobe Dreamweaver CS3.

Dreamweaver CS3

Adobe Dreamweaver CS3

Newly flying the Adobe flag, Dreamweaver was incorporated into the Creative Suite after Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia in late 2005 (see our earlier review of GoLive CS2 and Macromedia Dreamweaver 8), and this difference of pedigree shows: Dreamweaver hasn’t benefited from the same interface makeover that graces other components of the suite. While Photoshop and others sport a slick new look, Dreamweaver retains the same interface it’s had for years. It also retains many of the same bugs it’s had for years, primarily on the visual editing end of things, but a few new additions at least partly make up for that.

Dreamweaver CS3 Enhancements

CSS support, for example, which has long been one of Dreamweaver’s strong points, has been beefed up even further. Dreamweaver can check your CSS code and let you know when non-standards compliant browsers (ahem) may have trouble rendering the results correctly, and it can automatically take you to relevant discussions about CSS bugs at the Adobe CSS Advisor site. While I believe standalone CSS applications such as Xyle Scope still have an essential place in the CSS box of tools, Dreamweaver does a top-notch job in this area all by itself. Dreamweaver also now includes more than 30 ready-built and extensively commented layout templates. These basic templates provide 1-, 2-, or 3-column layouts, with and without headers and footers, with fixed or fluid sizes. In effect, even if you don’t know the first thing about CSS, you can now take advantage of Dreamweaver’s templates to create accessible, standards compliant CSS-based pages. Yes, such layouts are widely available for free on the web, but I’ve never seen the underlying CSS documented so thoroughly and usefully.

And for users just dipping into AJAX, Dreamweaver now includes the Spry framework, which makes it possible to implement various kinds of AJAX trickery without touching a line of underlying code. Hierarchical menus? No problem. Collapsible panels? Easy. Spry can also handle significantly more complex AJAX jobs with a bit more work.

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But while Dreamweaver’s integration of the Spry framework makes it incredibly easy for those new to the technology to incorporate slick AJAX effects into their sites, it all comes with a bit of a caveat. Spry is very much a work in progress, with updates coming so frequently that Dreamweaver’s Spry was actually out of date before it even shipped — and Dreamweaver does not currently provide any mechanism to update the included Spry framework. On top of that, Adobe makes a point of informing users that once a Spry library is uploaded to a site, Dreamweaver won’t touch it again (to ensure that it doesn’t overwrite any modifications you might have made to it yourself). In other words, once you’ve sprinkled a bit of Spry goodness into your site, you’re completely on your own with regard to updates, fixes for bugs (and there are many), etc. If you’re already an AJAX aficionado, that’s probably OK for you — but then you’re probably not going to be using Dreamweaver CS3’s out of date code libraries in the first place! The people Adobe seems to be targeting with Spry are exactly the people who may find themselves left high and dry — or at the very least, totally reliant on the next major Dreamweaver upgrade — once they’ve been tempted to add a little Spry sparkle to their site.

As for other major new features, Dreamweaver also adds Windows Vista compatibility, and it comes as a Universal Binary for users of Intel-based Macs, which can provide a huge performance boost relative to Dreamweaver 8 running under Rosetta. Dreamweaver also includes sophisticated integration with Photoshop, enabling images to be exported from Photoshop in web-ready form directly to a site, with the original high-quality images automatically accessible back in Photoshop when you choose a web-ready version in Dreamweaver that you’d like to modify. In my experience, however, this capability isn’t quite ready for prime time just yet, functioning significantly better in the forward direction (Photoshop to Dreamweaver) than the backward direction (Dreamweaver back to Photoshop).

In theory, Dreamweaver’s ability to upload and synchronize with servers is also much improved — you can actually do other work now during an upload — but it’s still so weak as to be useful only for the smallest of sites. There is no indication of progress through an upload, no estimated duration, and no indication of completion (in case you have switched to another application in the interim) or confirmation of results. Adobe’s help forums are home to a large community of users who haven’t been able to get it to work at all. In my experience, stand-alone tools like Yummy! FTP provide vastly faster and more reliable upload and synchronization performance.

Dreamweaver CS3 Bugs

And unfortunately, as I alluded to above, several longstanding bugs have not yet been fixed. While Dreamweaver has lost its annoying habit of extending a text selection at the end of a sentence to include the period when adding a link to a selection, that unwanted extension still sometimes (not always!) rears its head when the selection comes at the end of a phrase enclosed in parentheses. And if you place the insertion point at the end of a paragraph and select partly into the following paragraph before starting to type, Dreamweaver correctly deletes whatever text you have selected, but it then conjoins the first paragraph with what remains of the second, placing whatever you then type after the end of that new paragraph! Both of these bugs suggest incorrect handling of the underlying tags (the anchor tag and the paragraph tag, respectively) when it comes to making selections in the visual editor — reminiscent of the ancient days of escape-code formatting in word processors, when deleting a particular piece of text could inadvertently leave an orphaned escape code that would turn the rest of your document into bold face or italics.

Dreamweaver Migration for GoLive Users

Finally, speaking of bugs, I have to take a moment to heap some derision on the tool Adobe provides to help GoLive users migrate to Dreamweaver. When Adobe acquired Macromedia, Dreamweaver became Adobe’s flagship visual editor, replacing GoLive, and Adobe made a concerted effort to encourage remaining GoLive users to change to Dreamweaver. So, many GoLive users probably welcomed the inclusion of a tool that shipped with CS3 to convert existing GoLive site files into Dreamweaver site files: they could at last abandon the once-great GoLive that had been languishing for years, and hitch their wagons to the undisputed leader in visual editing. Well, I’ve tried the conversion tool (several times), and wow, is it awful!

The Adobe support forums are full of desperate pleas for help, not to mention a few angry invectives, from GoLive users trying to make the bug-ridden tool work. The last time I checked, they had received scant attention from Adobe, with third party sites like this one turning out to be far better sources of information. In my experience, the biggest problem with the tool is its distinctly poor ability to translate GoLive components into Dreamweaver library items: often the relative links within components were not correctly translated (which they have to be, due to the fact that Dreamweaver’s library folder sits at the main site root, while GoLive’s components sit outside the site root), and likewise the references from site files to components/library items which they contain were often not correctly translated. The upshot? If you have a large site, with more than just a couple of components, expect trouble: if you’re handy with grep, you’ll likely do a much better job handling the conversion yourself with a tool like BBEdit. And if you have a small site, with only a couple of components, you probably didn’t need the conversion tool anyway and could have managed with some simple find and replace. Add to this the fact that the tool is mind-numbingly slow. If you’re a GoLive user and want to convert any significant volume of site assets over to Dreamweaver, plan on hours of anguish before you see the light of day again.

Dreamweaver CS3: The Bottom Line

If you’re already using a visual editing environment like Dreamweaver or GoLive, this update definitely gets a thumbs-up. Particularly if you’re using the latest versions of either Microsoft’s or Apple’s operating systems (and/or the latter’s latest hardware), this update is a must-have. And it’s the best opportunity yet for users of the once-great GoLive to abandon that sinking ship and work on a platform that is actually being improved. (Although GoLive users will still miss a few things that are simple with GoLive but excrutiating on Dreamweaver — like uploading files without template tags and comments, which we mentioned in an earlier review.)

If you’re not already using such an environment, then the main questions are whether you need one (e.g., are you instead using a server-based content management system or blogging platform exclusively?) or want one (e.g., do you prefer a strictly non-WYSIWYG, code-based site creation environment?).

My personal take on this is that if you’re not using a server-based content management system, and you are responsible for creating actual content (as distinct from just creating underlying code), a WYSIWYG environment like Dreamweaver is hard to beat. Do you really want to write articles in a plain text editor like BBEdit? Although text editors have a very important role in the management of any large site, I believe they’re just not as comfortable for writing — i.e., for content creation — as a WYSIWYG environment.

(In some corners of the web, you’ll find heated arguments from developers and coders who say that nobody should ever use a WYSIWYG environment, and who say that only dumb designers who don’t know how to code would ever sully themselves with something like Dreamweaver. The fact is, once a page template has been created, all kinds of people can use Dreamweaver to create and update content, and there is no problem with Dreamweaver creating ‘bad code’, as long as the original template is ‘good code’. It’s a tempest in a teapot, stirred up primarily by those who don’t write in human languages for a living.)

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