Photoshop CS6 Beta Review: The Best Update In Recent Memory

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I'm in love with Photoshop CS6 after working with the beta during the past few weeks. For the first time in many years, this one is a must-have update.

It will save a lot of time for professionals on the day-to-day, thanks to new and updated features, a new graphic engine, and a new—beautiful—streamlined interface.

I've used every release of Photoshop since version 3, which was released in 1994. I was lucky. It was the first version with layers. They felt like magic to me. Each version after that brought to me some life-changing feature (I remember going—"OHYES!"—with adjustment layers in version 4 or multiple undo—"FUCKYEAH!"—and editable type—"ATBLOODYLAST!"—in version 5).


In recent years, however, new Photoshop versions felt flat and bloated. The new features were "oh, neat, I guess that would be nice—sometimes" and "ah, cool, I see myself using this at least once a month." The last version left me mostly cold, as the 10 per cent of the program that most professionals use to do 90 per cent of their work was left unchanged. It just felt like Adobe was just piling features on; a graphical Microsoft Office, trying to appeal to everyone. It seemed as they didn't want to make the basics better.

Until CS6.

This new version does exactly that: concentrate on the basics, that 10 per cent that does the 90 per cent of the work.


Back to basics

To me, that's perhaps the most crucial aspect of the new Photoshop. The first thing that will strike your eye is the new interface. It's obviously different, dark grey—which can be taken back to the original grey if you want, or a darker tone too. The new icons are nice as well, but the redesign goes deeper than that.


The past Photoshops have had layer upon layer of interface crap, with different types of buttons and windows arranged in different ways, sometimes clearly misaligned. It was an eye-sore and, much worse, it was inconsistent. Adobe hired an interface expert and told him to "clean it all, do as you wish, make it better." And he did. His team adjusted thousands of graphic elements and cleaned up workflows. Now, it feels much more coherent and solid than ever before.

The change on the user experience also goes deep with revamped functionality as well.


One of the functions that has a much better interface and is much more powerful is the new crop. It may seem silly, but it's an essential tool that gets used constantly and hasn't evolved since... well, since forbloodyever-and-eight-four.

The new crop is a total revamp. First, it's non destructive (you can get back and change it at any time—oh yes, please, thankYOU). When you are adjusting the crop, the image flows, zooms, rotates and scales in real time thanks to CS6's new graphic engine, called Mercury. It feels so good. It also has overlays for different rules—like golden ratio, golden spiral, rule of thirds—and you can save your own presets.


Crop also incorporates a precision straighten tool that works great: you can draw along a straight line on the photo and it will know how to exactly rotate the final image. It also has a useful feature along the same thoughts: perspective cropping, which allows you to turn an image that is sightly in perspective into a straight-on frontal shot. That will become useful some times, but the whole crop is easier to use, more powerful and smart all the time.

RAW import
The new RAW 7 import is really awesome—so incredibly good that I can see photographers reimporting old RAW material to get the new amazing results. Adobe claims they used "a new tone-mapping algorithm" and there's something definitely different there, because the treatment of Highlights, Shadows, and Whites just blows my mind. It almost seem like black magic.


The adjustment brush to apply different RAW parameters to only painted parts of the image is great too. It gives so much flexibility that it makes me shake my head in disbelief.

Shadows and Highlights
Shadows and Highlights—a favorite feature for many people—has also been revamped. The first thing you will notice is how you can bump up the values to some crazy levels without getting any halos in your image. In previous versions, if you really pushed it, you often ended up with horrible halos around the areas of contrast. It looked like crap. Now, these are done. Black magic again. It even works perfectly with images from the iPhone camera.


One word: paragraph and character styles. OK, that's four words. What about: YES! This will be a great timesaver, both for making new stuff from scratch reusing old styles, and also to quickly create variations of designs. I know, you can use Illustrator or InDesign for this function, but this is so convenient. It also supports OpenType ligatures, fractions and all kinds of typography niceties to make beautiful text.

Bonus: Lorem Ipsum text generator, which is a godsend for quick prototyping of dummy layouts.


New features too

New lens blur
I love its new lens blur too. It has three types of effects, which work live if your graphic card supports the new Adobe Mercury Graphics Engine. The most useful one is the Iris Blur, which allows you to specify different focus points and adjust the blurring dynamically.


It's really intuitive—the interface is not in a tiny box but works over the whole image. Most importantly, it works in real time. You literally just tell Photoshop where to focus by dropping points on the image. Each point can have its own blur value. This allows you to simulate depth of field in very few steps.

It also has a tilt-shift option and gradient one, but none of these are as good as the Iris Blur.


Content-ware Patch tool and Move magic
The old content-aware was never a favorite of mine. In fact, I almost never used it even though it worked, sometimes, for very easy stuff. However, it didn't have any of the magical features that everyone expected it to have. I'm happy to tell you that there's some real magic now.

The content-aware patch tool is fantastic. If you want to remove an object from the image, just roughly select it, then move the selection area to the part of the image that you want Photoshop to use as a source. The app will guess correctly and remove the object instantly. While it is not 100 per cent perfect all the time, it's gets close to perfection.

The same happens with the content-aware move. You can really use it to move people or objects positioned under a background, whatever it is. You can also use it to extend a large object in the background, like a wall, just by moving part of it. This is quite useful.


Keep in mind that these two tools sometimes are not exactly perfect, but the level of accuracy and effect is good enough to save any professional a huge amount of time. Whenever it wasn't good enough, it only required some little retouches. In other words: I like these two features. I hated the old one.

Adaptive wide angle correction
While this feature is not new—Adobe lens correction system came in CS5—it has been so greatly enhanced that it feels like a new feature. This is it how it works: the filter autocorrects the image based on a lens geometry database (CS6 grabs this info from the photograph's metadata). This is not perfect, as it introduces distortions of its own.


But now you can help and tell Photoshop which are the actual straight lines in an image, like buildings, walls, roads or horizon lines. The more data points you give it, the more accurate the lens correction is and the more natural the final corrected image looks. "Without a doubt it's the filter that impressed me the most", Martin Evening told me when I asked him about his favorite feature, "the previous Lens Correction filter went some way to correcting for lens distortions, but the Adaptive Wide Angle filter provides a completely different approach. I like to think of it as a selective perspective correction tool. With this filter you can take say, ultra wide angle or fisheye lens shots and correct the perspective bit by bit (instead of unleashing a global lens correction). The benefit this brings is that I find you can edit a wide angle image to create the impression of what looks like a completely natural perspective viewpoint."

Can't-live-without-this-now features

Layer selection
If you use a gazillion layers and share your images with others, you are going to love the new way that CS6 has to manage layers. You can automatically filter out different layers in the layers palette by kind. This was a lifesaver when I tried to hunt down a layer among two hundred different ones. You can filter them by type: kind, name, effect, mode, attribute and color. And there's further filtering refinement options next to the main types. It's extremely convenient.


Skin selections
If you are working with human models, this is also a tremendous speed up: you can select skin and facial areas using a new skin and face detection technology, then modify your selection as you wish. It actually works quite nicely.

Automated image correction
I know this sounds like sacrilege, but for the first time the auto corrections are really, really, really good.


So good that I found myself rarely touching levels or curves anymore. Adobe achieved this with some help from statistics: first, they made hundreds of people manually correct thousands of images for perfect presentation. Then, they got all the resulting histograms and curves into a database that is built into CS6. Then, they created the logic to apply this knowledge to your images automatically. That way, images with similar information will automatically get the optimal treatment, without the user doing anything all.

I know. It sounds crazy—and I know some fellow Photoshop nutters will slam me for this—but you really have to try this. The new engine works in Curves, Levels, and Brightness And Contrast panels.

Background auto-saving
Another speed up... because there's nothing as slow as having to start again in case anything happens to you. Adobe claims that the background save and auto-recovery are a lifesaver and I agree completely. Photoshop will save your work every 5, 10, 15, 30 or 60 minutes, automatically retrieving your old work in case of a crash or some other calamity. It doesn't interrupt your work, as it happens in the background.


The first time you see this in action, you may cry with joy (as it would mean your hard work was safely stored!)

Performance increase
The Adobe Mercury Graphics Engine is just awesome, allowing for real-time effects with any kind of image, small or large. No tiling required.


Liquify, Puppet Warp, Crop, and Transform feel like liquid gold on my the two computers I tried. Of course, if the image is really huge, you will need hardware to handle it. But gone is the time in which I had to wait for Liquify to react to my large brushes. It just works now.

The not-so-useful stuff

All the above features are extremely welcome for regular use—some more than others, but all of them really useful for everyone. CS6 also has other features that some people will like, although they will not be used by many. One of them is the new 3D engine, which is used for creating 3D text. It also works for realistically extending photo surfaces in 3D—like the floor in a photo or a wall—which may be more useful for more people.


Surprisingly, when I asked Steve Caplin—freelancer artist and author of the How to Cheat in Photoshop—about his favorite feature in the new release, he pointed at the 3D object creation features: "[They] have been getting better and better. Now, thanks to the Head-Up Display in CS6, taking a flat piece of artwork and extruding, twisting, beveling and inflating it has become easier than ever before. Add to this the ability to define a Ground Plane to match your background photo in Vanishing Point, the new ability to adjust extrusion outlines and even change text after it has been turned into a 3D model, and you've got a powerful, entertaining 3D modeler in which the words Nurbs and B-splines are never mentioned. If you've always been put off by the arcane nature of 3D modeling, Photoshop CS6 provides the easy way in."

The only new feature that I find an "oh well, let's throw this in for those people who don't want to buy Premiere" feature is the video editing. If your idea of fun is editing video in Photoshop, I'm sure you will like it. I just found it awkward and not useful. Adobe argues that some people want this because they feel familiar with Photoshop but find Premiere or Final Cut too alien. They may be right. I just don't find it particularly useful. Update: A reader points out that for those who do rotoscoping, this is very useful. He's right. If you are in that business, the new video editing engine is much, much better than the old stuff.


Why It Matters

It's the first version of Photoshop in more than a decade that has actually cleaned the interface, and focuses on the bare basics in order to save time for photographers and designers. That matters; it will save time and money for every Photoshop user.



The gorgeous interface and streamlined basic tools. The new features are very useful too and will save a lot of time as well. The new Photoshop CS6 is a pleasure to use, even in beta form.


No Like

That is not a final release yet and there are a couple of superfluous features—for me, anyway.


Should I Get This?

Go get it. Or maybe don't get it, because once you try it, you may not want to get back to CS5 or whatever you are using (both versions work side by side, by the way).


Adobe Photoshop CS6 Beta

Gizrank: 4.5 stars
• Price: From $300


The requirements haven't changed: still 1GB of RAM to work and a OpenGL 2.0 video card. Adobe claims that it's highly optimized and scalable. It certainly works fine in my old MacBook Pro 17, but in my last-generation loaded-to-the-max iMac 27 it flies. It also works perfectly fine with my new Wacom Intuos5, out of the box.



You can download it right now for free from Adobe.

So go ahead, download and explore these features. Enjoy.

Note: This review applies to the Photoshop CS6 Beta, and was originally posted on 3/22.