Review and Comparison of Adobe Illustrator CS5.1

First Impressions - Review and Comparison of Adobe Illustrator CS5.1

by Larry Neal Gowdy -September 11, 2011 (updated October 6, 2013)

First Impressions - Adobe Illustrator

Screenshot of Adobe Illustrator in XP with a gray classic theme

Popular opinion holds Adobe® Illustrator® as being the software of choice by professional photographers and web designers.

Let’s talk about popularity for a moment. Each trade has a popular brand name of tools that is often used by the better qualified individuals in the trade. Klein® rightfully boasts that it is the #1 choice among professional electricians, and Xcelite® is popular with professional electronic technicians, but there do exist brands of considerably higher quality. Yes a person can buy Chinese-made needle nose pliers for $1.00, but some of us will not hesitate to pay $50.00 to $100.00 each for quality made pliers that will not only do the intended job better and last a lifetime, but also feel tremendously perfect in the hand.

The choice of which tool to use is dependent on the purpose of the tool as well as the skill of the user. The use of visual HTML editors is currently very popular and will likely become more popular in the future, but an individual skilled with HTML will prefer to use a code editor rather than the visual. Individuals with specific skills are usually happier and more productive when using specific tools regardless of how popular the tools may be. Similarly, Illustrator may be popular and be used by a large percentage of graphic designers, but popularity does not necessarily infer best usefulness for the individual.

The point that I am hoping to get across is that popularity is not a good enough reason for anyone to buy a product, but rather the buyer should make their choices on usefulness, speed, and dependability. Buying a product that is too complicated or does not fulfill the person's expectations can result in the person forming an unwarranted bad opinion of the product as well as the product's manufacturer. We save ourselves (and everyone else) a lot of grief when we choose a product that is best capable of doing the right job for us personally. If Illustrator is the right program for you, then great, you will be pleased with the purchase. If Illustrator is not the right program for you, then do not let popular opinion persuade you into buying a product that you really do not need.

Adobe the Company

Several years back I had a question about Adobe® Acrobat® 6. Not only did I get a telephone reply from Adobe’s service department within hours, the service representatives were actually able to comprehend the problem and tell me in intelligent English what the problem was. I am a huge fan of Adobe if for no other reason than that I believe that they stand behind their products. I sincerely do want to buy Adobe products, and I will go out of my way in the attempt to make an Adobe product work for my personal needs.

Illustrator CS5.1

At first glance, Illustrator’s editor screen icon command bar looks similar to the CorelDraw!® version 12 layout. Users of CorelDraw will likely find Illustrator to be relatively easy to learn.

One of the first differences discovered is that Illustrator requires alt-mouse wheel for zooming. Normal mouse wheel behavior simply moves the screen up and down, and ctrl-wheel moves the image left and right. Ctrl+ and ctrl- can also adjust the zoom. The ability to do most of one’s work with just a mouse appears to not be available in Illustrator. I whine about having to press the keyboard shortcut ctrl-b in Jasc's® PaintShop Pro® to open the photo browser, and surely my neighbors would complain of my loud whimpering if I had to repeatedly use both hands to zoom a graphic.

Nevertheless, after using Illustrator for several minutes I did begin finding that the use of the ctrl and alt keys might not be such a bad thing. One of the small gripes I have long had with CorelDraw is that it can sometimes be a little difficult to get a highly enlarged graphic centered on the screen. Illustrator's choice of screen display control would be measurably superior after a person acquired the habit of using alt and ctrl with the mouse.

A nice and desirable option is to lighten or darken the program’s skin. Adobe gets an enthusiastic thumbs up for it recognizing that not all of us have the identical same preference for screen colors.

Adobe has a page at with several videos that help to give a decent idea of Illustrator's features. I have been using CorelDraw 12 for about eight years and I still haven't used half of its features: I would likely never come close to using Illustrator to its fullest.

At first glance it appeared that Illustrator did not have any unique features that are not available in PaintShop Pro 7 (PSP) and CorelDraw (CD), but after about an hour of tinkering with the program I began noticing a few nifty items like being able to have different widths of a single line. I doubt that I would ever have much of a need for such a feature, but I do know that the effect would be very useful. Admittedly I did not spend more than a couple hours actually working with the program, and I am still woefully inexperienced and ignorant of the possible commands and features hidden beyond sight, but what I have seen so far appears quite good.

The Illustrator layout and style appears to resemble that of Apple’s® general theme, which is not a bad thing, but the style is not a good blend with Microsoft® products, but then too, I am still using Office 2003® and XP®, so the Microsoft products on my computer are rather outdated.

The 3D command is reminiscent to one in a paint program that I tested several years back. The 3D command can make a photo appear to be hanging on a wall and viewed from the side, which is actually an effect that I was wanting for a website recently. I rarely work with complex vector graphics, mine are usually of a very simple design, but when I do want a little extra, I would like for my graphics program to have the feature ready for me to use.

An annoying problem with CorelDraw is that it inserts a white line around graphics when saved. Unless the graphic is used on a white background, I have to place the graphic into PSP where I can paint over the white lines. Illustrator had no white lines! After so many years of going through the ordeal of using two programs to create one graphic, it seems rather miraculous to me that one program can actually produce a finished graphic.

First Impressions - Adobe Bridge

Screenshot of the Adobe Bridge

Adobe Bridge

Not too unlike a normal photo viewer and organizer, Bridge is a nifty program that displays the contents of folders on your hard drive.

In the top menu you can choose “Edit” then “Preferences” and then “Advanced” to choose whether or not to “Start Bridge at Login.” When I first booted with the option turned on, I thought my computer had crashed since the Windows startup screen was still visible some minutes longer than normal. Many users will surely like having Bridge load during the boot, but for me, since I use computers for numerous types of work other than graphics, loading Bridge at boot time is not a good choice.

The Zoner® Photo Studio 13 has a photo manager that looks very similar to Bridge. The tabs on the left and right can be rearranged up, down, left, and right to suit the user's preference. I have recommended Zoner for customers who need a good basic editor, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the manager functions, but I do not have enough experience with Bridge nor with Zoner to know if they are of similar quality. Over all, if I were beginning the chore of entering in the data for tens of thousands of photos, I would likely choose Adobe simply because I would trust Bridge to not goof up and require my having to enter in all the data again. I have seen far too many programs make tall promises but live up to none, and for me I would rather spend a little more and buy the Adobe product. Trying to save a buck is too often the most expensive choice. Zoner appears to be quite good itself, and Zoner has several features that I very much like (especially the skin color choices), but until I become more familiar with the program I would prefer to not make too many assumptions of how well the suite might function.

Screenshot - Zoner Manager

Screenshot of the Zoner Manager

While Bridge itself is quite excellent, it does require that you set your Windows’ folder options to open graphics files with Illustrator. Otherwise you can right-click on a graphic and choose “Open with” to choose Illustrator, or drag the photo into Illustrator. I had installed a trial version of Corel® PaintShop Photo Pro® the day previously, and I did not know that Corel had changed all graphic file types to open with Corel PSPP (grrr), so when I clicked on a photo in Bridge, rather than seeing the photo pop up in Illustrator, Corel PSPP opened instead.

Really confusing to me is that the “Open with” command includes Paint 5.1. I thought to myself that surely it must be a paint program within Illustrator CS5.1, that surely it could not be the little paint program that is included in Windows, but wow I was so wrong! For what possible reason would a person using an expensive program like Illustrator have a use for Paint? The “open with” menu did not offer a selection of all possible graphics programs that were already running on my computer, not did the menu offer a full selection of programs not running, and so why was Paint included while so many other programs were excluded? All software will have quirks, but I found this one a bit funny and very weird: maybe Adobe’s joke?

As I later discovered (and I am now glad that I kept using the program long enough to find the oddity), there appears to not be a crop function in Illustrator. Instead of cropping there is the clipping mask command, which works fine but leaves the original dimensions of a raster graphic as white space. A good solution for getting rid of the white space - believe it or not - is to use Microsoft Paint 5.1 to crop the image! Aha! So now we know why Paint is listed as a program in Bridge, well maybe or maybe not, but at least now I am not in such a daze of why Adobe would have Paint listed in Bridge.

Most other graphics programs that I have used automatically opened files in the program being used, and so I found Bridge to be a bit disconnected from Illustrator, although not badly. I often use the lightweight Microsoft Picture and Fax viewer for a quick look at photos and graphics, and I do not want to load a large program like Corel PSPP or Illustrator to simply view one or two photos. If I want to browse the contents of several folders, the old Jasc PaintShop Pro 7 provides a much better and faster browser than all other known graphics programs except Bridge.

First Impressions - PaintShop Pro Browser

Screenshot of the Jasc PaintShopPro browser

I am of the opinion that if I wanted to sort photos into different sections within a folder, then I would likely look at buying a common photo organizer, but I do recognize the value of Bridge’s ability to organize photos by attributes such as focal length, lens, serial number, etc.. I only have a few thousand photos on my computer, and so it is easy for me to remember each one’s dimensions and where they are located in various folders, but for someone with tens of thousands of photos that they did not create themselves, Bridge would be an excellent means of segregating photos into different groups. (After writing this article I discovered that I have over 30,000 jpg graphics on one hard drive alone. If my personal computer has that many graphics, then I would not be surprised of a professional graphic artist's computer having over half a million graphics.)

A few months after writing this article's draft I happened to watch a video of a fashion clothing shoot that included coverage of the numerous photographers, makeup artists, designers, and the super model at work. I was rather impressed at the quality of skill that each individual contributed in creating a fascinating illusion that the model was of an elegance beyond what might be true in real life. In the video an Apple computer screen was shown that had the photos taken of the model, and I quickly recognized that the photos were being viewed in Bridge. Popularity of software is not reason enough to buy or use it, but Illustrator does fulfill the needs of some of the best known photographers.

First Impressions

Within the first few minutes of looking over Illustrator, my first impression was that it is a good program that will surely be useful for many individuals after a sizable learning curve, but initially I was not impressed. I wrongfully assumed that Illustrator would be too similar to most all of the other vector graphics programs I had tested. Not until I had actually worked with the program for a couple of hours did I begin getting a useful feel for its capabilities. At present I tend to think of Corel and Illustrator as being the top graphics programs, and I would recommend for anyone in the market to download the trail versions of each and to then compare how the features meet your personal needs.

I am still ticked at Corel for not supporting version 1 graphics when version 2 was released in the early 90s, which resulted in my not buying another Corel product until version 12, and only because it was on sale for around $75.00 and included the ISBN software that I needed at the time. The new CorelDraw X5 has useful features for hard-core CorelDraw users, but over all if I were in the market for new software I believe that I would lean towards Illustrator if for no other reason than Adobe not bringing to mind my personal history with Corel. For me the choice is purely subjective, but past experiences do influence present choices, and that is one reason that I would recommend Adobe's Bridge over Zoner's photo manager, to simply help prevent possibly unwanted memories.

Previous experience with programs like CorelDraw will be a big plus towards learning Illustrator, but if a person's past experience has been with the low cost editors, then the use of Illustrator may seem overwhelming at first. Give yourself time, and watch a few of the videos to get an idea of what you can do with Illustrator.

Illustrator does consume a sizable quantity of hard drive space as well as CPU and RAM. While writing this I peeked to see just how resource hungry Illustrator might be. Bridge was using almost 256 megs of RAM while Illustrator was using about 177 megs of RAM. As a comparison, PaintShop Pro was using about 19 megs while CorelDraw was at about 59 megs.


Illustrator is a top of the line vector graphics program that is well worth the cost to individuals who create graphics. If a person is needing to edit photographs only, PhotoShop would likely be the better choice.

I keep version 6 of Adobe Acrobat on my computer for use of the Distiller, a feature that was well worth the cost of Acrobat. Similarly, for companies with large collections of photographs that are shared among several employees, Bridge could be an excellent tool of its own. The current market price for Illustrator is about $550.00, while PhotoShop is around $200.00 and it too includes Bridge. I would not hesitate to recommend an Adobe product to anyone who asks.

Unless otherwise stated, all content and graphics are Copyright©2011-2013 by Larry Neal Gowdy.
No content nor graphic may be copied or reused without written permission.