First Look: Photoshop CS6 Beta is dark, swift and content aware

Adobe's free public beta of Photoshop reveals a variety of improvements.

Adobe has announced, for the second time in its history, a free public beta of Photoshop. Photoshop CS6 will be available to try for the next few months as Adobe readies its Creative Suite of applications for launch alongside the brand new Creative Cloud online hub, targeted to creative pros. The Photoshop beta is available now on Adobe Labs. For Macs, the new Photoshop version works only on 64-bit Mac systems, and no longer in 32-bit mode. Windows PCs will need to have Windows XP with Service Pack 3 or higher.

Various under-the-hood improvements promise to make life easier and protect long hours of labor intensive operations. The highest profile of these include Background Save and Auto Recovery, Preset Migration and Sharing, and the new Mercury Graphics Engine.

Simply selecting some program preferences lets Photoshop automatically save and recover your work in the event of a power interruption. When you upgraded from previous versions of Photoshop, you often lost painstakingly applied presets that automated many repetitive tasks. The new version lets you apply your presets, tools and workspaces to the new upgrade. While the Mercury engine is familiar to users of Premiere Pro, Photoshop's new Mercury Graphics Engine is mostly a software-based implementation of multicore functionality.

The dark side

The changes in the new version of Photoshop are immediately apparent. The program has gone over to the dark side by default, opening to a sophisticated-looking dark gray interface. This is intended to complement themes of some of Adobe's other creative programs -- specifically Lightroom 4, Premiere Pro and After Effects.

Additional default themes in medium gray, light gray, and black are also included. However, you can set the interface colors to whatever you want, and they change immediately. The same holds true for Photoshop's companion asset management application, the now 64-bit Bridge. The dark, Aperture-like theme looks attractive, but as with all light type on a dark background, menu items can be difficult to read.

Photoshop CS6
Photoshop's new look is intended to complement themes of some of Adobe's other creative programs -- specifically Lightroom 4, Premiere Pro and After Effects.

And speaking of interface updates, Adobe has also redesigned and streamlined the program's menu icons, though they're still familiar and easily recognizeable. Panels are now labeled in upper- and lowercase type instead of in all caps, enhancing legibility. A new Properties panel now combines Adjustment layer and Mask settings into a single panel. Attention to such details keeps the Photoshop looking fresh.

Content awareness

In past versions of Photoshop, Adobe introduced the concept of content-aware image technology, in which edits can take into account the relationship between objects and elements in an image. This lets you edit in an intuitive way with more realistic looking results. Adobe now has added to the content-aware features of previous versions the new Content Aware Move and Content Aware Patch functions.

The Content Aware Move tool lets you pick up an object and relocate it to another part of the image while the program performs a content-aware fill operation in the background. The Patch tool's new Content Aware option, a more refined cloning operation, lets you choose the pixels used to fill a designated area in an image, as opposed to letting the program decide. Thus, Photoshop performs a little extra blending to make lines and patterns match.

Layer improvements

Over the years, Photoshop's layers feature has received much attention and many improvements. Photoshop CS6 adds a Layer Search function and the use of vector layers to apply -- for the first time -- strokes, dashed lines, and gradients to vector objects. Other tweaks include the ability to simultaneously change the blend mode of and to duplicate multiple layers. You can also now see opacity, fill and blend modes of hidden layers. And you can now simultaneously change layer styles and effects for all layers in a group.

Adaptive Wide Angle filter

Photoshop CS6 offers a new way to achieve lens corrections. The Adaptive Wide Angle adjustment filter lets you quickly straighten objects that appear curved in photos shot with wide-angle or fish-eye lenses, or panoramas created with Photomerge. Using Adobe's CS5 lens correction system, which fixes lens-based geometric distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting, the new filter reads lens metadata and lets you click and drag new on-canvas tools to straighten and align objects vertically or horizontally in the scene.

Crop tool

Photoshop CS6's GPU-enabled, nondestructive Crop tool sports new composition controls. Whereas CS5 included a basic grid and Rule of Thirds overlay, CS6 lets you preview Golden Ratio, Diagonal, Triangle and Golden Spiral overlays. You can also use the new Perspective Crop tool to straighten images. The new Crop tool is designed to help you change the aspect ratio (shape) of your image more easily, without accidentally changing resolution and thus the image quality.

Blur Gallery

Added to Photoshop CS5's 11 Blur plug-ins is a new Blur Gallery consisting of Field Blur, Iris Blur and Tilt-Shift. These on-image controls add blurs to any image without requiring selections, layers, or depth maps. Iris Blur creates a shallow depth of field and lets you control the blur's area and intensity. Field Blur lets you pinpoint (with a virtual pushpin) the parts of an image you want blurred and control blur intensity. The Tilt-Shift blur applies blurs along one or more planes, letting you adjust both location and intensity, like the popular Lensbaby tilt-shift lens.

You can also apply and adjust a bokeh (background blur) effect with any of the three new Blur tools. The Blur Gallery offers a full-screen preview with collapsible panels, allowing you to see your results at a respectable size.

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