Adobe Creative Suite 6 Design Premium: First look at speed

Adobe CS6With every release of the Adobe Creative Suite apps, one of the first questions always seems to be “is it faster?” Whether you use Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator or Flash, you probably crave improved speed almost as much as new features.

With all the major Adobe Creative Suite apps being fairly mature in their lifecycle, new marquee features have taken a back seat to minor tweaks, small feature additions, bug fixes, and speed improvements. Creative Suite 6 follows that trend for the most part, and that makes it a bit easier to compare the speed of the apps between CS5 and CS6.

I’ve been using Creative Suite Design Premium for a few weeks now, and have collected my thoughts and observations about CS6 regarding speed. It should be noted that, with the exception of the launch-time chart below, these are my opinions based on very unscientific testing. I’ve not run any benchmarks or other timed processes, just real-world “eye-ball” tests.

Test Macs

All my observations are based off the results of running Adobe CS6 (and CS5) on two Macs, both running OS X Lion 10.7.4:
Mac Pro 2006 (MP): 2.66 GHz Dual-Core Xeon, 11GB RAM, 7200 RPM internal HD
MacBook Air 2011 (MBA): 1.7 GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM, SSD

Installation

I chose the download option for CS6, rather than the boxed DVD collection. So I installed CS6 from the mounted disc image on my hard drive. This is important to remember, and you’ll see why below.
CS6 install times

Installation took noticeably less time than Creative Suite 5 did on both the MP and the MBA – you no longer have the luxury of running out to lunch while CS installs. However the difference in install times between the two Macs was dramatic, as you can see in the chart above. The MBA was more than twice as fast. Because my MP has three times the RAM and much more powerful processors, the only explanation is the SSD drive in the MBA. It simply reads and writes data faster.

This is important to remember, because much of what you do in any CS app involves reading and writing to the storage drive on your Mac. I’ll cut to the chase right now; everything you do with CS6 Design Premium is going to be faster on an SSD-equipped Mac, even if the remaining specs of the other Mac are greater.

Launch Times

I’m the type that tends to leave apps open. At any given time, I’ve got ID, PS, Bridge & Acrobat running. But I do still value the time (or lack of it) that it takes to launch apps.

Below is a comparison of the first launch and second launch times of the CS6 Design Premium apps after a restart. The exception being Acrobat Pro X, which launched near instantly on both Macs. The first launch after a restart always takes longer than subsequent launches, so the longer times on first launch are no surprise.

CS6 launch times

As you can see above, launch times are greatly reduced on my SSD-equipped MBA, particularly the first launch. While launch times aren’t as important as they used to be, they are an indication of things to come. Particularly in this comparison. As a side note: How obnoxious is Flash with those launch times… sheesh!

Real-World Use

Overall, an Apples-to-Apples comparison of CS5 and CS6 on the MBA show that CS6 runs smoother than CS5 in virtually all areas. I was extremely pleased to find this, as the CS upgrades the last few years have been spotty when it comes to speed – sometimes it got better, sometimes it took a step back.

InDesign CS6 performs better than CS5 in scrolling, object/text creation, dragging objects, page navigation, importing/exporting, and saving files. They aren’t sexy, but those are the things you do the most with InDesign files. Because I spend the majority of my time working on page layout, InDesign’s speed is important to me. Thankfully, InDesign on the MBA is a real pleasure to use. On the MP however, the speed is about the same as CS5: A bit choppy in some areas, and an improvement in others.

Illustrator CS6 runs vastly superior to CS5 on both the MP and MBA. Because Illustrator has been the weak link in my design toolbox for so many years, I wasn’t looking forward to even using it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it performs fairly well; which is to say that I actually may find it useful again. While it definitely performed much better on the MBA, it was still a nice improvement on the old MP.

CS6 Splash Screens

Over the years, Photoshop has always been the fastest app of the bunch for me, so I was hopeful that it hadn’t changed with the latest upgrade. Photoshop CS6 performs quite well on the MBA – even better than CS5 did. Working with small web images is a breeze, and large 250+MB print files were no match even when running filters, CMYK conversions, and other complex operations. All aspects of running Photoshop CS6 on the MBA were a real pleasure. The same cannot be said of running it on my aging MP.

You would think that a Mac Pro with 11GB of RAM, even an older one like mine, would still be a real powerhouse for Photoshop work. Unfortunately this isn’t the case for me. Virtually everything about Photoshop CS6 on my MP is slow and clunky compared to Photoshop CS5. That’s not to say it’s unusable, it just doesn’t seem to perform well on my aging MP. The simple task of entering text in PS CS6 on my MP was painful at best. I was somewhat surprised about this, because I have numerous plugins installed in CS5, but none in CS6. You would think that alone would give CS6 the edge, but it didn’t.

As I mentioned earlier, Acrobat Pro X worked virtually the same on both Macs. Because of the type of file PDFs are, and the work you typically do in Acrobat, Adobe probably can’t do much more to improve the great speed we already have.

Dreamweaver and Flash CS6 are two apps I use fairly infrequently, it’s just not my area of expertise. But I can say that they perform a tad bit faster on the MBA, and about the same on the MP. I have to wonder if Adobe is putting more focus on developing Muse and other web-based apps moving forward, because neither Dreamweaver or Flash have changed much at all since they acquired Macromedia back in 2005.

The “holy cow” moment for me was Bridge CS6. The time it takes to display the thumbnails of a folder full of images has been drastically increased on the MBA, and at least noticeably on the MP. While I’ve used it on and off for quite a while, I can easily see myself keeping it open at all times now.

Recommendation

The short story here is: if you use Creative Suite apps for a living and you’re in the market for a new Mac soon, pay for the SSD drive upgrade. It’s well worth the investment. If you already have a Mac with an SSD storage drive, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised with CS6 in general. The overall speed increases found in all the apps is pretty sweet.

If you have an older Mac, the decision isn’t quite as clear. If you need the features found in CS6, you can upgrade knowing you’ll find it usable as far as speed goes. But if speed is the primary decision-maker for you, Creative Suite 6 may be a disappointment for you, and I would recommend you stick with CS5 until you can afford to upgrade to a new Mac with an SSD storage drive.

I used my old Mac Pro in this comparison because I know how long designers tend to keep their Macs – particularly those with Mac Pro towers loaded up with extra hard drives and RAM. The reality is that many of you probably have newer Macs than my 2006 Mac Pro. But this should give you some insights into how CS6 runs on Apple’s oldest supported towers.

Adobe can’t support aging Macs forever, and because CS6 runs so well on my fairly new MacBook Air, I feel comfortable in recommending Creative Suite 6 to any user who needs the new features, or looks forward to getting the latest speed increases with the CS apps on their newer Macs.