In late December, Adobe released a public beta version of their flagship application, Adobe Photoshop. The most significant part of this update, in addition to the fact that it marked the first time Adobe publicly released a preview version of their software, was that it is a Universal application. This means it runs natively on the new Intel-powered Macs. They also simultaneously released a PC version of the beta.

Aside from some duly noted overall speed improvements, the next version sports a few enhancements that many designers will find invaluable. First and foremost, Adobe has included what they are calling "Non-destructive Smart Filters." You convert one of the layers in your project into what Adobe calls a "Smart Layer." Once converted, you can apply any filter to this layer without actually modifying the original. Filters applied to smart layers are also editable or removable. This was already a feature in Adobe's After Effects video manipulation software that many designers have been working with for years, and it is a welcome new addition in Photoshop, although I found its implementation a little bit clunky and non-intuitive.

Another new feature is the automatic layer alignment and blending tool. I find that often, I want to create an ultra-wide image of a street scene. In the old days, I would have to take four or five pictures moving down the street and then layer them and blend them together in Photoshop. To get it just right could take a few hours. Well now Photoshop can magically do it automatically for you. You simply layer your photos into a single document and position the layers roughly in the vicinity of where you think they belong. Then you select the layers and choose the Alignment tool. You have a few fine tuning options in the Alignment menu. Photoshop will automatically compare the layers and look for similarities. The Blending tool also has some fine tuning preferences, and another really nice thing is that it does all blending via masks, so you can edit it further if you want. I found both of these tools to work amazingly well. I threw a bunch of different images at it, some of which I had previously done by hand, and the results were amazingly good. Some required a little post-blend tweaking, but it will definitely save hours of time in the future!

There are also a couple of other improvements such as a new Black and White conversion tool, an enhanced Camera Raw plug-in, a new Quick Selection tool, and a really nice Refine Edge Selection tool that previews your selection with a mask before you invoke it. There are still a few bugs, including a strange display bug where it will not accurately display the actual size of a brush, but it is important to remember this is just beta software. Adobe has already said it plans to squash the bugs and continue to improve performance before the official release. I found that, on my Intel MacBook Pro, it actually ran pretty fast. On the PC, it was even faster (significantly faster then the CS2 version). Overall, I would say that, when it is officially released in the spring, it will be a must-have update for Photoshop users.