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Photoshop 2014: Software Finally Worth Renting

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

In the beginning, there was Photoshop: the software, the verb, the phenomenon.

It was 1990. The program was entirely black and white (not even shades of gray), just like the Macs it ran on. It had 20 tool icons and six menus.

Screenshot from original Photoshop program

Over the next 23 years, Photoshop’s maker, Adobe, did what all software makers have always done: it released a new major version every couple of years, piling on new features each time — and charging $200 for each upgrade.

Then, in 2013, everything changed. There would be no more megalithic Photoshop versions every other year, Adobe said. No more version numbers, in fact. Photoshop would become a steadily evolving, constantly improving entity called Photoshop CC, and you’d pay for it as a subscription. You wouldn’t buy it outright anymore. You would pay $20 or $30 a month, forever.

It was the first time a consumer software company had ever required you to rent its product, and the people were not happy. There were outraged blog posts, and petitions.

An old wound
All of which, in time, faded away, exactly as Adobe knew it would — and now, a year later, 2.3 million people have subscribed, either to Photoshop or to more complete sets of Creative Cloud programs, which include Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Premiere, and so on.

What made the switch particularly infuriating was how little Adobe seemed to care about its customers, especially those who aren’t on corporate expense accounts; for most of them, renting wound up costing a lot more than buying. Clearly, requiring subscriptions was beneficial for Adobe — but what was in it for us?

The company’s response boiled down to this: “First of all, we’ll give you 20 gigabytes of online storage space for sharing your documents. Second, we’ll keep updating our programs all year long, slipping in new features when they’re ready, so you get them sooner. You’ll always be current with the very latest tools.”

And, indeed, the first year of this experiment worked just that way. Photoshop received three minor updates: in September 2013, February 2014, and just now.

Photo of cat in Photoshop

What’s weird, though, is that the new release is called Photoshop CC 2014. It has a year label, just as in the olden days.

Why? Adobe says the perpetually evolving software blob idea wasn’t entirely practical for people like the authors of Photoshop books, creators of Photoshop plug-ins, and for people using older operating systems (as Photoshop gets new features, sometimes it also gets new system requirements). All of these parties would be much happier if there were certain named baseline versions of Photoshop to write about, or write for, or plan around.

In other words, Adobe’s programs will continue to receive updates every few months, but there will also be “tied up with a bow” year-named milestone versions.

Pricing games
When you subscribe to the full Creative Cloud suite, you pay $600 a year, or $75 a month. (There are student, corporate, and upgrader prices, too.) You get to download and install constantly updated copies of 14 programs: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Premiere, Muse, the works. Reviewing the new versions of all 14 of the Creative Cloud programs would require more webpages than Yahoo has available.

But Photoshop is worth a closer look — first, because it’s Adobe’s most famous, most-used program. And second, because Adobe has made permanent what was once a limited-time rental deal: Photoshop and the Lightroom photo-organizing program, both, for $120 a year ($10 a month). 

Screenshot of three pricing packages

That pricing changes everything. Now, renting Photoshop is actually less expensive than buying it (which used to cost $700 plus $200 every time there was an upgrade). After three years, you’d have paid $900 to own, but just $360 to rent. At five, 10, and even 20 years, you’d still come out ahead renting.

Only after 30 years would the “buy and pay for upgrades” plan start costing less. (The numbers would shift a bit if you sometimes skipped upgrades, but the principle is the same.)

Photoshop CC 2014
So what does the $10 a month get you?

My favorite new feature in Photoshop CC 2014: The program opens in about two seconds, and that’s on a MacBook Air laptop. (The previous version took five seconds.) Opening Photoshop that quickly means it feels light on its feet; it no longer feels like a bloated behemoth.

The rest of the new stuff is designed to improve life in niche situations. For example, there are two new blur modes — one that lets you create a spin blur, like this:

Photo of old wheel before and after adding spin blur

And one, called Path Blur, that lets you simulate motion blur in an amount and path that you specify:

Path blur being added to photo of dog

There are powerful new typography features, too. You can search for fonts by name. And if you’ve selected a type layer, you can try on each typeface for size, on your actual text, as you roll your mouse down the Fonts menu (just like Microsoft Word):

Screenshot of the word 'Switzerland' in two fonts

Over the years, Photoshop has sprouted increasingly clever ways of cutting a subject out of a photo, or just selecting it apart from its background — to paste it into a different background, say, or to adjust its color. In Photoshop CC 2014, there’s yet another way: the Select Focus Area command. It isolates the subject of a photo by detecting which parts are in focus and separating them from the blurriness of a background:

Screenshot showing Focus Area window

It works very well, at least as a starting point in making a selection; of course, it works only in photos where there is a blurry background.

Also handy: When you’re dragging objects around, new indicators help identify how far apart they are from one another, and when you’ve got them aligned.

Screenshot showing alignment tools

If you have access to a 3D printer, you’ll be happy to learn that Photoshop’s Print Preview dialog box for 3D objects is more accurate and more flexible than before. You may even be happy to learn this: “In earlier versions of Photoshop, when you opened an OBJ file containing multiple meshes and multiple groups, all meshes were imported as a single group in the 3D panel. Beginning the 2014 release of Photoshop CC, the structure of the meshes and groups is preserved during import and export operations.”

If you have any idea what that means, that is.

You also get 2 gigabytes of online storage (not the 20 you get in the full software suite). There’s a more complete list of new Photoshop features here.

But what you’ll quickly discover is that most of them are fairly tweaky, edge-case features. There’s nothing new that approaches the importance of layers (added in 1994), Actions macros (1996), multiple undo (1998), type on a path and Smart Guides (2003), or the Spot Healing brush and lens correction (2005).

What would make it better?
Maybe that’s just a sign of product maturity. Maybe there’s just nothing missing that people need. Maybe Photoshop has pretty much reached its destiny. Heaven knows it’s complicated enough already.

But there’s another possible explanation: Maybe, now that we’re all locked into paying a subscription fee, there’s less incentive for Adobe to drive forward. We’ve already agreed to pay for whatever is to come, sight unseen, so Adobe can get away with adding very little. This isn’t the old days, when Adobe knew it wouldn’t earn our upgrade dollars unless it knocked our socks off every other year.

Are you cynical enough to believe that theory? Actually, it doesn’t much matter; even if Photoshop doesn’t continue to develop at all, renting is now officially a better deal than buying.

Adobe, of course, strenuously insists that this whole subscription thing is all about the customer. That staying current and enjoying Adobe’s online offerings is well worth the money.

Well, the elephant in the room would like to know this: “If you’re so sure we’re going to love the subscription model, why don’t you make it optional? Let us decide if it’s worth it!”

(That, after all, is how Microsoft does it with Office. You can rent it or buy it. Voilà: No public outcry.)

But, no, most of Adobe’s professional creativity programs are now available only for rent.

I’m a cynic, yes. But I’ll admit it: Once you’re into this whole Creative Cloud club, there is a nice psychological feeling of being up to date and connected. You get the little alerts that announce new versions ready to download. You have instant access to 700 typefaces online, ready when you need them. You can look over other artists’ work on Behance.net, Adobe’s website for customer posting and commentary (or post your own work there). You can install your programs on two different machines (like a Mac and a PC).

I’m not crazy about software-as-a-mandatory-subscription. I don’t like that we have to put blind faith in the company not to jack up its rates, in effect holding all of our files hostage. I don’t like that we’re paying in advance for features whose quantity and quality we still don’t know.

And I hope we don’t see the day when Office, Quicken, games, and utility programs are available only for rent, too.

But for now, Adobe has found a price and batch of features that make sense. 

CORRECTION: This column has been updated to correct some shoddy mathematics. We apologize to our readers and our elementary school math teachers.

You can email David Pogue here