Adobe’s new CS4 finally exploits the true power of graphics cards

Those of us who’ve updated their computers in the past year or two are already likely to know why we have graphics accelerators. A fairly new development the very presence of cards with chip names like “Geforce” and “Radeon” have only really been useful when attempting to run games or working with 3D animation tools like 3D Studio Max or Maya.

What most people don’t know about the graphics card is that quite often it is more powerful than what you would realise it’s just that we only see the power used when three-dimensional imagery is processed.

What could you do if that power was suddenly tapped and used for more than just the occasional game of Half-Life?

The idea was thought of a while ago and several organisations have already gone to work attempting to make that transition from games to real-world applications too. Adobe’s new Creative Suite 4 however marks the first time that most people will ever see their graphics processing unit make a difference.

Photoshop CS4’s performance options now including the option to use GPU acceleration via the OpenGL platform. This means that graphics cards with the ability to handle OpenGL well should help you open images faster as well as do things previously unseen in imaging applications.

For instance with the power of a graphics card inside Photoshop you can now rotate the image plane in real-time without touching that pesky ruler. The ruler still exists and that allows you to make arbitrary adjustments rotating the actual canvas but those rotations affect the end result of the image. CS4’s use of rotation within the GPU means that you’re only rotating how you look at the image you’re working on or creating giving you that little bit of extra room to move when you’re editing images. No longer do you have to crane your neck or pivot your screen to get that angle on clone jobs or art projects you just have to rotate the image plane with the help of your graphics card.

It gets better when you get up close & personal with your images. One of the downsides of editing images as been that looking at files from different zoom levels created what is collectively known as “jaggies” a series of diagonals and curves that a computer doesn’t bother to render and as a result come in looking disjointed and pixelated. Zoom levels of 33% or random numbers like 42.7% would yield results like this and frustrate users. But with the graphic acceleration taking place this is no longer something to complain about because at every point the graphics card is rendering the output of the image. This means that at any point as I zoom I always get a picture perfect rendering of parts of the image.

It also means that as I zoom to reach the image my screen doesn’t have to refresh like it once did and the zooming happens as you do it. This same feature was actually included in Adobe Acrobat 8 but most people weren’t aware of it at the time.

As far as graphics cards go however how do you choose?

Well I’ve been testing this function on a mid-range two-generation old ATI Radeon 2600XT and it’s been running fine. From what I’ve seen any card from within the past year or two should be fine provided it supports Shader Model . But if you’re looking for the best speed my recommendation is to go with an Nvidia card.

Despite ATI currently having the top gaming crown with their jewel 4870X2 Nvidia have long been the favourites for handling the OpenGL platform ever since they snapped technology from 3dFX and used it in the Geforce line of cards. Aside from this Adobe developed the feature together with Nvidia. Chipsets like the 8600 8800 and 9800 can still be found for relatively inexpensive prices and should all provide fantastic performance when handling images… just make sure to turn the option on.

Interestingly Adobe chose to not include the same graphics technology with any of the other programs found in the Creative Suite. Premiere and After Effects both support some level of graphics acceleration but for each of these you’ll also need an Nvidia Quadro graphics card an item which won’t come along cheap and tends to only be used by people within the 3D development & animation industries.