Every software release is big, but in the Macintosh world, Adobe's Creative Suite is bigger than most. Entire industries rely heavily on...

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Every software release is big, but in the Macintosh world, Adobe’s Creative Suite is bigger than most. Entire industries rely heavily on programs such as Photoshop and InDesign, so when Adobe rolls out a new version of the suite, it’s a big deal.

Creative Suite 4 (or CS4), which ships later this month, adds several big, new features to the stable of applications. For example, Photoshop CS4 takes advantage of the GPU (graphics processing unit) of your Mac’s graphics card to speed up operations; also, a snazzy feature called content-aware scaling can resize images without distorting people or other prominent objects.

But I don’t want to think big in this column. Instead, I want to highlight some of the small improvements that likely don’t make it into most reviews. After watching programs strain under the weight of new features for years, I find myself looking for things developers do to enhance stability or otherwise make an application better to use day in and day out.

I’ve cherry-picked the following items; Creative Suite 4 is available in six configurations comprising up to a dozen main programs, which is far more than I can cover here.

Photoshop CS4, Photoshop CS4 Extended

Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. When you’re using the Brush tool (or any other tool that behaves like a brush, such as the Eraser tool), hold down the Control and Option keys and drag to change the size of the brush. In earlier versions, you needed to drag a slider in the options bar or press the bracket keys to enlarge or reduce the size. Holding Control-Option-Command while dragging changes the brush’s hardness setting.

You can “flick pan” an image by clicking with the Hand tool and dragging; when you release the mouse button, the image continues to scroll, similar to how the iPhone’s navigation works.

Do you switch between tools often? New spring-loaded keys enable you to press and hold the shortcut key for a tool (such as B for the Brush tool), use the tool while the key is still held down, and then release the key to go back to the previous tool.

When you draw paths with the Pen tool, the default behavior is to now draw just paths instead of filled shapes.

John Nack, the principal product manager of Photoshop, offers many more of these little improvements at his blog (xrl.us/pscs4tips).

InDesign CS4

I lay out all of my books in InDesign, and I’m a little embarrassed that smart guides and smart spacing top my list of favorite new features. The figures I create need to be spaced uniformly, which means I line up a new figure below an existing one and then move it down 2 picas.

InDesign CS4 notes the spacing between objects on the page, and it displays equal-sized markers when you drag a new object near them. This feature alone will save me a lot of time on my next project.

Another great feature is live preflighting (OK, this is a big new feature, but it’s worth pointing out). InDesign continually checks for common printing problems, such as placing RGB images instead of CMYK versions. In previous versions, you’d preflight your document after it’s finished — which is usually when you’re up against a print deadline.

Getting back to the little things: With the Hand tool active, click and hold the mouse button to “power zoom” out. Drag the mouse pointer to switch between pages in your document and then release the button to jump back to the previous zoom level.

Dreamweaver CS4

Although I once co-authored a massive book about the late Adobe GoLive, I’ve always been more of an edit-the-code Web designer than an edit-visually one. So I’m happy to see a few improvements to Dreamweaver that make it easier to edit code directly. The new Split Vertically command takes advantage of modern widescreen monitors by placing the code view and design view side-by-side instead of stacked.

Or you can look at two copies of the same document in Split Code view when you want to work on two areas of a file simultaneously.

Dreamweaver CS4 now uses the WebKit rendering engine to display its Live Preview mode, so you can preview a page without sending it out to a browser. (Too bad it can’t replicate other browsers for testing, but that would probably be insane to implement.)

A new Freeze JavaScript command (press F6) halts the page at whatever state you were in (such as activating an interactive menu) to help debug problems.

As I said, this is just a small sampling of new features. I like this type of small-detail improvement. It’s about time — not just for Adobe, but for the industry as a whole. I’m looking forward to Snow Leopard, the next iteration of Mac OS X, which promises to forgo big, new features in favor of stability, performance and security enhancements.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.