Creative Cloud: the best way to buy Creative Suite?

Adobe Photoshop CS6

Tom Arah investigate's Adobes Creative Cloud and asks whether it's all good news for users

Adobe’s Creative Suite (CS) is currently going through a period of fundamental change. Previously, I’ve focused on this seismic shift away from Flash towards universal HTML5 and device-specific native apps, but equally significant is Adobe’s new software and business model called the Creative Cloud, which promises users "ongoing membership" of "a digital hub where you can explore, create, share, and deliver your work". We’ve heard this kind of cloud-based-revolution hype before, which almost invariably proves a crashing disappointment (often literally). So is Creative Cloud any different?

The buzzword "cloud" might suggest that Adobe has set up a massive server farm to stream its CS applications directly to end users, which is accessible from any internet-enabled device, but it hasn’t. Creative Cloud remains based around the existing native CS applications installed locally on your main computer, plus one backup copy (although a small advance is that one of your installations may now be Windows and the other Mac). The fact that it isn’t true cloud-based SaaS is a good thing, since it means our applications will work just as before and access won’t depend on a working internet connection.

That said, you’ll need to connect at least once every 30 days for Adobe to check your subscription status, as Creative Cloud is essentially a reworked version of the software subscription model that Adobe introduced with CS5.5, but without the flexibility of renting individual applications.

Before you dismiss Creative Cloud, you should check the prices. The monthly rental for a full year’s subscription to the CS5.5 Master Collection costs £116, but to subscribe to Creative Cloud costs £47 (inc VAT). While the CS5.5 subscription offered no discounts to existing CS users, Adobe now offers registered owners of any CS3-or-later application the first year of Creative Cloud membership for only £27 (inc VAT) per month.

This pricing places a very different slant on Creative Cloud. Think of the CS5.5 episode as an experimental way to check the feasibility of subscriptions, but this is the real thing and its aggressive pricing and advertising demonstrate that Adobe is committed to making it work. It looks as though Adobe expects the majority of CS users to become Creative Cloud members eventually. So what can you expect if you sign up?

The magic toolbox

The Creative Cloud experience starts with the new central Adobe Application Manager, which manages your installations. Open this and you’re presented with a clean and simple dialog listing all the Creative Cloud applications, starting with the 14 that make up the full Master Collection suite. Not all of these will be relevant to your own interests, and you don’t have to install those that you won’t use. As Adobe puts it: "think of Creative Cloud as a magic toolbox that gives you the right creative tool the moment you need it".

That might sound a little over the top, but the creative power it offers – including web design and development, video production, commercial print, interactive design for smartphones and tablets, photo editing and vector illustration – is pretty extraordinary.

As a standalone suite, the current Master Collection represents pretty good value for money at £2,645, but Creative Cloud membership gives you access to all these award-winning apps for a fraction of that cost.

Positive first-user reviews show that many new members can’t quite believe that they’ve effectively bought an access-all-areas pass to Willy Wonka’s factory for such a knockdown price. This is all well and good, but Adobe is determined to make Creative Cloud far more than just a new way of paying for access to its Master Collection.

To begin with, it provides an even wider range of applications, starting with the inclusion of Lightroom for quickly managing and editing your digital photos. The main beneficiaries are web designers and developers who gain access to two additional applications: Adobe Muse, which lets you create advanced websites with absolutely no HTML coding skills; and the preview version of Adobe Edge, which lets you create Flash-style animations in HTML5.