Adobe Creative Suite 6… Stand-alone upgrades vs. Creative Cloud

Today, Adobe announced the pre-release of Adobe Creative Suite 6, their newest version of their digital creative applications, including Photoshop, InDesign, and Dreamweaver (all products I use often). The new thing about this release, however, is Adobe’s “Creative Cloud.” For a monthly subscription price, you can get access to everything Adobe offers, plus some options not available in the stand-alone software packages.

If you are a Photoshop user, you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of upgrading (Adobe Buying Guide). I know many photographers who still use Photoshop CS3 and are happy. With every release, Adobe offers many new features that will appeal to some, but not others. For example, if you rely on Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) via Bridge or Photoshop, then you sometimes need to upgrade to get compatibility with current cameras (sigh). The Nikon D4 and D800, for example, are supported in ACR 6.7 (currently in release candidate beta), but if you want to use the new 2012 processing engine (available in Lightroom 4), you’ll need ACR 7 in Photoshop CS6. Photoshop CS6 includes some new content-aware features (useful if you do heavy cloning and retouching), auto-saves, and new blur tools.

See Colby Brown’s synopsis of Photoshop CS6 Features Here

As a creative photographer, Photoshop offers a few significant advantages that I really can’t get in other products (Lightroom/Aperture/Capture NX2):

  • Layers/ Layer Masks
  • Smart Objects (lets you use plug-ins and other effects non-destructively)
  • Comprehensive retouching tools (clone/healing/patch) with content-aware fill options.
  • Unique lighting and blur tools
  • Perspective Correction

Sure, there’s a ton of other things you can do in Photoshop (like text/borders), but from a strict photography point of view, the above list are things that I am fundamentally unable to do in the mainstream image processing/management applications like Lightroom or Aperture.

Cost of Ownership: Cloud vs. Stand-alone Apps

The other thing to consider is pricing. Typically, Adobe have released major increments roughly every two years. I upgraded to Design Premium CS5 in 2010, and it cost me about $600. This go-round, that same upgrade will run $749 (I chose not to upgrade to CS5.5 last year). When you purchase the stand-alone product or bundle, you get a software license that lets you use the application for as long as you wish, provided that your computer is capable of running it.

New this year is the option of a subscription-based model for individual products, or a complete suite. Called the Adobe Creative Cloud, you can get everything in the Adobe Creative Suite, plus some extras, for $49.99/month. You can also get subscriptions to individual products; Photoshop CS6 Standard will run $19.99/month (if you purchase a 12-month subscription).

With the myriad of options, what should you choose? Let’s take a look at the five-year cost of ownership for several of these packages, with the assumption that you’re purchasing for the first time this year, and will make one “full version” upgrade in two years. I’m also going to assume that the 2014 upgrade pricing (CS7?) will be the same as this year (unlikely).

5-year total ownership cost of various Adobe products and packages, assuming one full upgrade after two years (upgrade price shown from CS 5 to CS 6; CS 5.5 upgrades are less).

What you can see in this table is that the Adobe Creative Cloud is a great value over five years, if you intend on owning every Adobe product. Plus, the Cloud offers some extra features, like cloud storage and sharing, that you can’t get with the other products as-is. However, if you are just using Photoshop Standard, you’ll save about $300 assuming that you get the $19.99 annual subscription rate over that time (the month to-month plan is $24.99). In my view, the subscription plan benefits small businesses who need to use one or more of these products on a short term or project basis; as you don’t need to spend heavily on software that will be sitting around idle between jobs.

Should you upgrade?

The comparison above makes the assumption that you’ll be upgrading every two years. Adobe have typically been fairly generous with their upgrade pricing policy, although they did come under fire earlier this year for trying to exclude versions earlier than CS5 from the discounted price. At least for now, you can still qualify for discounted pricing if you own Photoshop CS3… which came out in 2007. In fact, you can still get Photoshop Standard CS6 as a $199 upgrade from Photoshop CS3. That could spread your software costs out significantly, especially if you don’t rely on the new features.

4 thoughts on “Adobe Creative Suite 6… Stand-alone upgrades vs. Creative Cloud”

  1. Jason,
    Do you know if the subscription service requires the user to be connected to the internet everytime he or she needs to use Photoshop, or is it only a monthly check to verify eligibility?

  2. Jason,

    In the past years, I ended up relying on Photoshop for its cloning ability only. I don’t have the Nik’s tools therefore don’t need the need of SmartObjects as much. The only Nik tool I have is the native CNX2 ColorEfex 3 one.

    What I’m trying to say is that CNX2 was sufficient for me. That being said, I have tried the beta version of CS6 and was quite impressed with its raw engine. Its ability to downplay highlights is unmatched right now, IMHO. One could argue that their Clarity slider is now akin to Nik’s Tonal Contrast tool.

    Did you try the latest ACR 7.0 engine? What’s your read on it, compared to CNX2?

  3. My main use of Photoshop is centered around three primary features:

    Retouching
    Layers/Compositing
    Non-destructive filter environment (plug-ins)

    For “traditional” images, I find CNX2 to be perfectly competent and with enough selective tools (brushes, control points) to be more full-featured than what I’ve been able to do in ACR/LR/Aperture. However, I do agree that Adobe has made tremendous strides in their RAW engine for Nikon files since the ACR 3 days.

    Usually, you’ll find one converter has a great feature (highlight recovery) but is missing others. It’s never a bad thing to have more than one option available to you.

    -Jason

  4. Good comparison, but there’s a flaw in your cost projections. You assume that over 5 years, pricing will remain consistent for subscriptions and upgrades. I suspect it’s more likely that the monthly subscription rate will increase faster than the standalone upgrade rates. Of course, if the public accepts subscription models, which are still very new, software companies may stop offering standalone products altogether.

    Perhaps it’s an irrational fear of loss of control, but I still don’t trust the cloud.

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