One of the most common questions I get about Illustrator revolve around performance. Everyone wants to find any shortcut to make Illustrator run faster. It always reminds me of that famous line from the movie Top Gun, when Maverick and Goose exclaim “I feel the need… the need for speed!”
Of course, there are always things that you can do to speed up your Illustrator experience, and they generally fall into two categories: you can improve speed by using better equipment, and you can improve speed by learning to take advantage of features and techniques. One disclaimer: The information I present here applies specifically to Illustrator, so if you regularly use other applications, they should be taken into account as well when configuring your system.
There was a time when Windows outperformed Macintosh when it came to Illustrator. However, the improvements to Mac OS X changed a lot of that over the years, and from my own experience, both platforms perform identically. From an overall perspective however (not related specifically to Illustrator), I still prefer Mac for my own personal work. For those that are interested, I currently use a 15” MacBook Pro with an 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo and 4GB of 1067 MHz DDR3 RAM. (UPDATE: I currently am using MacBook Pro 13" with Retina Display with a 2.9 GHz Intel Core i7 processor and 8GB 1600MHz DDR3 memory).
CPU - Illustrator’s rendering engine is multi-threaded, allowing it to draw to the screen while performing other calculations. However, that’s the extent of Illustrator’s multi-threaded support. As such, a CPU that features multiple cores won’t offer any significant advantage over a 2-core processor. However, you will see the most significant performance increases with Illustrator when you use a CPU with a faster clock speed (a faster bus speed helps too). In other words, if you’re wondering if you should spend money on a faster chip with fewer cores or a slower chip with more cores, go with the faster chip.
Video Cards/GPU - Unlike Photoshop CS4, Illustrator does not specifically access or use the GPU processor on a video card. Hence, a GPU will not have any significant impact on drawing or display performance in Illustrator (although if you use Photoshop enough, you’ll want a GPU and a fast video card anyway).
RAM - Illustrator CS3 and CS4 can leverage a maximum of 2GB of RAM. So loading a computer with 8GB of RAM won’t make Illustrator go any faster. Although keep in mind that RAM is shared, and so having more memory will allow you run more applications simultaneously, but even still, Illustrator itself won’t utilize anything above 2GB of RAM. To get the most performance out of your system, you’ll want to ensure that Illustrator can get its full 2GB, so if you regularly use other apps at the same time of Illustrator, you’ll want a minimum of 4GB of RAM on your system. You’ll also want to get the fastest RAM your system will support. For more information on what kind of RAM your computer supports, refer to your computer manufacturer’s specifications and recommendations.
Hard Drive - The faster of a hard drive you get, the better your performance will be when reading and writing (opening, saving, etc). So going with a 7200 rpm or even a 10,000 rpm drive will make you much happier than a 5400 rpm drive will. On the note of hard drives, disk fragmentation also takes a toll on overall performance. Getting a utility to keep your hard drive in tip-top shape will also ensure a smooth ride when using Illustrator (and any other application for that matter).
Turn off Thumbnail Previews - Those little thumbnails that display a preview of your art in the Appearance and Layers panels take time to render (sometimes significantly). If those thumbnails aren’t important to you, you can turn them off to get better performance. From the Layers panel flyout menu, choose Panel Options, and uncheck all of the options in the Thumbnails section of the dialog. From the Appearance panel flyout menu, choose Hide Thumbnail.
Speed up the Hand tool - If you use the Hand tool a lot to pan around your art, you may experience significant pauses as Illustrator tries to catch up as you move quickly across the screen. For the most control over your screen redraw performance, Launch Illustrator (CS3 or CS4) and open the Units & Display Performance pane of the Preferences Dialog Box and adjust the Hand Tool slider. This specifically addresses how quickly your screen will redraw when you’re panning with the Hand tool. The default setting, Full Quality, will keep your art in high quality display when you’re panning. As you move the slider towards the Faster Updates setting, Illustrator will produce a lower resolution screen display while dragging with the Hand tool, to speed up panning. When you stop dragging and release the mouse, Illustrator will display your art in the usual high-quality setting.
When I first got into playing golf, I was excited and motivated. I bought a set of golf clubs (at Costco) and I also subscribed to a few golf magazines. However, after a few rounds of golf, I was getting frustrated at how lousy I was playing. I was convinced that my inability to play consistently was simply due to the fact that I was using inferior equipment. Especially after reading all the advertisements and articles in all of my golf magazines, I was convinced that getting a new set of fancy clubs was going to solve all of my problems. Then a friend told me I’d be better off spending my money on a few golf lessons than buying new clubs. It was the best advice I’d ever gotten on the golf course.
Turns out that the equipment you use can only do so much – but if you don’t know the right way to use it, you won’t get very far. More importantly, the gains you can make by learning how to use the equipment properly can far exceed the gains you’d ever see from simply buying new equipment.
Illustrator (and any Adobe application) is no different. Learn how to use the features efficiently, and you’ll see far more performance enhancements. More importantly, when you learn to take advantage of the application itself, any hardware upgrades you make moving forward will be amplified.
Keyboard Shortcuts - The advice is simple, and you already know this, but learning keyboard shortcuts will have the largest impact on how fast you can work in Illustrator. Unfortunately, such a skill comes only with experience. When I’m learning a new application, I “force” myself to learn the shortcuts by doing the following. If I don’t know the keyboard shortcut for something, I go to the menu or tool and see what the shortcut is, but I don’t apply the feature. I then use the keyboard shortcut to apply the function. Sure, it takes me longer to apply the function the first few times, but then I have it committed to memory and at that point, my fingers to the walking while my brain focuses on the creative task at hand.
If the feature you use often doesn’t have a keyboard shortcut, choose Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts and assign one for it. To learn a few cool shortcuts from that dialog, choose Menu Commands and scroll down to the “Other” listings. You can also click the Export Text button to save and print out a laundry list of every keyboard shortcut.
Workspaces - How much time do you waste searching for a panel only to find it’s hidden underneath some other panel, or buried grouped with many other panels? Or how many times do you choose a panel from the Window menu only to realize you just closed it and have to repeat the same command to bring it back? While the newer Adobe user interface was created to help avoid these kinds of things from happening (docked panels don’t overlap each other), many are still used to using floating panels that continue to get in the way.
When your screen gets too messy, reset your workspace. For a speedier experience, take a few moments to set up your screen with the panels you use most often and position them to your liking. Then save a custom workspace, which you can always return too when your screen gets too messy (in my case, that’s usually several times a day).
Symbols - If your artwork contains repeating elements, Symbols are the ultimate timesaver. Not only does it save file size space (resulting in faster open and save times), it allows you to make changes across your entire document in a snap. Keep in mind that symbols can contain anything except linked images, and that symbols can also be nested.
Appearance Panel - Sometimes I feel like a broken record (as a side note, I once made that comment to my kids who gave me blank stares and said "what's a broken record?" and so I had to modify my statement by telling them I feel like a scratched DVD...). The Appearance panel was added in Illustrator 9 and finally got a much-needed facelift and upgrade in CS4. Use it. When you use the Appearance panel, you can add multiple fills and strokes to single objects – allowing you to create effects that would otherwise require the creation of multiple objects. More importantly, the Appearance panel gives you complete control over live effects, which enable you to make changes quickly and easily.
Styles, Styles, Styles - Illustrator features Graphic Styles, Paragraph Styles, and Character Styles. While it certainly takes an extra few seconds to define a style, there are certain types of jobs that can really benefit from them. Especially when you expect to make a lot of changes.
Actions/Scripts - If you find yourself repeating the same steps or techniques often, you should think about recording an action to automate the process. But keep in mind that while Actions are nice, they are somewhat limited in that they don’t support logic (things like if/then statements), and more importantly, not every feature or function in Illustrator is actionable. Scripts are far more powerful, but no one expects you to learn how to write them. Instead, use Google to search for scripts, or you can find a few resources here. Illustrator also ships with a few handy sample scripts, which you can find in your Illustrator application folder.