Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard vector graphics drawing tool, and it broadly defines the category. It has the usual vector drawing tool features (being able to draw lines, Bezier curves, do joins of line segments, make regular shapes, define stroke and color independently). However, Adobe has gone to great lengths to make sure that it remains the leader of the pack, and Illustrator has a number of unusual features that may not be widely appreciated.
The most useful of those features is that it now shares the same type engine as Adobe InDesign. This gives you much greater control over kerning (you can choose optical versus metric spacing between characters), and the ability to do text flows between boxes with many (but not all) of the same typographical techniques you’re used to from a page layout program. It will, of course, render fonts and can embed them. What it cannot do on its own is package fonts for a print offset house. In general, if you’re sending something with type, it’s still the best practice to select the type objects and convert them to outlines.
Live Trace replaces (or rather integrates) another product that Adobe used to use called ‘Live Stream’. Live Stream would import a raster image and use gradiations between the colors to create vector objects, which could then be opened within Illustrator. Live Trace combines that functionality into Illustrator itself, though it can be a bit challenging to find in the menu system. When you’ve got the vector objects converted from the raster image, you’ll be able to use Illustrator’s deformation and color tools to modify them like any other object. You may run into memory use images if you don’t flatten the color space on the imported document or tell Illustrator to ignore certain gray scale items. (Much like the Magic Want tool, you need to set the color sensitivity there). Live Trace is a life saver for graphic designers who need to take a scan of a client’s logo and turn it into a scalable vector image. It’s also of some use to photographers who want to use certain poster-style effects, or make a scalable image without getting pixilation blockiness in the final output.
Another seldom used feature is Illustrator’s faux 3-D effects package. (It’s not really a 3-D rendering tool like Lightwave or Maya). This allows you to do very simple 3-D projections within Illustrator by selecting points and line segments and using a 3-D filter. This is a great tool for putting artwork on the front of a box, or deforming artwork over a surface, like a rendered sphere), and still results in a scalable vector image. That being said, this feature is still a memory and CPU hog, it’ll tax even modern computer systems. It’s also not up to doing true dedicated 3-D modeling; for that you’ll want one of the true 3-D software modeling packages out there.
These features can be real life savers for a graphic designer working on a tight deadline, or for someone who needs a limited amount of functionality from something that would otherwise be a dedicated software package. Illustrator is, in many ways, a very flexible and powerful tool, but it can be hard to find all the cool features. Most Illustrator pros know where to look things up to see if Illustrator can do them — in a lot of cases it can.