Macromedia FreeHand 10

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A major overhaul of its Flash capabilities gives FreeHand focus - but at the expense of print-oriented functionality.

At one time Macromedia's vector drawing application was the company's flagship application, but in the push for the Web it seemed to get overlooked compared to the likes of Flash, Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Director. With last year's release of version 9, Macromedia tried to reposition FreeHand as the natural high-end drawing program for Web-oriented users - but with mixed results. While the program's print-oriented graphic design was allowed to slip, the Web side of the equation wasn't strong enough to compensate. So does FreeHand 10 stop the slide?

In previous releases one of the sure signs that Macromedia had other things on its mind was FreeHand's antiquated interface. The fantastically ugly opening dialog is still there, but after that things are quite different. FreeHand now shares the common Macromedia UI, which means similar menu structures, toolbars and redesigned floating inspectors and panels. There's also improved customizability with the ability to save panel layouts and to set up your own program shortcuts and toolbars.

Other signs of increasing integration and compatibility are the redesigned Toolbox with its SubSelect and Hand tools for selecting nodes and dragging the current view and new Flash-style Outline and Fill colour pop-up menus. FreeHand's standard Pen tool has also been brought more into line, both with other Macromedia apps and with Adobe Illustrator, with the addition of Smart Cursors and Automatic Join - start a new line near the end of an existing one and the + symbol on the cursor indicates that the two strokes will now be merged.

The integration is by no means complete - for example FreeHand still manages panels from the toolbar rather than the status bar - and the interface could still do with a makeover - the toolbar icons are non-standard and particularly ugly. Overall though, the FreeHand 10 working environment is considerably more polished and professional than in the past.

So what about FreeHand 10's new power? One area where the program has always scored over its longtime rival Illustrator is in its ability to manage multi-page publications. This capability has now been extended with the addition of up to 32,000 master pages per project(!) The advantage of master pages is that you only have to edit one and the changes ripple through to all pages on which the master has been applied.

Master Pages help ensure consistent formatting of multi-page documents.

This is undoubtedly useful when redesigning presentations or business stationery, for example, but the FreeHand implementation is very limited. In particular within a true DTP program you would expect to be able to set up different columnar layouts and have your design reformat accordingly. In FreeHand, master pages are limited to objects such as background images and logos - you can't even set up master pages to control automatic page numbering.

At least there is one new area to FreeHand's page handling that is both powerful and unique. Using the new Print Area command you can drag over any area on screen and direct that to your printer. This can be an arbitrary section of a page - useful for picking out one version of a set of designs - or of the entire workspace - ideal for printing out multi-page spreads. Even better you can fine-tune the area before sending it to print and the current Print Area is automatically stored in the publication for future re-use.

As well as page handling, FreeHand 10 sees a boost to the program's creativity with two new formatting options. The first of these is a new gradient effect to add to the existing Linear and Radial options. With Contour Gradients, colours blend both horizontally and vertically following the outline of the current shape. With blends between lighter and darker versions of the same colour this is particularly useful for producing the illusion of depth, a common effect that would previously have involved some serious work setting up complex blends.

Contour Gradients can quickly produce the illusion of depth.

The second formatting introduction is the use of Brushes. From experience with the likes of Illustrator and Draw, I expected this to be made available through a new dedicated brush tool or tool variation, but that's not the case. Instead it's hidden away as one of the options in the Stroke panel's drop-down list. And when you do find it, you're not likely to be impressed as all you'll find are two default options, Paint and Spray, that either stretch out a simple object along your stroke or repeat it along the path's length.

Dig a little deeper though and FreeHand's brushes reveal some interesting power. To begin with you can import a library of pre-supplied brushes that show what can be achieved. More useful is the ability to instantly turn any object in your drawing into a brush with the Modify>Brush>Create command. Most impressive of all is the ability to edit your brush and individual brush strokes to set whether the object should be stretched or repeated and how the spacing, angle, offset and scaling should be managed. You can even add multiple objects to your brush and control each independently!

FreeHand's symbol-based Brushes are surprisingly powerful.

FreeHand's brushes are certainly a lot more powerful than they seem at first but even so they can't compete with the natural media artistic effects offered by others. The same is true of FreeHand's simple Contour Gradients compared to its competitors' advanced gradient meshes and transparency control. For creative print-oriented work then FreeHand still lags behind its main rivals - in fact so much so that it no longer seems to be trying to compete.

Instead the program has shifted its focus firmly onto the Web and in particular to outputting Flash SWF files. This capability was introduced with much fanfare in version 9 and, with the ability to map layers to frames, it was possible to create simple animations. The implementation was only half-hearted, however, and you got the feeling that Macromedia didn't really expect anyone to use FreeHand for producing final SWFs. Instead the program seemed intended for simple storyboarding and to overcome Flash's own drawing weaknesses. That was fine but, as Flash 5 can open FreeHand files directly and from version 7 onwards, you had to ask yourself just how useful FreeHand 9's own authoring capabilities were.

With FreeHand 10 though it's clear that Macromedia is committed to cementing FreeHand's role in the Flash production process. To begin with, it has added Web options to its range of inbuilt page sizes to show it means business. Rather more significant is the revamp of the former Symbols palette into the new Library Panel. This now looks and works much more like its Flash equivalent. In particular, double-clicking on a symbol now opens it into a new window for editing. This is much simpler than the previous drag-and-drop editing system and, with the auto-update option selected, changes are immediately reflected in the main drawing window - a feature Flash itself doesn't yet support. Disappointingly though, while symbol instances can be resized and rotated, there are no options for re-colouring or changing opacity.

The Flash-style Library makes symbol handling and editing far more efficient.

The efficient use of symbols is fundamental to creating successful Flash movies, but there's another crucial factor - interactivity. With FreeHand 9 this was largely ignored but now there's a new Navigation Panel which lets you add URL links to text and objects along with a range of Go To, Load Movie, Print and even Tell Target actions. The power available is not as advanced as that provided by Flash 5's ActionScript, but for the occasional user that's an advantage rather than a problem. And, crucially, it means that it's now easier to set up primarily page-based Flash presentations in FreeHand than it is in Flash.

This is a big advance but the most welcome new feature, and the one that ensures that FreeHand truly becomes a useful tool in the Flash production process, is also the simplest. Using the new Control menu's Test Movie command you can now preview your Flash movie in situ. There's none of Flash's feedback on size and streaming issues, but being able to quickly check your file as you're working on it makes a huge practical difference. And when you do come to export your movie, you might well be in for a pleasant surprise. FreeHand 10 now intelligently identifies static background elements which can cut down on file size considerably.

With its Test Window, FreeHand has come of age for producing Flash files.

It's clear that FreeHand 10's biggest strength and the real focus of its development is its tie-in with Flash. When this is recognized, the release's other more general additions can be seen for what they really are - Flash enhancements in disguise. Master Pages are just a variation on the use of symbols tailored to storyboarding. Gradient Contours are a way of boosting formatting options without straying from the efficiency of vectors. And symbol-based brushes are a brilliant way of boosting creativity without increasing SWF filesize. Even better, with a bit of lateral thinking involving breaking the brush strokes apart and releasing the symbols to layers, FreeHand's brushes can be used as the basis for some unique animation effects.

When it's all put together FreeHand 10 delivers where FreeHand 9 failed and does indeed become the natural high-end drawing partner for Flash. If you're working in a cross-publishing environment it's the obvious choice. However, by working within the constraints of Web delivery, FreeHand is deliberately tying one hand behind its back when it comes to print. While FreeHand 10 has undoubtedly found its focus and a ready market, it has also turned its back on a large section of its existing users.

Tom Arah

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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 64Mb of RAM, 70Mb of disk space, CD-ROM, Windows 98, ME, 2000 or NT 4 (with Service Pack 3), SVGA

Tom Arah

May 2001

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