Macromedia Fireworks 4

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Recommended for dedicated Web users

With its improved interface, layer palette, animation and pop-up menu handling, JPEG optimization and workflow integration, Fireworks does enough to keep its Web crown.

When Macromedia Fireworks first appeared back in 1998, it made a huge impact. At the time Web imaging functionality usually boiled down to a photo editing program's basic ability to export to GIF and JPEG. In comparison Fireworks provided a dedicated approach that offered the benefits of vector-based handling and pixel-based formatting along with advanced optimization and HTML output. These days however, the support for Web imaging in packages such as Photoshop 6 and the new Xara X (see page ) has changed out of all recognition. Fireworks 4 is Macromedia's attempt to show that the benefits of a truly dedicated solution are as compelling as they've always been.

The changes in Fireworks 4 are immediately apparent on loading, with the program now sporting the shared interface that Macromedia is rolling out across all its applications. The most obvious difference is that the toolbox is no longer fixed by default and has been redesigned with smaller and more professional icons. Otherwise the changes include the addition of a launcher at the bottom of each image window which can be used to call up the most commonly used floating palettes, and the ability to set up custom keyboard shortcuts. Without features such as customizable or context-sensitive toolbars the Fireworks interface still isn't state-of-the-art but it's a definite improvement.

The Fireworks 4 interface falls into line with Macromedia's new shared UI.

Thankfully there haven't been any additions to Fireworks existing nineteen floating palettes, but one palette has changed so much that is effectively new. In previous releases the Layers palette was a simple, text-only affair that allowed users to split their images into named layers for easier handling. This functionality is still available but now every single object in your image is automatically listed on the palette complete with a preview thumbnail. In other words the Layers palette can now manage your compositions in much the same way as Photoshop.

I must admit that this had me baffled at first as one of the huge advantages of Fireworks is that its object-based management cuts out the complexity of layer-based handling. You can still select objects directly however, so the Layers palette simply offers an alternative way of working. In addition the Layers palette offers new power with the ability to toggle the display of individual objects, to control the locking of layers and to quickly manage the blend mode and opacity of both. Most powerful of all is the ability to add a vector or bitmap-based mask to any vector or bitmap object

The Layer palette offers Photoshop-style composition handling.

In terms of core Web functionality Fireworks already provides style formatting, image slicing, rollover management and even a dedicated Web button maker so finding new must-have features is difficult. Existing power can always be improved, however, and one area which certainly needed simplifying was the ability to create remote rollover effects where moving your mouse over an image slice updates the image elsewhere on the Web page. Now each image slice has a target symbol at its centre that you can drag and drop onto any other image slice and you will be prompted to select the image frame that you want to appear. All very simple.

Remote rollovers can now be set up through drag and drop.

Another area that Fireworks 4 simplifies is animation. Previously to animate an object you needed to turn it into a symbol, create a copy, change the copy, select both, use the Tween command to create intermediate instances of the object and then distribute them to separate frames. Now you can manage all this automatically with the new Animate Selection command simply by specifying the desired transformation in terms of position, scaling, opacity and rotation along with the desired number of frames.

What really makes the difference though is that the animation effect is live. Select the object and its transformation and frame settings are available and editable from the Object palette. Even better, if your animation involves movement, the direction is shown as an arrow on the object which can be controlled interactively. It's not quite Flash-style timeline-based tweening but, considering Fireworks' frame-by-frame environment, it's getting pretty close.

Live animation offers tweening style control within a frame-by-frame environment.

These days rollovers and animations are common Web staples, but Fireworks 4 does offer one entirely new capability - pop-up menus. These are relatively straightforward to produce as all you need to do is add the text to appear on the menu, associate it with a URL and then indent it if it is to appear as a submenu. Once the structure is defined you control the appearance of the up and over states of both text and surrounding cell and that's it. Menus are an excellent way of navigating drill-down Web site structures so expect to see the number of sites offering pop-ups explode.

Pop-up menus aid drill-down navigation.

Pop-ups aren't viewable in Fireworks' preview mode so to see them you have to export them. Fireworks 4 offers two significant introductions to its export capabilities. The first is the new option to save to the 1-bit WBMP format for use with WML. At the other end of the scale is the new ability to selectively enhance the quality of JPEGs. You do this by saving image selections as JPEG masks to which you can apply completely different optimization settings. In the past if you mixed continuous-tone photographs and text you had to either keep compression low or export to GIF if you wanted your text to be legible, now JPEGs can handle these jobs far more efficiently. For many frustrated users this will be reason enough to upgrade.

Selective optimization enables text quality to be maintained within highly compressed JPEGs.

Fireworks 4 has also taken the opportunity to give users more control over the export process itself. In particular there is a new tabbed HTML Setup dialog that offers control over HTML style (Dreamweaver, GoLive, FrontPage, generic or custom), the file extension, case, automatic file naming, how tables are spaced, how empty cells are handled and whether HTML comments are stripped.

Further changes have been made to Fireworks' workflow capabilities. Often the same actions are applied to multiple images and Fireworks has always offered batch processing to help automate the process. The dialog for controlling this has now been revamped to enable files to be selected and then for the most common export, scaling, find-and-replace and naming commands to be set up and controlled. In addition the dialog now offers access to all scripts that have been added to the Commands menu which effectively enables fully customizable batch processing.

Another area of strength is Fireworks' integration into wider production workflows. Adobe dominates when it comes to graphic production and Fireworks is happy to import Illustrator's AI and now EPS files as well as exporting to Illustrator 7 format. In addition Fireworks support for the import of Photoshop PSD files has now been extended to allow export to PSD with layers, text, effects and object masks all maintained and editable. Or at least that's the theory as, in practice, I encountered a number of problems when trying to open PSDs that Fireworks had generated.

Fireworks now supports export to Photoshop's PSD format.

Not surprisingly Fireworks' integration with other Macromedia products is much tighter and more reliable. Fireworks 4 can now import FreeHand 9 files, there's a new Fireworks Import Xtra for Director, you can export static and animated files to Flash SWF and you can launch and edit Fireworks PNG files directly from Flash. In other words Fireworks now works as the integrated bitmap editing module right across the Macromedia product range.

Of course this idea of "visual roundtrip editing" is most important with Macromedia's Web authoring package, Dreamweaver. The existing integration between the two programs is already deep with a simple double-click used to open any embedded GIF or JPEG image's source PNG back into Fireworks. In the past though this capability was limited to handling single images, now you can click on any image slice and load the whole source image. Once you've made the changes you can click on the new Done command at the top of the Fireworks' image window and the whole image table will be updated - and without overwriting any custom code.

There are still plenty of areas that could be improved in Fireworks. Most disappointing is the fact that version 4 does nothing to enhance the program's bitmap editing capabilities or its dialog-based text handling - though at least you can now move text into position with the dialog open. The ability to add HTML text within the program would also be welcome, along with the ability to automatically update formatting styles and to set up rollover styles. And there's still no option for previewing the effect of system dithering on 256 colour displays.

Even so Fireworks 4 had done enough to keep ahead of the pack. Users with only the occasional need to produce Web graphics would do better with a more general and creative solution such as the vector-based Xara or the bitmap-based Photoshop. Users who regularly produce Web images, and especially those already working with Dreamweaver, will benefit greatly from Fireworks' dedicated and production-oriented approach.

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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 64Mb of RAM, 100Mb of disk space, SVGA, CD-ROM, Windows 95, 98, 2000 or NT 4 (with SP3)

Tom Arah

January 2001

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