Macromedia FreeHand 8

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New tools and effects, and in particular the handling of vector-based  transparency, result in a major upgrade but FreeHand still comes in  second best compared to Corel Draw.

Macromedia FreeHand 8

This is the eighth version of FreeHand since it made its first appearance on the Mac back in 1988. Since then it has changed hands a couple of times and made the transition over to the PC. On the Mac it has managed to carve out a position of some strength in high-end typographic design mainly because the market-leader Adobe Illustrator has always been limited to single page layouts. On the PC life has been far harder as the program has had to compete with the well-established and considerably more powerful Corel Draw. In spite of the ground it has to catch up on, Macromedia is confidently pushing its latest release as a serious all-round contender with some unique strengths of its own.

Part of the media hype around the FreeHand 8 launch centred on the introduction of an all-new modern identity for the program devised by Neville Brody the designer famous for his radical work with The Face. Sadly, in reality very little has changed apart from the web-influenced start-up splash screen. With numerous onscreen palettes of different sizes, brightly coloured 3D icons all shouting for attention, confusing pop-up menus rather than drop-down lists and an unattractive choice of system font, the FreeHand interface really is in urgent need of a rejuvenating face-lift.

The Mac-style aesthetics are ugly and old-fashioned but Macromedia has at least learned something about modern Windows interfaces. After all FreeHand does actually offer button bars and now allows them to be customised. It even offers an innovation of its own in the ability to automatically synchronize keyboard shortcuts with those in other applications like Photoshop. Further customisability is available through the ability to save named views that set the zoom, position and view mode - including the new fast preview mode that displays blends and gradients with a reduced number of blend steps.

There has also clearly been some work on usability with an attempt to improve interactivity and to put power at the user's fingertips. One of the major irritations of the Mac-based drawing packages has always been their use of special tools for basic tasks like rotating and skewing. In the latest FreeHand this is no longer necessary. If you double-click on an object or group with the select tool a bounding box with the necessary transformation handles appears. It's a step forward, but hasn't been fully thought through. You have to remember to double-click again to exit the mode or you'll find that when you go to select another object you'll end up rotating the first instead.

The FreeHand interface has been improved then, but the gap between it and the streamlining, interactivity and usability of Corel Draw 8 is still huge. The major emphasis of the latest FreeHand, however, is on functionality. There are five new tools, two of which are concerned with basic drawing tasks. The freeform tool allows existing objects to be pushed and pulled into new shapes without having to manipulate individual nodes while the mirror tool allows objects to be reflected. As the axis of reflections cannot be set to an angle I was initially disappointed with this tool, but it comes into its own with the multiple option that automatically distributes copies around a movable centre point.

The three other new tools are useful for producing special effects. The emboss tool comes with various pre-set options for producing 3D-style edges and also allows customised versions to be created. The obvious use is for the production of web and multimedia style buttons. The shadow tool works by offsetting and colouring a copy of the selected shape. The Graphic Hose tool is used for spraying objects onto a drawing when creating repetitive or randomized patterns. The tool comes with its own set of image series, but it's also possible to create your own by pasting objects directly into the tool's onscreen palette.

To be honest when I read about the tools I was worried that Macromedia might be guilty of trying to pad out its feature list with some half-baked and under-powered effects. In practice though each of the tools is seriously useful. The shadow tool, for example, sounded very lightweight compared to that in the latest Corel Draw which creates its shadows as photo-realistic feathered bitmaps. In fact the FreeHand version, when used in conjunction with its options palette, does offer quite a bit of power with the ability to create fades as gradients and even soft edges as blends. In the final analysis, Draw's bitmap shadows are much more realistic, but the FreeHand implementation shows that a lot can still be achieved while working strictly within vector constraints.

The main reason that Corel Draw's bitmap shadow effects do seem more realistic is because they are semi-transparent, as shadows in the real world are. This ability to have semi-opaque objects which partially reveal underlying objects has always been one of the major advantages pixel-based painting has offered over vector-based drawing - truly realistic images are virtually impossible without it. The biggest advance in the latest FreeHand then is its new ability to offer vector-based transparency. The effect is achieved by selecting the new lens-based fill category in the Fill Inspector, selecting transparency as the sub-option and setting a level of opacity. It's a very simple process but the results can be eye-opening - the difference between a glass of opaque red liquid and a glass of realistic red wine.

In fact transparency is only one of the six lens effects that FreeHand 8 offers. It is also possible to set fills so that they lighten, darken or invert the colours in underlying objects or even to remove their colour entirely to turn them into grayscales. Probably the most useful of the secondary lenses will be the magnify option which has the effect of increasing the size of all underlying objects as if they were being viewed through a magnifying lens. This is an invaluable feature for producing map and infographic insets especially as the effect can be frozen to allow repositioning.

The beauty of all the FreeHand lens effects is that they are dynamic and so update automatically if either the lens object or the underlying objects are changed. The fact that all updates happen almost instantaneously shows that the onscreen effects are simply being handled as screen-based pixel operations. The real complexity comes when the effects are output for high quality printing. It's here that the effects have to be really translated into true vector-based information which involves some very serious behind-the-scenes reworking of the images (see Real World Publishing/Graphics issue 43). The strength of the FreeHand implementation of transparency compared to Corel Draw's lies in this unseen and unsung work producing completely reliable and predictable Postscript code. The difference is that the user can simply concentrate on being creative without worrying that the printed results won't live up to the effect onscreen.

One of FreeHand's major strengths has always been its strong typographic control. Longstanding features such as the ability to produce multiple page publications with different orientations, the way that images are linked rather than embedded and the ability to set up text flows with column balance, mean that FreeHand often feels as much like a DTP program as a drawing program. The typographic control in the latest version has been improved with the extension of styles to manage features like kerning, text effects, rules and hanging punctuation and the much needed ability to preview fonts from the text toolbar and text inspector. The text editor has also been enhanced to allow it to show non-printing characters such as tabs and carriage returns, but in the age of autocorrect and background spell- checking FreeHand is beginning to look seriously outdated.

Bitmap handling has likewise been improved, but again ends up disappointing. Common operations like panning and zooming are considerably faster, especially for images viewed at high quality, and it's also no longer necessary to copy objects to another application for rasterisation as this can now be done in place. Having said this there's very little point in converting objects to bitmaps within FreeHand as it offers none of the masking, colour or special effects of a program like Corel or even the budget Windows Draw. In fact bitmap handling is definitely FreeHand's weakest point especially when you remember that both Corel and Windows Draw also offers their own external dedicated bitmap editors.

In terms of output the latest FreeHand now includes the near ubiquitous Kodak colour management system to help ensure that colour prints as reliably and accurately as possible throughout the production process. It also offers a Collect for Output command that copies the FreeHand file and all necessary fonts to a new folder while producing a report of all relevant print settings. With its in-built colour separation capabilities, FreeHand prides itself on its "bullet-proof" Postscript, but there's still room for improvement in terms of usability. The print preview for example can show individual pages but not individual plates.

In a way I was expecting FreeHand's paper-based output to take something of a back seat because Macromedia is heavily pushing its web-based credentials. In practice though these proved very disappointing. There have been improvements such as the introduction of the web-safe palette of 216 colours that can be viewed in all browsers without dithering and the addition of an Export Again command which automatically uses the last settings. On the other hand the control offered over the main GIF, JPG and PNG formats is disappointingly limited with no chance to see the effect of different options either on the image quality or on file size. Even more disappointing is the lack of in-built HTML support that means that the user must rely on an external add-on (see box-out).

There is one area of output in which the new FreeHand is unique - the ability to output files as animations. Freehand's approach to this is very simple with the different cels of the final animation based either on a publication's pages or on its layers. Using layers in this way is particularly valuable thanks to the new Release to Layers command that automatically copies each object in a blend onto its own layer. By creating a blend between the same object at two ends of a blend path it is possible to produce a smooth motion effect. If the objects are different the end result will be the creation of a smooth morphing effect.

When the animation has been set up it can be exported. There is no support for any bitmap formats, such as AVI or animated GIF, so the only option is to save to Macromedia's own SWF format. The animation can then be embedded in a web page and viewed with a browser capable of reading Shockwave files or it can be loaded into Flash for further editing (see box out). The strength of the format is that as the animation is vector-based the file sizes and so download times are kept to a minimum. Certainly the sample files show what can be done, but care has to be taken - my own simple 30-frame animation of a falling leaf ended up producing a 500k file.

FreeHand's move into animation makes a lot of sense as it plays to Macromedia's strengths in terms of web and dynamic media. For the future this could represent a huge potential new market, but at the moment there are too many inherent problems, rough edges and limitations to allow FreeHand to make the ground its own. For traditional print design the program's strengths are more established and the new tools and lens effects in particular should go a long way to satisfy existing users. This latest release is certainly a major upgrade and opens up the gap between itself and Adobe Illustrator. However in terms of both usability and power it still lags behind Corel Draw. On the PC, FreeHand remains something of an also-ran.

Ease of Use




Value for Money




ratings out of 6

Design in Motion

As well as selling FreeHand as a standalone program, Macromedia are also bundling it with two other modules as the Design in Motion suite. The intention is to play to the company's strength in the area of multimedia and web animation. The first of the two additional modules is an updated version 2 of the Insta.HTML add-on used for saving designs as web pages from within FreeHand. This version has been enhanced in a number of areas including support for the new lens fills and for outputting web graphics to the PNG format. The biggest advance is the ability to output pages not just as nested HTML tables but as dynamic HTML complete with cascading style sheets and absolute positioning for viewing in version 4 browsers.

The end results can be state-of-the-art, but the way of getting there is anything but. Insta.HTML is accessed as a floating palette within Freehand. This offers the main Save As HTML command and a pop-up menu which gives access to some basic dialogs for setting document properties and preferences. Some features are definitely advanced and useful such as the ability to set the filename, format and anti-aliasing status for individual objects, but others are extremely rudimentary. In particular the floating URL editor gives very little feedback or help while the only way to add HTML objects is as blocks of text-based code. When Corel Draw offers advanced bookmark and potential conflict managers and the ability to add features like HTML form controls internally, FreeHand's semi-detached solution starts looking a lot weaker.

FreeHand is certainly not suitable for producing a finished HTML site, but it can be useful for working out roughs and also as a web-enhancement tool. Its ability to produce vector-based SWF animations is particularly useful and the second module in the Design in Motion suite is the full Flash 2 program (reviewed issue 36), which can edit these files or build its own from scratch. Flash is able to create animations both on a cel-by-cel basis or by automatically tweening between set key frames. It can also add sound and basic interactivity. Its huge strength is that the vector nature of the animations and the use of symbols that only need to be defined once cut down drastically on file size and download times.

Again the end results can be very impressive, but the process for producing them is a real slog. To an extent some complexity is inevitable with time-line editing, but the Flash interface is anything but intuitive. A huge part of the problem is the way the drawings themselves are constructed. Object handling is idiosyncratic to say the least with overlying objects automatically segmenting those below and the bizarre ability to inadvertently select just the fill or the outline when you think you are selecting the whole object. Flash is complex enough without trying to reinvent the wheel.

Even when the animations are finished the problems aren't over. It's necessary to use a combination of the <EMBED> and <OBJECT> tags to have the animation viewable in both Netscape and Explorer and you might want to include an alternative GIF just in case. At least the browser end of the equation is becoming less of a problem with the Shockwave plug-in readily available for older browsers and Java-enabling making it unnecessary for the more recent releases. The server issue remains however. It's easy enough to configure the web server to support the format, but having created and uploaded my masterpiece I discovered that my hosting ISP didn't.

There's no question that good work can be done with the Design In Motion suite and there are an increasing number of impressive sites on the web that are built on the interactivity that it offers. At the moment though it falls between two stools offering some attractive state-of-the-art power but without the necessary support and usability to allow it to grab a mainstream audience.

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System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 32Mb of RAM, 70Mb of  disk space, CD-ROM, Windows 95, 98 or NT 4 (with Service Pack 3).

Tom Arah

Jan 1999

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