Macromedia FreeHand MX

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With its streamlined interface, seriously enhanced formatting, expanded toolset and improved integration, FreeHand is back with a bang.

FreeHand has had a long and distinguished career since it was first launched 15 years ago, but time has recently seemed to be catching up on it. While Macromedia concentrated its development efforts on its web-oriented MX applications, FreeHand was put on the back burner and fell seriously behind its main rivals, CorelDRAW and Illustrator. So is this latest release evidence of further decline or has FreeHand finally risen to the challenge?

One of the surest signs of FreeHand's age - and Macromedia's lack of interest - was the program's antiquated and unhelpful interface. That's no longer the case as the working environment has been given the full MX treatment with the previously free-floating palettes conveniently docked and arranged into collapsible panel groups. There are still occasional idiosyncracies such as the survival of the dedicated Halftones panel, but features such as the new shared Spell Checker and Answers panel help reinforce the cross-application MX identity and boost efficiency.

The biggest boost comes from the new Object panel. This incorporates the functionality of the former Object, Fill, Stroke and Text Inspectors into one central panel for controlling everything about the appearance of your design elements. The way that FreeHand MX manages its formatting has also been radically overhauled. In particular objects can now support multiple attributes so that you can add more than one stroke and fill to your object. Each attribute is listed at the top of the Object panel and you can quickly format each in turn.

The new streamlined interface and Object panel put you firmly in control of your work.

The range of formatting power that FreeHand offers has also been enhanced. For its fills, FreeHand MX now includes support for the latest Pantone libraries and two new gradient types - Cone and Rectangle (though still no gradient meshes or bitmap fills). The handling of gradients has also been greatly improved with four new behaviours - Normal, Repeat, Reflect and Auto Size - that determine how the gradient fills its object, and the introduction of Fill Handles that let you change the direction and centre of your gradient interactively. For its stroke handling, FreeHand now offers smoother brush paths and a new Calligraphic option that lets you produce fluid and naturalistic line effects by using any object shape as a customisable nib.

FreeHand's Object panel doesn't only let you add and control fills and strokes, you can also now apply an entirely new kind of formatting attribute to your design elements - "Live Effects". These change the appearance of the object, or just its fill or stroke, but non-destructively. This means that you can always change parameters to fine-tune the effect or remove it entirely. The flexibility and creativity this opens up is extraordinary, especially as FreeHand offers both vector and bitmap-based effects.

Of the six vector options, the Bend, Ragged and Sketch effects all distort and randomize lines to give a less clinical feel to your artwork, while the Expand Path command lets you widen strokes and add fill-based formatting. The Duet effect is most striking as it enables the creation of arrangements based on clones of the current object. The Transform effect is the most workaday but almost certainly the most useful as it allows you to apply scaling, skewing, rotation and positioning effects, including copies, as an object attribute.

Non-destructive vector and raster effects radically boost FreeHand's formatting power.

The raster effects are even more welcome as they enable bitmap-based formatting within FreeHand's vector-based environment. The Blur and Sharpen effects are self-explanatory while the Bevel and Emboss and Shadow and Glow filters will be familiar to Fireworks users and are particularly useful for common web imaging tasks such as adding raised buttons and drop shadows. The Transparency effect is the most powerful of all as it expands FreeHand's existing lens-based approach by enabling feathered and gradient transparencies.

Put FreeHand's new support for multiple fills, strokes and effects together and you can quickly create some amazingly rich formatting. And, once you've created an appearance that you like, you can simply drag it onto the Styles palette ready to apply to any other object. You can also quickly redefine existing styles by editing an instance and then dragging it back onto the palette - all objects that share the style are automatically updated.

Combinations of fills, strokes and effects can be saved as re-usable styles.

FreeHand's new approach to formatting is undoubtedly powerful but it's worth pointing out that the real credit for this belongs to Adobe who pioneered the system in Illustrator. Of the two implementations, Illustrator's remains the more creatively powerful with its support for features such as blend modes and Photoshop filters, but the FreeHand system is simpler to manage. Whoever deserves the credit, there's no question that it takes FreeHand's creative power onto a new level.

And that's before we look at FreeHand MX's revamped toolset. At first sight this looks unrecognizable as almost all the old tools seem to have disappeared and been replaced by new offerings. In fact this is largely due to a much-needed rationalization which sees linked tools - such as the various transformation tools - grouped in flyouts; former tool variants - such as the Pen tool's Variable Line and Calligraphic variations - promoted into standalone tools in their own right; and many of the previously semi-detached Xtras - such as the Roughen, Smudge, Shadow and 3D Rotation tools - incorporated into the main toolbox.

Other changes to the toolset are less obvious but more fundamental. FreeHand's core drawing capability has been improved with a new rubber-banding feature for the Pen tool that lets you preview the next line segment. There's also a new Snap to Object feature to add to the existing Snap to Grid. FreeHand MX's core shapes - rectangles, circles and polygons - have also been given "Live-Edit" intelligence which means that, once drawn, you can quickly turn them into rounded rectangles, arcs and stars.

There are also a number of completely new tools. The Eraser tool works like a rubber to delete the portion of the vector path that it passes over. The Connector Lines tool lets you drag-and-drop connecting lines between objects that automatically adapt as you move the objects - particularly useful for creating flow diagrams. There's also a new Output Area tool that lets you set an area of a page for outputting to print or exporting. You can also mark up a series of pages in the same way - a useful reminder that FreeHand supports multiple pages unlike Illustrator.

FreeHand MX also offers two new effects-based tools. The point-and-click Blend tool offers a quick and interactive way of setting up blends - simple but very effective. The Extrude tool lets you apply 3D depth to an object again simply by dragging to specify a distance and direction. Once the main effect is set up, you can double-click on the object and rotate it in 3D space while using the Object panel you can set up lighting and surface effects. A variation on the theme I haven't seen before is the ability to apply path-based profiles to the extrusion which enables 3D lathing effects and the creation of realistic objects such as vases.

The Extrude tool offers the most striking new effect.

The Extrude tool is surprisingly powerful and, with the ability to share vanishing points, it makes an excellent partner to FreeHand's existing Perspective tool for producing pseudo-3D artwork. It's certainly the highlight of FreeHand's much improved new toolset - but again a sense of déjà vu is unavoidable. This time it's CorelDRAW that largely deserves the credit as virtually all the new tools and handling seem to be straight lifts. Again FreeHand users won't be worried about that - they'll just want to get their hands on the new power.

One area that has always been a major weakness for FreeHand has been its bitmap handling. The latest version still lacks the ability to apply colour corrections or filters to bitmaps let alone Deneba Canvas-style pixel-based editing, but it does now support alpha channel transparency for imported TIFFs, PSDs, PNGs and GIFs. This might not sound that important, but it's absolutely essential if you want to produce layouts that seamlessly combine bitmaps and vectors.

Rather than offering its own internal bitmap power, FreeHand relies on the user having access to an external editor. Ideally of course you'll be using Studio MX Plus in which case the obvious bitmap editor to turn to is Fireworks MX. Bitmap images in any format can now be opened into Fireworks with a single-click in the Object panel and then automatically updated. The support for Fireworks' PNG format is particularly strong - I was amazed when I imported a test file and not only the text remained editable but also the objects and their raster-based styles! The round-tripping is just as advanced in reverse as Fireworks MX can directly open and edit FreeHand MX files.

The integration that most users will be most interested in, is the integration with Flash MX. With version 10 this was already strong with features such as a Flash-style anti-aliased preview option, support for symbols, built-in previewing and advanced SWF export. These capabilities have been improved across the board: the anti-aliased display is now the default; you can replace objects with symbols just as you can in Flash; the Test Movie window now offers in-built navigation controls and one-click exporting; and the SWF Export settings have been rationalized (though the ability to save to earlier versions seems to have gone missing in the process).

New additions make the integration tighter still. The new Action tool lets you quickly drag from any object to any page to automatically and interactively create Go To links - ideal for producing presentations. For more advanced power you need to turn to FreeHand's Navigation palette. This has been revamped and offers greater ActionScript power, including Load and Unload Movie support, to add more advanced interactivity to your designs.

Of course FreeHand can never hope to compete with Flash itself on this front so the most important new feature is the ability to import SWF files into your FreeHand layouts. Embedded SWFs appear as snapshots in your page, preview correctly during testing and are re-exported as movie clips when you publish your movie. Even better, with a single-click in the Object panel you can open the SWF's associated FLA file directly into Flash with all edits automatically updated. FreeHand MX files can also be opened directly into Flash MX.

SWF import and further interactivity flesh out FreeHand's Flash capabilities.

If you're wanting to produce design-intensive work for both print and Web then there's no question that FreeHand MX is now your best option - most obviously via the new Studio MX Plus bundle which includes Flash and Fireworks and throws in Dreamweaver and now a copy of Contribute as well. In fact FreeHand MX is even better than this. By taking the best of Illustrator's visually rich formatting and styling and CorelDRAW's extensive toolset and effects, and providing all its power through its new streamlined and efficient MX interface, this upgrade is a revelation.

FreeHand still doesn't lead the pack for innovation or creativity but this latest release recovers all the ground that had been lost. And when it comes to all-round productivity, FreeHand MX even manages to edge ahead of the competition.

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requirements Pentium II or higher, 64MB of RAM, 70MB of hard disk space, Windows 98 SE, NT4 (SP6), Me, 2000 or XP, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

March 2003

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