Macromedia Fireworks 1

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Macromedia has come up with a completely new breed of  product that combines the best of vector and bitmap processing to provide a near  ideal environment for producing web graphics.

Fireworks screenshot

The vast majority of images on the Web are based on the bitmap formats GIF and JPEG and are created with typical bitmap-editors like Paint Shop Pro or Photoshop. The irony is that these programs were designed long before the Web existed and even now they are still primarily focused on producing images for print. Macromedia has recognised the obvious drawbacks of treating web imaging as a sideline and has come up with a new dedicated solution. Fireworks has been designed from the ground up solely for the production of web images. More than this, like Corel Xara (see page ), Fireworks recognises that although its end products are bitmaps that doesn't necessarily mean that you need to work in a bitmap environment to create them.

Fireworks is a revolutionary program but its interface is reassuringly familiar. In fact it looks pretty much like any other bitmap program with a dockable info palette next to the colour bar down the right hand side of the screen and various tabbed floating palettes for controlling brushes, fills, layers and so on. The Toolbox is pretty standard too with the typical paintbrush, paint bucket and eyedroppers all available, although the lasso tools are mysteriously grayed-out. Creating a new file is also a sure sign of a bitmap application as you are asked to set its size and resolution in pixels.

When you use the paintbrush tool to paint on the image, however, the difference instantly becomes apparent. As soon as you have finished drawing the stroke, a blue line appears down its centre. You can then use the Pointer tool to select the stroke for repositioning, or the Transform tool for rescaling, resizing, rotating, or skewing. Beyond this, you can even use the Subselect tool to edit individual nodes and the Freeform tools to interactively reshape the line. From the huge flexibility on offer, it's clear that you must be working in vector mode - a feeling reinforced by the presence of the clearly object-based rectangle, oval and polygon tools.

However, it's not quite as simple as that. If you now open the Brush palette you can change the colour and width of the brush's stroke or shape's outline just as you would in a drawing program. What's completely new, though, is the ability to retrospectively change the brush style of the line. This isn't a question of angling the nib to produce minor calligraphic variations, which is the best that the average drawing program can offer. Instead you can totally change the appearance of the line so that it looks as if it's been sprayed on with a soft airbrush, drawn with a marker pen or made up of confetti!

Fireworks offers eleven general brush categories ranging from pencil, charcoal, and crayon through to 3D and unnatural. Within each category there are up to five options so that the oil selection, for example, offers broad splatter and textured bristle variations. The effects are all pixel-based which explains how they can look so excitingly natural. The downside is that if you zoom in beyond 100% the naturalism is lost as the pixelization becomes apparent. For print work this could cause problems but, as scaling and high resolution aren't important for web work, this isn't an issue if you use your image size-for-size.

Playing around with the range of brush styles soon becomes addictive especially as Fireworks offers even more creative options through the ability of strokes to show bitmap-based textures. The program comes with 26 of these ranging from burlap through to wood and taking in grass, microbes and DNA along the way. These patterns are also available from the Fill tab on the floating formatting palette, together with an impressive array of editable gradients ranging from the basic linear and radial through to the more striking starburst and satin. By clicking on the object with the Fill tool, you can interactively control the various fill effects by adjusting the fill arrow handles. Using the opacity toolbar you can also control the object's transparency. Unlike Corel Xara there are no options for producing graduated transparencies, but you can set a blend mode so that an object's colours interact with those beneath it in the stacking order.

The third tab of the core Brush and Fill palette is the Effects panel. This uses the same principle of bitmap-based formatting of vector-defined objects to offer five striking effects. With any selected object or group of objects it's possible to apply a drop shadow, emboss, glow or an inner or outer bevel. The control is comprehensive so that the drop shadow, for example, offers options for setting opacity, softness, angle and distance. It's the bevel effects, however, which will probably prove most useful for web designers. The ability to control width, contrast, softness and angle and to save named effects within a file makes creating consistent web buttons child's play. Even better, as the effects are live and non-destructive, it's easy to either create variations for rollover buttons or to instantly change the look of a whole web site with one click of the mouse.

Of course creating the buttons themselves is only part of the job. Another crucial aspect of web imaging is text handling. By now I was expecting great things of Fireworks and I have to admit a slight sense of disappointment with the text handling. Generally text is much easier to manage in a vector environment than in a bitmap one, so I thought you'd be able to click and edit text in place on the layout just as you can in Corel Xara or Corel Draw. In Fireworks, however, when you click with the text tool a separate dialog appears in which you enter and format your text. To see the effect of changes onscreen you can click on the Apply command, but it's impossible to reposition the text to see how it really works in the layout until you exit the dialog. The formatting control is pretty basic too with no features such as paragraph spacing or bulleting let alone text flow between text blocks.

As soon as you exit the dialog, however, the benefits of Fireworks object-based approach come into play with the ability to resize, rotate, skew, and apply perspective effects to the text without losing the high anti-aliased quality. Even more importantly, simply by double-clicking on the text it's possible to reopen the dialog to edit the text or formatting. It's this editability and flexibility that really make Fireworks ideal for the creation of web images. The unique features like bitmap-formatted paths and live effects deserve to grab the headlines, but it's the basic ease-of-use offered by staple drawing features, such as alignment, grouping, layering, text editability and a multiple undo, which make the biggest difference when compared to creating web buttons in a bitmap editor.

Fireworks general object-level working mode is undoubtedly the secret of its success, but sometimes it's necessary to get your hands dirty with some pixel-editing. Any object or group can be converted to a bitmap using the Convert to Image command. To edit the converted object, or any other imported bitmap, it's then a simple matter of double-clicking on it with the Pointer tool. The new bitmap-editing mode is indicated by a blue-and-black dashed outline around the image and by the fact that the text, path and free transform tools are grayed out in the Toolbox, while the various selection marquees become available. The majority of tools are shared between object and bitmap mode and work in a similar way but with one major difference. The paintbrush tool, for example, produces exactly the same strokes as it would in object mode, but they are non-editable.

Swapping between modes is fast and efficient and Fireworks' pixel-editing feels pretty responsive too. In terms of the power on offer, Fireworks offers the core bitmap tools such as a magic wand for colour-based selection and a rubber stamp for cloning. The rubber stamp is useful for removing blemishes in scanned images, but otherwise the retouching options are limited. There are no dodge or burn tools, for example and no in-built options for global colour correction. Worse, the in-built filters are limited to blurring and sharpening which aren't going to help much in getting your work noticed.

To some extent Fireworks makes up for the limited nature of its in-built bitmap power through its support for third-party Photoshop plug-ins. It also throws in a slightly bizarre selection of plug-in filters from PhotoOptics to show what these can do, though they tend to be over complex and print-orientated. Generally, Fireworks' ability to edit at the pixel level is a huge advance on programs like Corel Xara, but with no support for scanning or basic colour correction it's not going - and isn't intended - to replace a dedicated photo-editor. As such, Fireworks good support for externally-produced bitmap formats and especially multi-layered Photoshop PSD files is probably the most important of its bitmap features.

The majority of web graphics aren't merely decorative, they also serve a navigational function, and so an important feature of any web imaging program is how it handles hyperlinks. From programs like PhotoImpact and Corel Xara I've become used to applying URLs on an object basis, but Fireworks takes a different approach with a dedicated URL toolbar with which you can add hotspots on a layer above the image. At first this seemed unnecessarily laborious, but the advantages soon become apparent with the ability to preview all URLs - colour-coded if necessary - and complete flexibility over hotspot positioning. It's also possible to copy an object to a URL layer which makes life considerably easier - though if you then move an object you have to remember to reposition its hotspot. When you add the URLs you can also specify the status bar message and target frame.

Once the image and any links have been set up, you're ready to export the graphic. Irritatingly, if you don't want to output the whole image, you can't just export the current selection but must first mark off the area to export with the dedicated Export Area tool. Like the URL tools, this arguably offers more control, but it's a serious pain when you're just wanting to output a series of buttons. Once you've marked out your area, double-clicking with the tool calls up the Export Preview dialog. Like Corel Xara the huge advantage that the dialog offers is the ability to preview the effect of changes on image quality and file size so that optimization becomes straightforward. Although Fireworks doesn't offer automated previewing within your browser, it does allow up to four versions of the image to be compared simultaneously so that, for example, you can see what difference saving an image as a JPEG rather than a GIF would make.

The control offered over outputting options is absolutely comprehensive. With the GIF option for example, it's possible to choose between various palettes such as the 216 Web safe colours, an adaptive palette derived from the image, or a custom palette that you've saved previously. Once you've chosen the palette, you can still change the number of colours to be included, choose those which you want to be made transparent and even add, delete or replace individual colours. If there are more colours in the image than in the palette you can control whether the missing colours are simulated by dithering and even set to what degree this happens. The WebSnap Adaptive palette is a particularly useful option in which colours that are near in value to the browser-safe colours are automatically converted. Once you are happy with your settings, you can save them to reapply in future. Using the Batch command you can also mass convert whole directories of images based on your settings.

Fireworks control over the creation of GIF, JPEG and PNG files is unmatched, but the program also recognises that producing the files isn't necessarily the end of the job - they also have to be integrated into the HTML workflow. It therefore offers a Generate HTML checkbox on export which automatically produces the necessary code. For image maps it's possible to create both client- and server-side maps, though the failure to provide options to automatically copy the code to the clipboard or to overwrite the relevant <MAP> tag in an existing HTML file gives Corel Xara the edge here. Fireworks definitely takes the lead, however, with its ability to mark out sections of a graphic with its Slice tool. This allows different areas of an image to be given their own URLs and also to be treated differently - as a 64-colour GIF or full-colour JPG for example - when it comes to export. When Fireworks outputs the sliced files it automatically produces the HTML table necessary to reassemble the image.

Even more impressive is the way that Fireworks can be used to create rollover buttons that respond when the user clicks on them or simply moves their mouse over them. The process involved really shows off Fireworks at its best. First you add the basic rectangle shapes on their own layer and button text on a layer above. Selecting all the rectangles you can instantly give them a bevelled button appearance with the Effects panel. Three new frames can then be added with the Frames palette and the existing buttons copied to each. Using the pre-defined options in the Effects panel, you can then automatically give the buttons on each frame a raised, highlighted, inset and inverted appearance. Exporting the file as a GIF or JPEG Rollover exports the four different buttons and also generates an HTML file containing the Javascript necessary to swap between each of the four possible Up, Over, Down and onClick states.

Such interactivity is very much state-of-the-art and is only supported by the most recent Java-enabled browsers. A simpler way of making your site seem more dynamic is the animated GIF. Fireworks supports the creation of these with each frame in an image corresponding to an animation cel. The advantage of the program's combined bitmap-vector approach is that you can not only open and pixel-edit existing GIFs, but also combine them with object-based sprites and text before rendering the final file. This rendering is controlled through Fireworks Export Preview window which also allows the timing, order, disposal method and looping of frames to be set. By default only those pixels that are different between frames are saved to optimize file size.

The combination of pixel and object editing is powerful, but the lack of tools to help automate the animation process is slightly disappointing. It's possible to automatically distribute a selection across frames, for example, but without any blending function or in-built transitions the production of smooth movements and morphs is unnecessarily time-consuming. Animation is certainly an area that Macromedia can improve on in future releases, along with text handling and bitmap editing. Most welcome of all would be a bit more thought about usability as the methods for selecting hidden objects, controlling transformations, working with guidelines and grids and especially exporting selections are all more awkward than they should be.

For the first release of a genuinely radical program, it's not surprising to find a few omissions and rough edges. Instead the real surprise is just how mature and professional Fireworks feels already. The credit for this must go to the strength of the program's underlying architecture. It's this successful integration of object-based flexibility and bitmap-based outputting that really makes Fireworks unique. The blurring of the distinction between vector and pixel will eventually have important repercussions for all design work, but for web imaging it means that Fireworks immediately bursts into the must-have category.



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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

April 1998

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