Macromedia Fireworks 2

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New formatting, export, animation and rollover functionality ensure  that Fireworks remains the most powerful web graphics application, but general  usability has been sacrificed.

Macromedia Fireworks 2

Fireworks 1 was a truly revolutionary program that set the benchmark for a new field of computer application - dedicated web graphics. Several features set it apart. To begin with it offered separate image modes for managing both scanned bitmaps and drawn objects and even allowed pixel-based effects to be applied to fully editable vector objects. Once graphics had been created, the program's URL mode made it simple to set up image maps or advanced rollovers. Finally the Export Preview dialog made the process of JPEG and GIF optimisation child's play. Fireworks' greatest success then was the way that it managed to combine, and at the same time simplify, the previously separate stages of the web graphics workflow.

In Fireworks 2 this process of integration has been continued with some major changes to working practice. In particular, the previously clear distinctions between pixel and vector editing and between image creation and HTML handling have both been blurred. The pixel-based tools, for example, are no longer grayed out when you select a vector object and when you enter the bitmap edit mode a striped border appears around the entire document rather than just the bitmap object. The dedicated URL toolbar has also gone with the hotspot and slice tools integrated into the main toolbox and the web layer integrated into the layer palette. The problem is that, since controlling vectors, bitmaps and URLs are very different tasks, the attempts at integration add nothing but confusion.

Another major change in working practice is the proliferation of palettes. In Fireworks 1 there were five palettes for handling brushes, fills, effects, layers and frames grouped into just two tabbed floating palettes. Now there are no fewer than fifteen palettes each of which can be dragged off on its own. Even worse the purposes of many of the new palettes are obscure and need rationalizing. For example the new Object Inspector offers control over opacity and blend mode, the new Info palette offers control over size and position - though not rotation - and the Options palette controls the number of points of the polygon. Overall the changes to Fireworks' working practice are a major backward step. While existing regular users will eventually acclimatize to the changes, new and occasional users now face a major learning curve.

A typical example of the new confusion arising from the interface changes is in colour handling. In version 1 this was generally accomplished by picking from the web-safe colours running down the right-hand side of the screen. Now this permanently available fixed palette has been turned into a floating Swatches palette which almost guarantees that it will be hidden when you need it. Thankfully that's not too much of a problem as Fireworks 2 also offers direct access to the current set of swatches as a drop-down option from each of the five (!) palettes where colours can be set. In addition it offers an eye-dropper tool which enables the selection of the closest web-safe neighbour to any onscreen colour.

As well as uniform web-safe colours, Fireworks 2 introduces web-safe pattern fills. Based on a 4 x 4 grid you can choose two web-safe colours that are dithered to produce the appearance of a third colour. Normally of course uncontrolled dithering is the web designer's worst enemy, but with this controlled feature Fireworks enables you to greatly extend your palette while still knowing exactly how your image will look on all systems including 8-bit displays. By setting every other pixel to be transparent you can even create crude but web-safe semi-transparency effects.

Fireworks' other advanced formatting effects for text and shapes are available from the Effects palette. There are no new options but now you can easily combine the existing drop shadow, glow and bevel effects. Each of these multiple effects can be named and saved and easily applied in future. An extension of this idea is the use of styles. These can store not only effect settings but fill, colour, stroke and text attributes which makes maintaining consistency across a site simple. The Styles palette even comes with 300 pre-designed styles which do all the set-up work for you.

There's no question that the ability to save and apply named effects and styles is an excellent way of creating and maintaining a consistent look-and-feel, but there's a major limitation. Most users will assume that they can simply edit an existing style and it will be reflected in all objects formatted with that style. In fact that's not the case. The Edit Style command simply allows you to set which attributes are affected by the style. As such, while styles are great for setting up a look and feel, they are of little use for automatically updating it.

I'd thought I'd found a workaround to this problem with the new Find and Replace palette. In fact, as this allows searches to be made on multiple files, I thought it might even represent an improvement allowing styles to be instantly updated across an entire site with a single command. Unfortunately, although you can search for and replace text, URLs, fonts and colours, you can't search for or apply styles. Again the power is impressive but retrospectively-editable styles would make life a lot easier.

Perhaps the single strongest feature in Fireworks is its Export Preview dialog and this has been further enhanced. There are some minor improvements to the way colour edges are handled in JPEGs, but the majority of new power is focussed on GIFs. Underneath the display of the current GIF palette are commands for editing the current colour, making it transparent, locking it or shifting it to the nearest web-safe equivalent. Disappointingly there is no 256-colour preview to see the effects of system dithering, but otherwise Fireworks now offers all the optimisation power of the dedicated Adobe ImageReady. Also like ImageReady, Fireworks also now allows all optimisation settings - and find and replace settings - to be saved as scriptlets which can be applied automatically to selected files with the Batch Process command.

As well as its support for static GIFs, Fireworks' support for GIF animations has also been improved. Frame-by-frame animations are made simpler with the new icons at the bottom of the Frames palette that enable new frames to be added and objects to be distributed across them. The new onion-skinning options make positioning easier while shared layers can be used to deal with static backgrounds. Combined with the ability to create symbols and instances and to automatically tween size, size, position, opacity, blend mode, transformations and even effects, Fireworks can now compete with any of the dedicated GIF animators. Perhaps most important of all in this regard, the new VCR controls at the bottom of the image window now enable the animation to be previewed in the workspace.

In terms of its HTML control, the benefits of the integration of the web layer and other image layers is debatable and in my experience just tended to confuse issues by making it more difficult to select the intended object. Other changes though are more welcome. When you add or select a hotspot, the Object palette is automatically selected and allows you to enter or edit a URL, alt text and target frame directly. To see and edit all URLs used in the document you can use the new URL Manager palette. Sadly there is still no way to link a hotspot to an object so that repositioning requires double the work.

If you create an image slice rather than a hotspot the Object palette also allows you to specify a name or accept autonaming and also enables the Export Preview to be opened to set exact output settings. Image slices are also used to add advanced rollovers and Fireworks 2 offers two new effects. The Swap Image option enables disjointed rollovers where, for example, moving the mouse over a list of city names causes the relevant city map to appear next to it. The Toggle Group option meanwhile enables multiple images to be controlled so that, for example, pressing a navigation button causes it to appear sunken while ensuring that the previously pressed button is raised.

Surprisingly such rollover effects aren't controlled with the Object palette, but are instead managed by the new Behaviours palette. The process involved in this is less than transparent, cumbersome and, if you want to add a status bar message to your rollover effect, involves two stages where before it only involved one. The reason is simple: this is how Macromedia's HTML authoring package Dreamweaver handles rollovers. If you make sure to check the Dreamweaver HTML compatibility option when you export, you will even be able to access and edit your Fireworks behaviours directly within Dreamweaver.

In fact that's only the beginning of Fireworks' integration with Dreamweaver. On export you can also choose to save to Dreamweaver's *.lbi library format for elements that are used repeatedly or you can choose to save to CSS rather than vanilla-HTML which opens up your images for DHTML animation. While working within Dreamweaver you can also now access Fireworks to directly edit your GIFs and JPEGs or even the original Fireworks PNG. Best of all you can load just the Export Preview dialog to quickly optimize your web graphics.

Of course for Dreamweaver users such cross-application leveraging is a major advantage of the latest Fireworks, but it's not good news for everyone. To begin with it raises doubts about compatibility and support. There's no question of a Microsoft-style approach where users of other programs are deliberately left out in the cold, but already it's clear that functionality is being skewed toward the Macromedia way of doing things. More generally disappointing is the way that Fireworks seems to have become subsumed into the Macromedia suite rather than continuing to operate as a standalone and universally accessible product. Fireworks 2 feels much more like the other applications in the Macromedia range - FreeHand, Director, Flash and Dreamweaver - all of which offer state-of-the-art, web-oriented functionality and end results but at the cost of general usability.

Fireworks 2's new functionality means that it is far and away the best web graphics solution for the power-hungry professional web designer. For less cutting-edge users, however, its new complexity may well mean that they are better served by a simpler alternative - Fireworks 1.



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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

May 1999

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