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With its new live preview, non-destructive colour correction, symbol-based buttons, scriptability and enhanced integration, Fireworks 3 pulls further ahead as the Web imaging program of choice.

Fireworks 3 bitmap live effects

With its combination of vector and bitmap handling, advanced image optimisation and integrated HTML output, Macromedia Fireworks is the program that first invented and now defines the field of dedicated Web imaging. However with the majority of bitmap editors now offering serious Web functionality of their own, the question arises: is there really any need for a dedicated solution? In particular, with the latest Photoshop 5.5/ImageReady 2 bundle turning its attention to Web graphics, has the ground been cut from under Fireworks' feet? Fireworks 3 is Macromedia's answer.

On first loading, those users disillusioned with the many, largely negative interface changes in version 2 will be pleased to see that the look and feel of the program has changed comparatively little. Another four floating palettes have been added - making a grand total of nineteen! - but, as these are grouped together in four main tabbed palettes neatly stacked down the right hand of the screen, they add little to the existing sense of overload. More usefully, one of the major causes of confusion in version 2 has been remedied with command icons for the crucial task of switching the Web layer on and off now available from the bottom of the toolbox rather than hidden away on the Layers palette.

The fundamental change to the Fireworks interface is the introduction of a tabbed image window - a more or less direct copy of the feature found in ImageReady. Essentially this integrates the optimisation functionality previously available from the Export Preview dialog into your ongoing editing environment so that you can easily switch to the Preview, 2-Up or 4-Up tab to see how your image will finally appear as a GIF, JPEG or PNG. To change any of the current output settings, such as the level of JPEG compression and smoothing, you now use the new Optimize palette while, for complete control over the individual colours in a GIF image's palette, you use the new Colour Table palette. Fireworks 3 has even copied ImageReady 2's most advanced optimisation features with the ability to create "lossy" GIFs and a preview option which shows how your image will look under the Mac's different gamma handling.

Fireworks 3 optimisation

The major change in working practice is the move to ongoing optimization with live rollover previews controlled by the new Optimize and Colour Table palettes.

In the past I could never see the point of being able to preview your image within your ongoing workspace rather than through an export dialog, but that's certainly no longer the case. What makes the difference in the Fireworks' implementation is that all the windows are live. That means that in 2-up or 4-up view you can move or recolour an object, for example, and the preview images and their file size feedback will automatically update. Alternatively you can select an individual image slice and fine-tune its settings in situ. Even better, the preview windows are also live, so that you can quickly check your rollover effects without needing to load your browser. The boost both to efficiency and ultimate image control is immense.

In terms of new origination capabilities Fireworks has to work on two fronts, improving both its vector and bitmap functionality. Of the two, Fireworks' bitmap-based power has always been its weakest area which meant that you often had to turn to a dedicated photo-editor, such as Photoshop, to work on component images. Macromedia has now attempted to redress the balance. New features include the ability to rotate not just the canvas but all the objects on it and to precisely control the effects of scaling by choosing between bicubic, bilinear, nearest neighbor and soft interpolation options. Rather more creatively exciting is the ability to load any bitmap texture or pattern rather than being limited to the sample that Fireworks provides.

Much the most important bitmap-based advance is the complete overhaul of Fireworks' colour correction capabilities. In the past this crucial task was left to a rag-bag of bundled third-party filters, but now Macromedia has seriously addressed the issue with its new Adjust Colour commands. Simple colour corrections can be achieved with the Brightness/Contrast and Invert controls while the maximum tonal range in an image can be brought out with the AutoLevels command. More advanced and precise tonal and colour control is offered through the Levels, Curves and Hue/Saturation commands. Without features such as channel-based editing, Fireworks still isn't a rival to Photoshop for professional colour correction but it's more than adequate for most Web imaging demands.

When working with bitmap objects the new Adjust Colour commands are applied directly from the Xtras menu, but Fireworks has a further trick up its sleeve - exactly the same commands can also be applied to bitmap and vector-defined objects from the Effects panel. This is a huge strength as it means that the effects become non-destructive and so can be edited or removed at any time in future. Even better, they can be incorporated into styles and so applied consistently to multiple objects. If you have buttons with a bitmap texture, for example, you can create rollover effects where the hue or brightness of the texture changes as the mouse moves over them. Most impressive of all is the fact that any third-party filter can be applied in the same way. If you are a Photoshop user, for example, you can set up an automatic rollover effect where the button will be highlighted with a Chalk and Charcoal sketch effect.

Fireworks 3 bitmap live effects

Colour correction and even third-party filters can be applied as Live Effects.

When it comes to vectors, the most important object for Fireworks to handle is text and a number of enhancements have been introduced. To begin with, if you are working on a file produced on another system, Fireworks now gives you the opportunity to substitute missing fonts. Other small but welcome changes include automatic text block resizing as you work in the Text Editor dialog and a pop-up font preview as you move your cursor over the font list. Another improvement and another direct lift from ImageReady is the ability to set four levels of aliasing - none, crisp, strong and smooth - to precisely control how the edge of characters are handled. It might sound like overkill but it can make a serious difference both to apparent text quality and image file size.

In terms of its handling of other vector objects, Fireworks 3 is relatively unchanged from origination through to formatting and styling. What is new, however, is the handling of repeated image elements through the use of symbols. In fact Fireworks 2 already offered the ability to link multiple instances to a master object, but the system has now been seriously revamped. In particular when you use the new Convert to Symbol command, the current object or group is automatically added to the new Library palette. From here, you can simply drag and drop as many instances as you need onto your image. You can also use the Export and Import Symbols commands to build up your own libraries of reusable elements.

Fireworks 3 symbol editing

The new Library palette and symbol-based editing are ideal for handling repeated page elements.

The real strength of symbol-based handling comes from their new editability. By double-clicking on the preview in the Library palette, or on any instance in your current image, the symbol is automatically opened into its own image editing window. Make any changes you want, such as applying a new style from the Styles palette, and then close the file and every instance in the image will automatically be updated. The system is undoubtedly powerful, but doesn't quite make up for the lack of true style-based editing and updating as this could also be used on non-repeated elements.

One of the most obvious uses for symbols is for controlling multiple navigation devices that share the same look and feel. Fireworks 3 recognises this and, in addition to the simple graphic symbol, offers a special button symbol for the creation of rollover effects. Hit the Insert menu's New Button command and a new image window appears in which you create the default Up state for your button. The window is tabbed so that if you select the Over and Down tabs you can then create the versions of the button that will appear when the user moves their mouse over the button and clicks on it. To make the process easier, Fireworks offers the options of onion-skinning, so that you can see the size and position of the previous button state, or of copying it ready for editing. Finally, using the tabbed Links wizard, you can walk through the process of setting up your button's export settings, link, frame target, and file name.

By default, when you close your button editing window, Fireworks automatically applies a simple rollover behaviour to the image slice that it creates so that your button effect is instantly ready for previewing and exporting. A more advanced Set Nav Bar behaviour can also now be added if your button is going to be used in a permanently available navigation bar. In the button editing window a new Over While Down tab is available that allows you to create a version of your down button state that will become highlighted when the mouse moves over it. To finish the effect you can also specify which button should be set to the down state when the navigation bar first loads.

Fireworks 3 button editor

The new Button Editor automates the whole process of creating advanced rollover effects.

With its new symbol-based approach added to its existing vector handling, live effects, style-based formatting and pre-coded behaviours, Fireworks is out in a league of its own when it comes to creating buttons. Perhaps the biggest advance of all though becomes apparent when you have to re-edit your button-based layout. Because your buttons are created as symbol instances, all the necessary image states and their controlling image slice move together so that you no longer have to manually synchronise your changes across frames and the Web layer. In the past this meant that reorganising your navigation bars was a nightmare - now it's a piece of cake.

The use of symbols and buttons takes efficiency and productivity to new levels, but that's only the beginning. Just as useful is the introduction of a Photoshop-style History palette. This automatically records all your actions as you work on an image and stores them as a named list. Using the Undo marker that runs down the left-hand side of the palette you can then drag up to restore your image to any previous state. A multiple undo is naturally welcome but it's hardly exciting, especially as it's not infinite and by default is limited to just twenty steps. What makes all the difference is that the commands on the list can be reused. If you have just scaled an object and applied a style, for example, you can immediately do the same to any other object simply by dragging through the necessary commands in the History palette and hitting the Replay command.

Fireworks 3 history palette

The new History palette offers a multiple undo and Javascript-based macro capabilities.

Even more powerful is the ability to save the steps to Fireworks' new Command list which means that you can access the macro at any point in future from the new Commands menu. The system isn't perfect as many commands, such as individual brush strokes, aren't recordable and there's no editing capability apart from the ability to copy commands to the clipboard and then to paste the resulting Javascript into a text editor. Even so, the power and flexibility that are opened up are seriously impressive and enable even non-programmers to build up a range of customised effects. For Javascript experts the potential is far greater with the ability to control just about every aspect of Fireworks through the new API.

With its combined bitmap and vector approach Fireworks provides as much of a standalone Web solution as it can, but it also recognises that it must fit in with other programs as part of a larger workflow. Integration with Photoshop is particularly important and Fireworks has always been able to read PSD files with all image layers kept intact. With version 3 this capability has been extended so that text layers and even layer effects are kept fully editable. Photoshop's adjustment layers aren't mapped to the new non-destructive colour correction effects, but otherwise it's certainly possible for a designer to map out their ideas in Photoshop and then have these translated into a fully working page in Fireworks.

Fireworks 3 Photoshop support

Fireworks' integration with Photoshop now extends to keeping imported text and layer effects editable.

Disappointingly, the integration with Photoshop is largely one way as there's no ability to export to PSD, but Fireworks 3 is more generous when it comes to vectors. As well as importing FreeHand, Corel Draw and Illustrator layered files, there's now a new Export Illustrator 7 command which creates an AI file with the option of mapping frames to their own layers. Even more useful is the ability to export to Flash SWF format complete with the ability to maintain either appearance, where object fills and strokes are converted to bitmaps, or editability, where only the path information is exported. Of course Fireworks' is never going to be a replacement for producing final Flash files, but the integration is invaluable especially when both Flash and non-Flash versions of a site are being created. This time, however, it's disappointing to find that Flash's FLA and SWF files can't be imported into Fireworks.

The improved integration with external bitmap and vector editors is welcome, but the one application that Fireworks absolutely has to work hand-in-glove with is your HTML editor. To help in this Fireworks allows you to output either generic HTML and Javascript or to target a particular package such as GoLive or FrontPage. The level of control over the entire process has now been improved with a new Copy HTML Code wizard that walks you through all necessary stages and then enables you to paste the necessary code directly into your editor. Also new is the ability to automatically update tables within existing pages with the new Update HTML command.

Fireworks 3 html

The new Copy HTML wizard helps you to target your code for your favourite authoring package, most obviously Macromedia's own Dreamweaver.

Not surprisingly the HTML authoring program that Fireworks works most closely with is Macromedia's own Dreamweaver, especially the latest version 3. In terms of code, Macromedia has ensured that all the Fireworks rollover effects, including the new Set Nav Bar, come through as native Dreamweaver behaviours and also allows commonly used elements to be stored as library items. With Dreamweaver 3's new Insert Fireworks Object command you can also suck in both Fireworks' code and graphics simultaneously and have the images automatically placed correctly and the link information updated. This is particularly useful for workgroups where different people are handling the graphics and the page design.

Fireworks' integration with Dreamweaver goes deeper than just HTML and Javascript support. If you set up Fireworks to be Dreamweaver's external image editor, a number of new options open up. If there is a GIF or JPEG on your page, for example, you can launch Fireworks' Export Preview dialog to quickly optimize it. For complete control you can also now directly access the original source files thanks to link information embedded as metadata in the Fireworks files. The end result is what Macromedia calls "visual roundtrip editing" where Fireworks and Dreamweaver work hand in hand to keep images and code up to date. In fact the relationship can be even closer than this as the fact that both programs are Javascriptable means that fully integrated and automated workflow solutions can be set up.

When working like this the control on offer is formidable and for the professional Web designer nothing comes close to the advanced power offered by the Fireworks/Dreamweaver combination. The real success of Fireworks though is that its strengths are so great that it remains the best choice even for those users for whom Web design is a sideline rather than their bread and butter. In spite of the recent advances in Web imaging offered by the moonlighting photo editors, Fireworks is still far and away the best Web imaging solution.




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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

December 1999

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