Macromedia FreeHand 9

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A major repositioning for FreeHand emphasizing Web and especially Flash output but at the cost of lost ground in the program's core drawing power.

Macromedia FreeHand 9 SWF Export

At one time - and not so long ago - the veteran drawing package, FreeHand, was Macromedia's flagship application. Since then, it has tended to get lost amongst the excitement of Macromedia's various Web offerings such as DreamWeaver, Flash, Fireworks and Drumbeat. Now, just when FreeHand users were beginning to wonder if Macromedia had completely forgotten about them, the company has brought out a new version designed to put minds at ease and to reconfirm FreeHand's central role in a publishing vision straddling both print and Web.

First impressions though are not encouraging. The first version of FreeHand appeared on the Mac back in 1988 and the interface has hardly changed since. The ugly and old-fashioned opening dialog is only the beginning. The overall working environment is clogged up with numerous differently-sized floating palettes and many central capabilities are only available via plug-in "Xtras" which seem to pride themselves on their idiosyncracy and lack of transparency. Compared to Illustrator, FreeHand does at least offer toolbars but the garish, non-standard push buttons look amateurish as does the ugly non-standard system font used in many dialogs. Frankly, FreeHand looks awful and is in major need of a major overhaul.

Macromedia FreeHand 9 interface

The FreeHand 9 interface remains ugly and old-fashioned.

Of course, as Macromedia regularly proves, a poor interface and usability are soon forgotten when made up for by leading-edge functionality, so what new power does FreeHand 9 offer? Two of the new tools on the main toolbar, the spiral tool and the eyedropper, were actually around in previous versions but only as Xtras. The first genuine innovation is the new Lasso tool which allows you to quickly draw an irregular shape around those objects you want to select. If you double-click on the tool, you can also change between only selecting objects that are fully contained within the lasso marquee or selecting any object that is touched. Also new is the ability to invert selections and to quickly select everything on the current layer.

Previously, of course, a Lasso tool would seem much more at home in a bitmap environment. The same is true of the reinvention of FreeHand's Trace tool as a Magic Wand. Double-clicking on the toolbar icon calls up the options dialog where you can set various parameters, such as the trace conformity and noise tolerance. Now you can also choose between RGB and CMYK colour models and, crucially, set a colour tolerance. This means that you can now click within any flat area of colour and the area will automatically be traced and converted into a new shape. This is great for creating new objects from partially obscured objects and, with shift-clicking, allows you to build up objects from multiple areas of different colours. The underlying tracing engine has also been made faster and more accurate so that, while not competing head-on with dedicated standalone solutions such as Adobe's Streamline and Corel's OCR-Trace, FreeHand's integrated magic wand will probably be far more regularly useful.

Another case of Macromedia making the most out of existing power with some judicious tweaking is the introduction of the new Page tool. This capitalizes on FreeHand's longstanding ability to handle multiple pages - especially compared to the resolutely single-page Illustrator - by largely duplicating the power already available in the Inspector palette's document panel. Using the tool, pages can be interactively reordered, copied and deleted. By dragging on the page border, page size and orientation can also be changed and the resulting custom page sizes can be named and saved for later use. Technical artists can also take advantage of the new ability to specify scaling with custom units of measure ranging from Didots and Ciceros through to kilometres and nautical miles.

Macromedia FreeHand 9 page tool

The Page tool offers interactive control over multi-page layouts.

Other improvements that come under the catch-all miscellaneous heading include the Freehand drawing tool's new precision slider which controls the resulting line's smoothness and accuracy, an intelligent Expand Stroke dialog that picks up current attributes, and a sharper Knife tool capable of cutting paths with up to 32,000 points. Seriously useful is the addition of a Copies option to the various tabs of the Transform palette. This simple enhancement provides a step and repeat function so that multiple copies of an object can be offset, rotated, scaled, skewed and reflected - one of the most common of all design tasks. Such enhancements are undoubtedly useful, but they hardly set the pulse racing. Where are FreeHand 9's must-have killer features?

The first new feature that Macromedia is seriously promoting is its new perspective capabilities. You can now set up a background perspective grid with up to three vanishing points and with customisable grid cell size and different colours for left, right and horizontal grid lines. Using the dedicated Define Grid dialog, you can also name and save grids for reuse, but it's generally much easier to create and control grids interactively by dragging with the new Perspective tool. By turning on Snap To Grid, you can then consistently add an extra dimension to your work.

Manually working to the grid in this way is still a lot of effort, however, and if you change your mind about the perspective or positioning of your objects, you might as well start again. That's where FreeHand's perspective system really comes into its own. Using the Perspective tool you can attach existing 2D objects, such as rectangles and text, to any axis of the grid and they will automatically be distorted accordingly. Even better, the system is dynamic so that, as you move your objects within the grid, their size and shape updates automatically. Using the Alt key you can even automatically create copies of your object, all of which conform to their position within the 3D landscape.

Macromedia FreeHand 9 perspective grids

The use of Perspective Grids enables drawing with depth.

FreeHand 9's second major new drawing feature is the introduction of onscreen enveloping effects. Surprisingly these transformations are applied via a dedicated toolbar rather than a floating panel or interactive tool. Various presets are provided, such as circle, triangle and starburst, but these are only the beginning. Once a preset has been applied it can quickly be customised by dragging its defining nodes and control points. Such a customised envelope can then be saved and applied in future or it can simply be cut and pasted onto other objects.

Macromedia FreeHand 9 envelope distortions

Objects can now be distorted using onscreen interactive envelopes.

Both the perspective and enveloping effects are welcome additions to FreeHand 9's general functionality, but neither feature is exactly thrilling. Compared to version 8's major leap forward with the introduction of transparency and other lens effects, FreeHand 9's core drawing power has been allowed to stagnate. More to the point, with the most recent releases of Illustrator, Draw and Canvas pulling out all the stops with features such as gradient meshes, artistic brushes and integrated bitmap and vector capabilities, FreeHand has quickly fallen behind its rivals. An old-fashioned interface is forgivable but outdated functionality is another matter.

These days, however, a program is no longer judged purely by its standalone capabilities and this is especially true of the latest FreeHand. Just as important as FreeHand's internal drawing power is its integration both with other programs and with today's print and Web workflows and these are areas that the latest release focuses on. The most important graphics program for FreeHand to work hand in hand with is Photoshop. A new option in the Export command's Setup dialog allows you to export PSD images with all layers intact - although text is automatically rasterised rather than remaining editable. For quick and easy integration you can also now simply cut and paste into Photoshop with selections transferred either as pixels or as paths.

Also improved for version 9 is FreeHand's Acrobat PDF support. Although Acrobat is Adobe's own format, Illustrator is seriously shackled by its single page restriction, so FreeHand immediately has a huge advantage here being able to both export and import multiple-page PDFs. With Acrobat 4's increasingly important role as a cross-platform prepress platform this is especially important. FreeHand 9 also offers extensive customisation with control over image compression, colour conversion, Acrobat version as well as new capabilities such as the ability to export notes, URLs and, crucially, to embed fonts. Generally FreeHand's Acrobat support is good although I would have preferred to see simpler options for targetting Web, desktop and press output as well as more advanced options such as job ticketing.

Macromedia FreeHand 9 PDF support

FreeHand's multi-page PDF export has been enhanced.

Other than its PDF options, FreeHand's printing capabilities are left unchanged, but its Web capabilities have been revamped across the board. At the simplest level this comes down to exporting images to the Web-friendly GIF and JPEG formats. By far the most common export format for vector work is GIF and Macromedia has beefed up its support through the addition of four levels of dithering, an optimize option to remove unused colours from the palette and three WebSnap palettes for 16, 128 and 256 colours. Using these palettes, if a colour is already near to one of the websafe colours it is automatically shifted into line, but otherwise it is left unaffected. The WebSnap alternatives certainly provide a useful default compromise between the websafe and adaptive colour choices, but even so they are no replacement for FreeHand 9's continuing lack of an export preview or file size feedback. This is even more unforgivable for the JPEG export where quality settings are little more than blind guesses.

Completely new to FreeHand 9 is the Publish as HTML command, though users of the former Design in Motion suite will recognise most of the capabilities from the previous Insta.HTML Xtra. The main dialog simply lets you select pages to output and a browser to see the results in but, using the Setup command or the step-by-step Wizard, you can specify more advanced parameters such as whether to use layers or tables for positioning and what format to output graphics to. The resulting HTML code conforms to Dreamweaver's formatting conventions and can even be opened directly into Dreamweaver, but again I was under-whelmed. Basically there are too many rough edges such as the inability to include target frames when specifying URLs and the fact that the new HTML warnings window simply lists problems with no option of taking you to them. In short FreeHand 9 is suitable for basic Web site storyboarding but don't plan on using it for producing working sites.

Macromedia FreeHand 9 HTML

FreeHand can now publish as HTML for site storyboarding.

Much the most powerful Web capability in FreeHand's armoury and its unique selling point is the ability to output images directly to the Flash SWF format. The vector nature of SWF has huge advantages in terms of download size compared to GIF and, with the Flash player's ever-increasing market penetration, browser support is less of an issue. To produce the Flash files, the individual vector elements of a page can automatically be exported to SWF via the Publish to HTML command, but you get far more control if you export a layout directly. The Export Flash dialog offers control over path and image compression, text handling and Flash version along with new control over full screen playback, high quality printing and protection from import.

Macromedia FreeHand 9 SWF Export

FreeHand's unique selling point is its SWF export.

Of course the real benefit of the Flash format comes through animation. FreeHand 9 is able to bring static pages alive by mapping layers onto frames. By positioning two copies of an object and then blending to create intermediate copies, the Release to Layers command can be used to move each blend object to its own layer and, on export, this will produce the effect of motion. New Build, Drop and Trail options in the Release to Layers dialog enable variations on this effect by adding or removing objects on each layer. With version 9 you can also now move grouped elements to their own layers according to stacking order or release the individual letters from a line of text. Putting the new features together you can quickly create the common effect seen in banner adverts of text being typed onscreen by simply selecting a line of text and the Release to Layers command's Build option.

There's a problem with FreeHand's cel-based animation, however, as its repetition of identical elements on every frame is very inefficient. This is where FreeHand 9's new symbol handling comes in. By converting an object or group to a symbol it can be used as many times as you want with virtually no addition to the final file size. In fact improved SWF efficiency is only one of the many benefits of symbols. In particular it's simple to store repeated elements for later reuse simply by dragging them on and off the new Symbols palette. Even better, libraries of symbols can be imported from any FreeHand or Flash file. Best of all, updating the symbol in the symbol palette automatically updates all instances throughout your document. If you have used a navigation bar symbol in a multiple-page site storyboard, for example, you can simply edit one instance's buttons and then drag the new version back onto the Symbols palette and all your pages will automatically be updated.

Macromedia FreeHand 9 symbols

Symbols can be used to boost both working and SWF efficiency.

This is serious Web-oriented power and it brings FreeHand 9 to life. More to the point it makes sense of what Macromedia is really doing with FreeHand 9. Suddenly the various new drawing features are revealed for what they actually are - new Web animation features in disguise. Each of FreeHand 9's main innovations - the perspective grids, envelopes, step and repeat features, even the magic wand - comes into its own when used for creating animations. Suddenly it's clear that Macromedia intends to reposition FreeHand primarily as a Flash-based dynamic Web authoring package, but with the added bonus of a long tradition of high-end print-oriented graphic design. Even better, that tradition can be leveraged with Macromedia's new drive for print-oriented Flash output to position FreeHand as the only application you need for a complete cross-publishing solution.

In many ways the attractions of FreeHand's move to the Web are compelling - and not just to Macromedia's marketing department. No serious designer can afford to ignore the Web and FreeHand 9's leveraging of Macromedia's existing Web know-how gives FreeHand users a massive advantage when it comes to making the transition. That's undeniably true, but the advent of the Web certainly doesn't spell the end of traditional design and FreeHand's current users will be seriously disappointed at how version 9 has been allowed to fall behind the competition in terms of general graphical creativity. Without a continuous infusion of new graphic design power, FreeHand will end up as little more than a glorified Flash.

Or rather, it's in danger of ending up as a seriously under-powered Flash. Ultimately this is my real concern with Macromedia's repositioning of FreeHand - it hasn't gone far enough. Just as with its GIF and HTML output, FreeHand 9 has been left with a number of serious flaws when it comes to creating Flash files. To begin with, despite the new Flash anti-aliased display option, there's no way of previewing animations in situ. Much more serious is the whole layer rather than timeline-based approach to animation. When working on animations, this workaround system is horrendously inflexible especially when it comes to co-ordinating multiple actions or re-editing. In terms of end results, it's also clumsy with none of the tweening-based efficiency of Flash let alone interactivity or sound.

Essentially FreeHand is restricted to producing the simplest of animations and storyboarding and even here its usefulness is limited by the inability to produce Flash's native FLA format files rather than SWF. The obvious conclusion is that if you want to produce Flash you'd be better getting the real thing - a conclusion Macromedia is happy enough to encourage with its Flash 4 FreeHand Studio bundle and bargain upgrade. Ultimately FreeHand's move towards the Web does make sense, but it shouldn't be at the cost of general graphic design power and needs to be better thought through than this. FreeHand deserves far better than to become just an add-on, or worse merely a stepping-stone, to Flash.

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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

Feb 2000

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