Product review: Fireworks explodes with improvements

Macromedia's Fireworks 2, a sophisticated software package that enables Web developers to create and optimise graphics for corporate Web sites, is a notable improvement over the previous release. Compared to Adobe ImageReady, Fireworks is easier to use, and its expanded feature set lets users perform all of the tasks associated with creating, editing, and optimising Web graphics, without having to use another application.

New menu options and notable improvements to the panel design make it even easier for users to work with both illustrations and photographic images. In addition, Fireworks has expanded its arsenal of tools with superb graphics optimization capabilities that will greatly reduce the size of your files, yet preserve the image quality.

I found this beta version particularly stable and, with the exception of the incomplete online help, had little trouble working with most of the new features.

Macromedia has eliminated the workspace clutter of the previous version by streamlining the panels, or windows, that let you select effects for various objects. In the past, all the panels had to be open at once; now, double-clicking on an object launches a single panel. I could also customise the panels, which is another big improvement. Unfortunately, I could not minimise them.

Like its predecessor, Fireworks 2 offers Web developers five effects: You can apply inner and outer bevels or a glow effect, plus you can drop shadows and embossments on specific objects. The new version let me apply multiple effects to a single object. Previously, I had to apply effects one at a time. The Effects tab displays a list of effects (with the exception of Emboss) that I could check off to apply to my graphic. Checking an effect brought up a dialog box that let me specify the parameters of the effect. An adjacent button let me edit a specific parameter.

I was also pleased to see that I could undo any of my effects without having to start over from scratch. This simple feature will prove to be a real time-saver.

Also notable in this version is the addition of styles and templates. The beta version I tested only included a few styles, but the shipping version will include about 300 styles. I could also grab a colour from anywhere on the desktop using the eyedropper tool. This is particularly helpful when you need to ensure colour accuracy.

Fireworks offers new options for optimising graphics. You can make colours transparent or Web-safe -- in other words, they won't dither when viewed from a monitor that handles only 256 colours. In addition, helpful indicators let me view which colours were locked or transparent.

I also had the ability to specify a target size for my graphic, which enabled the Export wizard to determine the best graphic format. New functions in the Export dialog box let me select whether I wanted to "slice" an image to expedite the rendering process. Previously, Fireworks would slice the file automatically; now you can choose whether to activate this feature.

In addition, you can choose among six different source HTML editors, including Microsoft's FrontPage. Because all HTML editors handle code a little differently, this handy feature ensures that the program will create HTML code that is appropriate for a specific HTML editor.

For those who need a complete solution for creating and optimising Web graphics, Fireworks 2 surely fits the bill. It may be complex for new users because it packs in so many features, but I would highly recommend it for anyone inundated with a plethora of tools they would like to eliminate.

Jeff Senna is a senior analyst at InfoWorld. He can be reached at jeff_senna@infoworld.comThe bottom lineMacromedia Fireworks 2, betaThis version makes it easier and quicker for Web designers to create and optimise compelling Web graphics.

Pros: Reduced price; enhanced interface; customizable tabbed panels; enhanced feature set includes "onion skins" and multiple simultaneous effectsCons: Weak context-sensitive helpMacromedia; www.macromedia.comPrice: $US199 ($US129 upgrade or $US99 software download)Platform: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0, Mac OS 7.5.5 and later (PowerPC)Ship date: February

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