SAN FRANCISCO (05/30/2000) - Prepress programs have had a hard time making themselves relevant to Web designers. The current versions of traditional print applications Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw, and QuarkXPress lack so much as a single Web-specific feature that another program doesn't handle more efficiently. In fact, only one application-Adobe Photoshop-has managed to gain wide acceptance among print and online professionals alike.
The latest version of Macromedia Inc.'s FreeHand promises to change all that.
While its predecessor supplied a couple of token features aimed at creating simple Flash files, FreeHand 9 makes a convincing case for designing professional-level Web animations inside a vector-based illustration program.
Although it's by no means the only program you'll need for generating online content, FreeHand 9 does something Flash doesn't-it makes the process of generating Flash objects familiar and intelligible.
Flash in the 'Hand
Just as Photoshop is a natural for creating Web imagery, drawing programs are ideally suited to vector-based SWF (Shockwave Format) content. Yet four years after that format's introduction, most illustration programs are just now jumping on board. Fortunately for FreeHand loyalists, their software of choice backed a winner early on. FreeHand 7 exported scalable graphics that were readable with a Shockwave player; FreeHand 8 could convert blended paths to frames in a Flash animation.
By the time you read this, Illustrator 9 will have caught up with FreeHand-version 8, that is. Meanwhile, FreeHand 9 has already leapfrogged ahead. For starters, with FreeHand 9 you can create page sizes that are geared specifically for Flash output. And FreeHand 9 lets you name and store custom page sizes. (Strangely, however, it lacks predefined Web sizes, so you'll have to create your own 800-by-600-pixel or banner-ad setting.) You can likewise define custom units of measurement-great if you tend to work in, say, 16-by-16-pixel blocks. And for those who prefer to animate pages using layers, a new tool lets you move pages, change their orientation, or even clone them (along with their contents) directly on the pasteboard. The only drawback is the lack of a step-and-repeat function for cloning multiple pages.
FreeHand also expands its support for SWF in version 9. One new option automatically resizes and renders a Flash animation so it fills a browser window exactly, regardless of the window's size. Two other options let you control how your SWF file is used: you can safeguard your Flash files so visitors can view them but not download them, and you can specify whether the Flash 4 Player can output a file at the full resolution of the visitor's printer or only at screen resolution.
The new version gives you a way to reduce the size of a Flash file by storing repeating graphics and text objects as symbols. A Web browser needs to download the symbol just once, regardless of how many times it appears. And the use of symbols isn't limited to Web graphics: modifying a symbol causes all instances of the symbol to update-perfect for designs that involve repeating icons and page elements.
Aside from SWF support, FreeHand 9's new features won't significantly change the way you work. First among these additions is a new perspective-grid tool that lets you simulate 3-D objects and backdrops. After establishing a grid of straight lines that converge toward one or more vanishing points, you can use the perspective tool to move the grid and adjust the speed of convergence. You can also align objects to the grid and snap them into perspective. You can even clone shapes and letters on-the-fly to create a perspective sequence; send the objects to different layers, and you have a 3-D Flash animation. But this feature could definitely stand some improvement. You can't step and repeat objects that are in perspective, and the method for scaling a perspective object-tapping a number key while pressing the mouse button-is both counterintuitive and shamefully inefficient.
FreeHand 9 increases the accuracy of its namesake, the Freehand tool, and makes blends more flexible by accurately translating composite paths (shapes with holes in them) and grouped objects. An expanded Transform palette lets you create multiple copies of an object while scaling or rotating it numerically, a terrific time-saver. For those who hate to shift-click, the new lasso tool lets you select points by roping them with a free-form marquee. If you want to gain more control over FreeHand's already excellent autotracing function, you can identify an area of color with the new magic-wand tool and convert the outline to a path. My favorite improvement, however, is the expanded enveloping feature, which lets you distort objects inside a drawing window rather than in a dialog box with a bad preview, as in FreeHand 8.
FreeHand's Funky Face
FreeHand's blend of speed and flexibility, combined with its leadership in the features arena, makes it an exceptional program by any measure. But as someone who's used the program since before it had a name, I feel I've earned the right to lament what is only becoming a clumsier and more crowded interface. Palettes are oddly sized and poorly organized; some icons are so small and badly rendered as to be unrecognizable; and dialog boxes tend to be cramped, with many option names exhibiting kerning problems, of all things.
Ugly is in the eye of the beholder; bad interface design isn't. Cross-platform differences abound, the most egregious being the absence of a context-sensitive pop-up menu in the Mac version. FreeHand 9 offers an antialiased screen display-more accurate and easier on the eyes-but it sends all grids into hiding, even though check marks in front of the grid commands indicate that all guides are visible. Finally, the default keyboard shortcuts verge on the bizarre, and unlike Illustrator's peculiarities, they have nothing to do with cross-application homogeneity. Fortunately, you can customize the shortcuts and even assign keystrokes to specialized tasks, such as closing paths and retracting control handles. But shortcomings remain. For example, there's no way to hide all the interface folderol when you need to focus exclusively on your artwork.
If all this sounds familiar, it's because I've been raising these and similar objections for years. Macromedia representatives tell me they've made no attempt to streamline the interface because users don't complain about it. But I remember the outcry when Aldus released FreeHand 4, with its badly structured, palette-happy design. My guess is that disgruntled FreeHand users have either moved on or given up the fight.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Interface eccentricities aside, FreeHand 9's greatest failing may be its lack of a revolutionary feature to rival the groundbreaking translucency and live-effects options promised by Illustrator 9-while clearly unique, the perspective grid isn't half as cool or one tenth as useful. What saves FreeHand 9 is its continued commitment to Flash. Web designers who haven't already acquired Flash 4 can purchase Flash 4 FreeHand 9 Studio for just $100 more than the cost of FreeHand 9 alone. There's no special integration here-it's just two CDs with two separate manuals in the same box-but the pair complement each other nicely. These days, just about every digital artist has some interest in the Web, so FreeHand's focus on Internet features is smart. But if it weren't for Flash, the best thing you could say about FreeHand 9 would be that it's bigger, busier, and brasher than ever. Problem is, those are the last things this program needs.
RATING: 3.5 mice
PROS: Flexible page management; SWF security features; dynamic symbol library; improved autotracing and enveloping.
CONS: Perspective grid needs work; no context-sensitive pop-up menu; increasingly cumbersome interface.
COMPANY: Macromedia (800/457-1774, http://www.macromedia.com).
COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $399; Flash 4 FreeHand 9 Studio, $499.