Arriving without the fanfare that has accompanied the launch of Flash MX, Macromedia has consolidated the MX suite of products by releasing an upgrade for Fireworks, its graphics-editing tool.
Fireworks has shaken up the graphics-editing world by being firmly Web-centric. This release continues in this vain, and features enhanced integration with the rest of the MX line, as well as essential workflow enhancements for the production of Web graphics.
Fireworks now runs natively on OS X, and performs well on faster Macs – but slower machines may struggle. The user interface has been overhauled to make it follow the same concepts as the rest of the MX family, with collapsible, dockable palettes to one side, and the context-sensitive Property Inspector – which provides different options and parameters dependent on the currently selected tool. For instance, choose a vector shape and you get options to select Stroke and Fill, textures, and effects, whereas if you select the text tool the options are related to font face, point size, typographic controls, etc.
For text, this means you can also enter and edit type without having to launch the text editor – an important workflow improvement. Overall, the new interface is a revelation, and makes it much faster to create and export graphics. Why did nobody think of it before?
The improved bitmap editing comes from a number of new tools – such as blur, sharpen, dodge, burn and smudge – for touching up photographic elements or for graphic effects. There’s also a comprehensive gradient tool, which can apply a number of different patterns, and define colours and opacity along the gradient path. While these tools are welcome, Fireworks still doesn’t really cut it as an artistic tool for painting with pixels in the way that Photoshop or Painter does – there’s definitely a place for both in your toolbox.
However, it more than makes up for this with its dedicated toolset of Web-creation tools. As a graphics-production tool, Fireworks is unbeatable. There are new features on this front in MX, with perhaps the most useful being symbols and libraries. Symbols are similar to those found in Flash – graphics that can be applied a number of times. Editing the symbol changes the appearance of all the instances, but you can also edit the text of a button symbol-instance in a single click from the Property Inspector. Add it all together, and you’ve got another timesaving feature for what can be a laborious task. Using libraries allows you to save and distribute all the symbols used on a particular project, or keep your commonly used graphical elements ready to go.
To streamline and automate the graphics-production process, use the data-driven graphics wizard to dynamically set the copy in graphics files – for instance, to fill areas of text, or name buttons. The data can come from a comma-delimited file, or from an XML data source, and is applied to defined variables in the Fireworks file.
One of Fireworks most useful functions is to break down an image into a number of smaller image elements, or slices. Each slice can be exported at a different compression setting or palette, allowing maximum optimization of the file.
A nice feature of MX is the ability to reconstitute an original image from a Web page with its component slices – useful when working on a site developed three years ago by somebody else. You can now also set the Alt tags for undefined frames automatically – all part of Macromedia’s charm offensive on the accessibility front.
Managing projects with a large number of graphics can be a major headache. Fireworks MX takes a step in the right direction with a Project log – allowing you to group files together as a project, and do a project-wide find-&-replace. However, Fireworks could still do with some asset-management facilities beyond the use of this and Libraries. As you’d expect from the MX suite of products, integration between the various programs is key, and Fireworks offers unparalleled inter-operability with the company’s other applications, especially Dreamweaver and Flash MX.
You can export files as Flash SWF – as well as Photoshop PSD files, or Illustrator files – and also import Fireworks PNG files into Flash. Fireworks can be launched from Flash or Dreamweaver for bitmap editing. Images can be exported to a Dreamweaver Library file, or layers and slices saved as CSS layers for advanced layout options.
This release is primarily a workflow booster, with enough carefully considered tweaks and enhancements to shave valuable time off Web-graphic production tasks, and precious kilobytes from outputted files. For this, Fireworks MX is an essential product for the serious Web developer.