Fireworks has become established as the standard application for creating and optimizing graphics for the Web. Given an overhaul as part of the Studio MX 2004 release, one wonders what new features and enhancements could possibly be included in a new version.
The answer? Very little in terms of the key functions and performance of the core application: that is, creating graphics for Web sites. Creating slices, hotspots, interactive rollovers and menus – the grunt-work of your average Web monkey – is still handled better than any other application out there. Apart from improvements in speed, most noticeable on tasks such as scaling and working with text, there isn’t a huge amount here new in MX 2004 for the average pixel flinger.
One thing that even the most jaded user will appreciate is the ability to open a GIF or JPEG image, work with it, and then save it without having to save a PNG file first and then export it. This is a real timesaver, and is particularly useful when you just want to shave a few pixels off the top, or have inherited a half-baked site with none of the original files. In this case, you’ll love another Fireworks MX 2004 feature – the ability to create a Fireworks document from an HTML table, effectively reverse-engineering a Web page into an editable graphic. Bonza!
The user interface has changed little, apart from the start page when the application first opens, and a new History palette. This keeps track of document changes, and can jump back to a previous place, but given that all editing in Fireworks is non-destructive and thus editable, it isn’t as useful as the corresponding feature is in, say, Adobe Photoshop.
So far, so little. But delve a little deeper, perhaps into areas not normally explored for everyday Web work, and there are some neat new features and enhancements – both creativity- and workflow-oriented.
For creating vector-graphic elements, for which Fireworks is ideally suited, there’s a whole new set of shapes, beyond the standard ellipse and rectangle types. These AutoShapes include forms such as doughnuts, rounded-edge rectangles, and polygons. All these AutoShapes have control points to edit their properties, such as setting the inner radius of the doughnut shape, or the amount of rounding on the rectangle. You can break polygon and star shapes into sectors, and apply stroke and fill options to each segment.
There are new Stroke and Fill options, including a dashed-line Stroke option, and Contour fill pattern. A nice new touch is the graphical preview of the Strokes and Fills, making it easier to pick the right effect.
Fireworks has been criticized for creating fuzzy text, especially at small font sizes, and it’s good to see this addressed with MX 2004. Now it’s possible to specify to use the system Quartz text aliasing, or specify custom options.
This version of Fireworks also features some new bitmap and photo-editing tools. A red-eye removal tool and Replace Colour options allow the quick touch-up of digital photos. There are also two new LiveEffects – Motion Blur and AddNoise. LiveEffects are non-destructive filters, which means they can be removed or their properties changed at any time. While this is a great feature, and something that Photoshop lacks, I still wouldn’t dream of using Fireworks for bitmap imaging, or design for print. It lacks the creative toolset and colour-management features of Photoshop or Corel Painter.
One of the program’s main strengths is its integration with the rest of the MX Studio range. Dreamweaver integration has been further enhanced with this release. Once a site has been defined in Dreamweaver, you can automatically launch Fireworks to edit files, and use file-management options to ensure Source Code Control. This means you can Check in and Check out files to make sure that someone else can’t overwrite them while they’re being worked on. Fireworks can also work with FTP server settings from Dreamweaver to retrieve assets remotely and automatically upload them once edited. While this is a nice touch, I doubt that many Web designers will want to edit the files that are published online. Instead, they’ll use a fully editable source PNG document from which Web-optimized JPEGs and GIFs can be exported.
Fireworks MX is such a great application for the production of Web graphics that this 2004 release doesn’t really add much new. But conversely, it’ll never compete with Photoshop for bitmap-graphic creation, so attempting to extend Fireworks into this arena adds little value. While there are some nice touches in this release, and the improved performance is welcome, it hardly counts as a must-have upgrade.