FreeHand 10 full review

This time last year, Macromedia wanted you to forget its print-design past, and instead think of it as wholly Web-focused. Today, a similar claim would be commercial suicide. Shrewdly, however, Macromedia never burnt its bridges and continues to publish an annual upgrade to its FreeHand vector-illustration package. The latest release improves on Web-export features, but also targets the jobbing designer in print and multimedia. Crucially, it’s the first big-name application to be released commercially for Mac OS X. FreeHand is intended for professional designers, or anyone who wants to produce high-quality, resizable vector art for print and online presentation. It’s not an all-round drawing package for the home or office – there are no flowchart or calendar functions, for example – nor is it priced as such. FreeHand lets you draw by hand, build shapes from other shapes, apply strokes (outlines) and fills (inside areas) to objects, work with textures and gradient colours, and a good deal more. You can print the results to colour separations, render them to bitmaps at any size, or use them as Web graphics. You can export the graphics for use on desktop-publishing pages, or combine photo images within your FreeHand designs themselves, making FreeHand a popular alternative to desktop-publishing (DTP) software in the multipage or poster-advertising field. As such, FreeHand’s closest competitor is Adobe’s Illustrator, but it also shares many of its vector-design features with those in CorelDraw and Deneba Canvas. Macromedia says that this latest upgrade is the fruit of user wishlists, so current FreeHand users should be smacking their lips already. Interface-lift
The most noticeable improvement is the interface. The ever-expanding main Tools panel has been re-arranged helpfully. Items, such as the Pen tool and new Color Selection swatches at the bottom of the Tools panel, work in exactly the same way as their equivalents in Macromedia Flash, Dreamweaver and Fireworks. Despite legal quibbles with Adobe, you can continue to drag floating panel tabs apart and snap them back together, but now also save your preferred panel layouts, and even share them with other users. Generally, under Mac OS 8 or 9, you should find the palettes and toolbars neater and clearer. Under Mac OS X, they are just gorgeous, having finally broken away from the trademark dingy grey of Macromedia interfaces to date. If you tried FreeHand once and didn’t like it, I urge you to try again under Mac OS X – I think you’ll find it a very different experience. Sure, there are a number of cock-ups that affect the interface appearance, such as the way the colour square in a gradient bar within the Fill panel jumps to the left of your mouse pointer as you drag it, but I didn’t discover any functional problems to stop me working. If you’re looking for an excuse to move to Mac OS X, FreeHand 10 could well be it. Otherwise, as with FreeHand 9 before it, FreeHand 10 is an upgrade that brings a mere handful of big feature additions, but countless tiny enhancements. One of the major items is the Master Pages feature in the Document panel. FreeHand has been a multipage-design package for years – a function that Adobe has inexplicably resisted to this very day in Illustrator – and now the ability to set repeating Master objects across pages DTP-style is a significant finishing touch. You can create up to an unfeasible 32,000 different Master Pages in a single document, and apply updated edits across “child” pages instantly. Turning a layout into a Master Page, – effectively working backwards – is a snap too. The process is a little confusing at first, but once you understand when you’re in Master Page edit mode and when you’re in plain page edit mode, it can be an excellent time-saver. It also means you can use FreeHand directly for simple multipage jobs, such as brochures, menus and other design-led booklets. One of FreeHand’s best features in recent versions has been the way it can deal with your designs as identifiable objects and styles. You can, for example, search and replace graphics in FreeHand as you would with text in a word processor. The last upgrade to the program added a Symbols panel, which let you store, re-use and globally update multiple copies of a graphic. In FreeHand 10, this has been renamed the Library panel to reflect its wider use beyond just graphic objects. The Library is now the place where you manage symbols, styles, brushes, Master Pages and so on. It’s especially handy since it retains the thumbnail preview pane above the list of names, so you can always pick out the right Master Page by sight, even if you forget which name you gave it. For graphics use alone, the Library panel is still a great time-saver. If a particular graphic is supposed to appear several times throughout a multipage layout, you can simply drag-&-drop it from the Library panel onto your pages. They all maintain a link back to the original stored symbol, even after moderate editing – so if you subsequently change the symbol, all linked instances are automatically updated to suit. In this sense, it’s like Find & Replace without the need for any searching. Another important upgrade feature is the enhanced support for Flash actions within a FreeHand document. Don’t get over-excited, though: it doesn’t mean you can create self-contained movies in new ways other than the page/frame animations already introduced with FreeHand 9. Rather, the program now lets you apply a wider variety of basic Flash triggers (Go To, Play, Stop, Print, and so on) in addition to standard hyperlinks from within a new Navigation panel. Having associated some of these triggers with graphic objects, you can now preview their effect without exporting everything to Flash and HTML. Instead, you just select Test Movie from the Control menu and preview it in FreeHand 10’s integrated Flash Player. This way you can fine-tune your animated and interactive processes first, and then export to Flash format at the end when you’re happy. Now there’s no excuse for not producing your next electronic portfolio or presentation in Flash format, and without having to learn any Flash technique at all; you don’t even have to own a copy of Flash itself. One area in which FreeHand has always been forced to play catch-up with Adobe Illustrator is in custom gradient fills. To fight back a little, FreeHand 10 introduces a new type of gradient it calls Contour. This is prepared on a slider in standard gradient fashion, but the shape of the gradient is determined by the outer shape of the object you apply it to. It’s a bit like Ordnance Survey maps of hilly regions, where the coloured bands follow the shape of the mountain, changing from the edge to the centre point. FreeHand 10’s final big new feature is known as Brush Strokes. These let you extend a graphic along a drawn path, such as a railway track, a picket fence or a neon tube. Using a graphic that looks a bit like a splodge of oil paint, you can use Brush Strokes to create almost (but not quite) real-media effects. Because the stroke is edited as a single path rather than as the graphic that has been loaded on it as “paint”, you can move, reshape and otherwise adjust the results simply. This feature can be extremely handy for filling a busy canvas with multiple objects that need to appear similar, but not identical. For example, you could draw an entire shoal of non-identical goldfish in under a minute by dashing away with a Brush Stroke containing just the one original fish. It’s even quite easy to copy an existing graphic or symbol to a Brush Stroke via the Library panel. But unfortunately, applying it can be a confusing affair. You’d expect to load the Brush Stroke from the Library panel to the Stroke panel and get going, but every time you draw a path, the stroke switches back to its default. This is absolutely infuriating until you get the hang of the system; the sequence of selecting, loading and fixing each brush really ought to be simpler. FreeHand 10’s Brush and Spray Strokes are not as slick or powerful as the equivalent feature in Adobe Illustrator. Nor does Macromedia offer as many preset brushes; nor are they as interesting and diverse as Adobe’s. Perhaps the feature deserved a decent paintbrush tool as found in Illustrator, rather than relying upon FreeHand’s more limited range of pens. Overall, it’s a welcome and attractive new feature, but not a compelling one. Beyond these big items, FreeHand 10 offers mostly a bunch of tweaks and shortcuts – albeit quite a lot of them. A few will certainly be useful to everyone. Some enhancements will be useful to people who use those particular features a lot, but may not even be noticed by anyone else. For example, clicking with the Pen tool on a path you’ve already drawn will add additional nodes to it, and you can click the Pen on the end of a deselected path to continue it without having to select it first.
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