FreeHand MX is a solid upgrade, but one that ultimately fails to inspire. Macromedia has added a number of new features, but not really taken them far enough. The move to non-destructive editing, where strokes, fills and effects are applied to a live object, is welcome, but the other new features are too piecemeal to make this a must-have upgrade. But FreeHand remains arguably the best drawing tool available on the Mac.
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While it’s been part of the Macromedia Studio MX bundle FreeHand was always a bit of an impostor – like Maggie Thatcher at the back-end of her reign grimly hanging on at number 10. Only now with this latest version has FreeHand properly joined the MX family. These days graphics software needs to be versatile and enable the production of artwork both for print and for screen use. FreeHand is equally at home creating graphics for use in Flash movies as is it is producing Web graphics. This version plays well with therest of the MX family – notably Flash and Fireworks – and features the same user-interface approach as the rest of therange. There are also a number of other new features that make this an update worthwhile for regular FreeHand users. However, there’s little here to tempt Illustrator users to crossgrade. As part of the new-look MX user interface, most of the floating palettes have been docked together into one collapsible uber-panel, though palettes can be detached. The biggest change to FreeHand is the Object Property inspector, in which you can change the parameters of objects. This is context-sensitive, so a polygon shape has parameters defining the number of edges, angles and position, for example. Most objects have Fill, Strokes and Effects options, and now in MX you can apply multiple attributes to the same object – for instance adding one thick stroke and one thin stroke in a different colour. This saves having to duplicate objects multiple times. In rectangular boxes you can now seta different corner radius for each corner. There are a number of raster-based special effects to add drop shadows, bevels and embossing to objects, and you can apply multiple effects to an object in anon-destructive way. Once you have applied a setting or effect, it no longer alters the original shape object irrevocably, and can be undone simply by altering the parameter, selecting it in the Object Inspector and clicking the remove-item wastebasket icon. This non-destructive approach is something more akin to Fireworks, and is a forward step for FreeHand. A new stroke option is Calligraphic, which allows the brush shape to be defined – giving a distinctive look to a graphic. Another updated feature is the gradient tool, which now allows you to change the direction and shape of the gradient by dragging its control handles. This makes it much easier to create funky blending effects, and you can copy-&-paste them straight into Flash too. Macromedia has sought to extend the functionality of FreeHand with this release, by enabling it to be used as a presentation-building tool by harnessing the power of Flash and the SWF format to add interactivity. You can import Flash SWF movies,and preview them within FreeHand using the embedded Flash Player. You can even launch and edit the Flash movie, allowing you to update the source Flash movie, which then automatically updates the embedded SWF file. Using the Actions tool, you create links from elements on a page to other pages, and add Actionscript commands in order to build up the structure of the presentation, or as a rapid prototype of a Web site. The completed presentation can be outputted as an SWF Flash file, and there is an improved range of movie settings for outputted SWF that can be defined from within FreeHand. While FreeHand can create Flash content without using Flash MX at all,the integration continues to improve. You can open FreeHand files from within Flash, and apart from some Stroke effects, (and assuming you work with RGB colours in FreeHand), the file will be opened and look virtually identically within Flash. However, this integration could go further. I’d like to see the ability to export FreeHand files as Flash source files, and preserve FreeHand symbols as Flash symbols. The integration with FreeHand and Fireworks is also improving. FreeHandfiles can be opened with Fireworks anda number of options – such as converting FreeHand layers to Fireworks frames (useful if you want to use FreeHand to create animated Gifs) – are available. Fireworks files can be embedded in FreeHand to place bitmap artwork within a FreeHand composition. The launch and edit feature works here, too, allowing youto edit the source Fireworks PNG file by double-clicking the embedded bitmap. A new tool is Extrude. This helps to quickly create a 3D effect from an object, define the angle and depth of the extrusion, and apply shading. You can then apply rotation to the object along its Z-axis to maintain the perspective feel or rotate the object into the plane of the page. It’s easier to do than explain, that’s for sure. In the object inspector parameters can be altered numerically, or the mouse used on the object itself to change them dynamically. It’s a bit like the Illustrator plug-in HotDoor Perspective. However, I still love FreeHand’s Perspective-grid feature that was first introduced in version 10. This allows youto create either one-, two- or three-point perspectives, set the vanishing points,then conform shapes to the grid using the Perspective tool and cursor keys, where they are deformed to match the perspective. Extrude and the Perspective Grid can be combined to quickly create extruded objects that use the a vanishing point – but this will work only with one-point perspective.It would be nice if the angle of the horizon line of the perspective grid could be setfor more-dynamic imaging. Another new feature is the Connector tool, which creates organizational diagrams, flow charts, etc, by setting linking arrows between objects. These items stay connected even if the source and target objects are moved or altered.While this is a nice touch, it doesn’t offer enough flexibility to compete with more-sophisticated diagramming tools such as OmniGraffle. It’s a bolted-on pieceof functionality that adds little. One aspect of FreeHand that could have done with some improvement is the Document inspector. Here inside a tiny square viewport of the whole Pasteboard you can see page thumbnails as either small, medium or large icons, and move pages around by dragging the icons. But there’s no way to expand the tiny viewport, or scroll around the whole Pasteboard(as Illustrator’s Navigator window allows, for instance). Also, there’s no way to align pages to each other, or otherwise automatically tidy up their positioningon the pasteboard. Using Master pages allows you to create templates and ensure consistency across a number of pages,but it would be nice if you could automatically replace all pages that use one Master page with another. The only new touch with regard to editing a document is the ability to add a page using the Add Page button at the foot of the main Document window. FreeHand’s colour managementis generally excellent, offering the ability to use both the Kodak Digital Science (KDS) colour-management system and Apple’s ColorSync. There’s also support for all the latest Pantone Colour references. FreeHand files can be exported in all major bitmap-file formats as well as vector-file formats, including Adobe Illustratorand EPS. You can also add info, such as author and copyright details, and keywords,which is preserved in the file in a standard International Press Telecommunications Council data format. FreeHand supports all the features for producing proofs and colour separations that a repro house might require. In my experience staff at most repro houses would rather eat their children before outputting from FreeHand, and as a consequence are loath to accept FreeHand files. This makes output to EPS the only way forward. Macromedia could do moreto educate and encourage bureaus to work and embrace FreeHand – their half-hearted MAGIC (Macromedia Authorized Graphic Imaging Center) program has no members in the UK, or anywhere in the EU. For new users, whether to use FreeHand or Illustrator still lies in the balance, and the thing that tips the scales is unlikely to be the new features of MX, but the other programs used. If you use Flash and Fireworks extensively then FreeHand completes the trinity, whereasif you work more often with Adobe products such as Photoshop, InDesign or AfterEffects, then Illustrator is a better bet.