• Price: £165 plus VAT (boxed) . £147 plus VAT (download) . £58 plus VAT (upgrade from)

  • Company: Softpress

  • Pros: Freeway Pro 4 is easy to learn, with a friendly look-&-feel, built-in text, and graphic effects. QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign users will feel right at home.

  • Cons: Still lacks a proper code editor, and the interface canm be confusing. Crack and Wobble effects are unexciting.

  • Our Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

Given that the last full version of Freeway was released six years ago, you can’t accuse Softpress of issuing upgrades on a whim. Freeway 4 is certainly a significant upgrade. As with previous versions, the software is available in Pro and Express editions to suit professional designers and home users respectively. Here we review the Pro edition.

Freeway has always been positioned as an ideal Web design and site management package for designers whose expertise normally lies in page layout and illustration. There is a freeform approach to page layout and typography, for example. The concept of master pages and even most of the keyboard shortcuts will feel familiar to QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign users.

At the same time, the friendly interface hides a deceptively powerful motor under the bonnet: support for XHTML and CSS, the facility to embed custom code and JavaScripts, and an Action plug-in architecture ensure that Freeway is not just a toy.

The most noticeable upgrade feature is the program’s new interface. While not moving radically away from
the previous on-screen arrangement, Freeway 4 looks cleaner and simpler, and button clicks respond more quickly. The main tools are now big icons neatly arranged above the layout pane, and the general appearance of the editing mode is no longer so different from that of the page previews. The program uses Safari’s rendering engine to produce its internal previews.

Some aspects of the interface remain baffling, however, such as the misleadingly context-sensitive Inspector palette.

Empty menu

It’s also disappointing to find that, while the program at last has Ctrl-click contextual menus, these new menus are sparse, and in most cases just open dialogue windows. Attribute options and submenus relating to the selected object really should have been included here.

Freeway 4’s expanded support for CSS is important. Freeway 3.5 supported CSS in terms of type styling and absolute page positioning, but now Freeway 4 also lets you use CSS features for relative positioning and scaling according to the browser window. Softpress has made all this very simple. CSS layout is enabled for a page by clicking a large CSS Layout button in the tool bar, and selected objects can be added as CSS layers, or sent back to HTML with a tick option in the Inspector palette.

Also important is the introduction of Unicode support, allowing Freeway 4 to work effectively with foreign language scripts such as Chinese, Russian, Korean, and Greek.

Designers will appreciate the picture effects included with the package, allowing you to apply a variety of filters, such as Duotone and Sharpen, to placed images. You can place Illustrator and layered Photoshop files. The transparency effects – including soft drop-shadows, blurs, and glows – are quite good, especially since you can apply them to editable graphic boxes and text.

Freeway 4 also introduces two new effects, Crack and Wobble, although you would have to try hard to find an excuse to use them more than once in a lifetime.

Code cracks

The biggest surprise in Freeway 4 is that it still doesn’t provide an editing mode for page code – all you can do is insert and re-edit snippets of custom code here and there, and these coding windows are still not colour-tagged. This, above all, keeps Freeway from being adopted further in the professional arena, where custom coding, even if rarely carried out by designers, needs to be rigorously checked and edited without restriction.

On the other hand, Freeway remains the friendliest and least challenging Web package for designers wanting to produce high-quality work. The fact that it’s only available on the Mac must leave Windows users fuming.