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Fireworks hasn’t had the kind of radical reworking that we’ve seen with Flash MX and Flash MX Professional, but this upgrade is certainly no damp squib. Fireworks MX 2004 has been given plenty of new features that will appeal to anyone that uses it to create Web graphics. There are new creative graphics tools that just cry out to be played with. The interface has been smartened up a bit, and there are a number of performance and workflow improvements. But we’ll start with one fairly basic feature that has been a source of irritation in previous versions. Fireworks uses PNG as its native file format. In the past, if you imported another type of file such as a JPEG or GIF, the program’s Save command would automatically convert it to PNG. To retain the original file type you had to muck about with the less convenient Export command. This has now been changed, so that the Save command will retain the original file format, and the Save As will convert to PNG. It’s a small change, but it’ll have quite a few designers sighing in relief. Some other basic tasks have been simplified as well. The Transform/Scale tool makes it easier to rotate and resize objects, and when you use it to resize text the new point size is immediately reflected in the Property Inspector, giving you precise control even though you’re resizing the text by hand. The Property Inspector also provides a graphical preview of brushes, textures and fills, making it easier to choose the particular option you need. And, when you’re viewing the document properties, the Inspector displays a handy new Fit To Canvas button that will shrink or enlarge the canvas so that it fits the objects you’re working with. The main area of improvement, though, is in Fireworks’ creative features, with many new tools for drawing, image editing, and special effects. The standard drawing tools have been enhanced with a new option called Autoshapes. When you draw a geometric shape, such as a star or a circle, there are new diamond-shaped handles on the object in addition to the standard handles used for resizing. These new handles allow you to quickly modify properties such as the number of points in the star, or to divide the circle into sections to create a pie chart. This means you can make major changes to a drawing without ever going near a dialog box. And, as well as working with these standard geometric shapes, Fireworks has a selection of Autoshape clip-art, including a picture frame that will automatically wrap around an object, perspective grids, and speech bubbles. The clip-art collection is pretty measly, but there will probably be additional items available for download soon enough. Other new drawing options include a wide range of dashed strokes for maps and charts, and new gradient fill options that create complex effects such as rippled satin, or waves of colour moving across an object. Fireworks’ range of live effects has been improved. Live effects are like plug-in filters, but they allow you to go back and edit the original object – something that isn’t possible with ordinary filter effects. The live effect will then update itself so that it’s automatically applied to the edited object once more. The new live effects in this version of Fireworks are mainly blurs – motion blur, linear and radial blurs – plus a static noise effect. There’s a rather fiddly red-eye removal brush for photo-editing work, and a colour replacement tool that allows you to paint over a specific colour with a new one. One aspect of Fireworks that has been criticised in the past is its text output, so Macromedia has added a number of new anti-aliasing options to improve text quality. There are predefined anti-aliasing settings, such as Smooth and Strong, or you can tell Fireworks to use the standard anti-aliasing method supported by Windows or the Mac OS. There’s a custom option for adjusting a number of anti-aliasing settings yourself. All those creative tools should keep designers happily experimenting, but eventually you’ll have to get down to some real work. Fireworks includes a number of useful workflow improvements. There’s been some under-the-bonnet tinkering that makes the program feel generally faster, especially when applying and updating Live Effects. You have new collaboration features that allow you to check in or check out files from sites created in Dreamweaver or Flash. There’s a new FTP option as well. Macromedia has done some work on the program’s interface. It has a Start page similar to that of Flash, and the various floating palettes can be docked and minimized. The Help system’s a mess, though. Flash’s help system is contained within one of its palettes, so you can have it on screen while you work. In contrast, half of the Fireworks Help system is on Macromedia’s Web site, while the rest is contained within the standard Mac or Windows Help viewers. This means you’re constantly switching between Fireworks, your Web browser and the Help viewer when you want to find anything. Admittedly, there’s little in this version of Fireworks that’s truly innovative. Flash has new features that can genuinely alter the way you work with the program. The new features in Fireworks MX 2004 are more modest, building on what’s gone before. However, the cumulative effect is of an upgrade that will help you to get your work done faster than ever before.