• Price When Reviewed: £289; upgrade from v10, £70; upgrade from v9, £109. Prices exclude VAT

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For a number of years, Macromedia has been content with nudging up the feature list a little from one version of FreeHand to the next. Until now, that is. Under the MX banner, FreeHand is back with a vengeance in a release that goes beyond ‘sexy’: this one veritably grabs you and drags you under the sheets. Traditionally, FreeHand is seen as a direct competitor to Adobe’s Illustrator, offering vector-drawing and page-layout functions along with support for placed bitmap images and the creation of various types of Web graphics. But FreeHand MX looks, feels, and acts so very differently from this conventional view of illustration software that the old comparisons no longer seem relevant. There’s nothing top-heavy about the FreeHand MX feature set: straightforward tasks are simple to do, and complex tasks are quickly finished thanks to a fresh new interface that cuts right through today’s fashion for palette-mad art packages. This interface has been lifted from the other MX Studio packages released last year: Flash MX, Dreamweaver MX, Fireworks MX, and, to a certain extent, Director MX. Gone are the drab, screen-hogging floating dialogs with their confusingly unpredictable sticky tabs. In comes a bright, clean, and condensed arrangement of compact docking panels, bold buttons, and a glorious lack of clutter. We can’t say that the interface is completely intuitive, but its compactness makes it easy to navigate and quick to learn because you never have to look far to find what you need. Of all the new functionality built into the upgrade, our favourite feature by far is the potential for ‘multiple attributes’. This is the ability to set more than one stroke and fill for an object in your artwork. For example, a shape’s outline could have a thin black stroke, a thick red stroke, and a patterned, picture-frame-like stroke, all overlapping each other. Similarly, you can give the shape a flat colour fill, plus a gradient fill, plus a texture fill, then mix them as transparent overlays. As if that wasn’t enough, you can then apply a number of vector and raster effects to all these strokes and fills, such as wobbles, lens effects, glows, and blurs. And all this, remember, applies to just the one vector shape. To manage your multiple attributes, FreeHand MX introduces an Object panel that replaces the old Inspector panel. For all its benefits, we always hated the Inspector panel – it never showed the right information unless you clicked on the right tabs – but as context-sensitive functionality goes, the Object panel is just about perfect. Adding multiple strokes, fills, and effects is foolishly easy in the Object panel – but then so is everything else, from text attributes and envelope points to blend steps and gradient makeup. The Object panel works neatly with the Swatches and Styles panels under the Assets title bar, letting you send attributes back and forth between them. It’s certainly very handy being able to create a unique effect from multiple attributes using the Object panel and then immediately save it as a named Style for re-use in other artwork. New art tools Beyond these important interface enhancements, FreeHand MX treats you to a number of brand new art tools. And these are real tools, not just madcap Xtras that you use once out of interest and then never again, as with previous upgrades. First up is a straightforward Extrude tool for turning flat shapes into solids that can be rotated and given perspective in 3D space. Although it would have been good to see some perspective presets along the lines of CorelDraw (such as ‘parallel back’ for isometric drawings and ‘small back’ for wide-angle epic objects), FreeHand MX’s Extrude tool works fast, and is backed with powerful functionality for bevelling edges, applying lathe profiles, and generally performing surprisingly well in terms of screen redraw. Next is a similarly quick Connector Lines tool that you’d normally use for linking boxes in an org chart, flow chart, floorplan, or similar diagrammatic artwork. Once connected, the lines stick to their associated objects when the objects are moved around. Better than that, the lines reroute themselves automatically to avoid overlaps and ugly diagonals, and you can apply any of FreeHand’s many stroke styles to them – not just solid lines and dashes. A couple of new tools bring FreeHand MX up to date with other illustration packages. There’s an Eraser tool that rubs out parts of paths and bores into closed shapes in a highly intuitive fashion. It’s also good to see a simple Blend tool for creating object blends by dragging from one object to another directly on your artwork rather than having to work exclusively through dialogs and panels. New to the program, however, is an Action tool that lets you set up simple click-through navigation triggers between pages in your FreeHand document. For example, you could use FreeHand MX to lay out a Web microsite, then establish all the page hotlinks from the home page with just a few seconds of clicking-&-dragging with the Action tool. The details of the ‘actions’ can be customized further through the Navigation panel. A number of existing tools and features have been improved too, as you’d expect. The Pen tool now defaults to a behaviour that Macromedia calls ‘rubber banding,’ in which the pen path sticks to your mouse cursor between clicks. After an initial feeling that it’s like trying to draw with chewing gum, we grew to like this feature a lot because of the way it effectively previews how the path is flowing before you click to create the next node. In other words, you get to spot skewed corner nodes sooner, so you waste less time making corrections. Brush update A Calligraphic stroke style makes its debut in FreeHand MX. Creating new nibs is a simple matter of drawing a shape and pasting it into the Object panel, although a more hands-on method would have been more powerful. On that note, Macromedia has utterly transformed FreeHand’s Brush strokes by introducing a ‘rounded corners’ option that, thankfully, is now the default. The Brush effects have never been very convincing because of their angular and unnatural appearance, but in FreeHand MX, they look just right, whether applied to closed shapes or paths. Macromedia’s next task ought to be to invent a method of applying colour to Brush strokes in a way that makes sense. We have made this kind of complaint in the past about FreeHand’s approach to gradient fills, so it’s good to see that someone at Macromedia was listening. Gradients in FreeHand MX are reasonably unchallenging to create in the Object panel, while editing their appearance and direction is a complete no-brainer – at last. You can now switch a gradient from automatic or value-based placement to a ‘normal’ setting that lets you adjust the end-points, spread, and direction of fills by dragging on handles in the artwork itself. You don’t get advanced functionality such as being able to drag mid-points as in CorelDraw or Deneba Canvas, but it still offers more visual feedback than Illustrator’s Gradient tool. Another key improvement is the use of Live Effects: certain special effects can be applied to objects as attributes rather than redefining the object shapes themselves. For example, you can turn a stroke into a scribble, but the basic path or object you’ve applied it to stays the same. As mentioned earlier, you can apply vector and raster effects to the same object and still be able to edit the original shape in the normal way, with the effects updating in response. Again, we were most impressed with the screen redraw performance in FreeHand MX when you do this – certainly compared to Deneba Canvas once you apply a few SpriteEffects to an object. Inevitably, Macromedia makes a big plug of FreeHand MX’s integration with Flash MX, but this time it isn’t all bluff about similar-looking toolboxes. FreeHand MX documents can be opened directly in Flash MX, while SWF files can be placed in FreeHand MX artwork in a number of interesting ways. If the SWF was created from a FLA document, you can actually edit its content from the Object panel in FreeHand MX. You can continue to creating frame-based Flash movies from within FreeHand MX, of course, but the upgrade presents a simpler export settings dialog window, works better with re-used symbols, and creates smaller files at the end. Unfortunately, not all support for external files is as slick as this. Creating EPS files, PDFs, rastered JPEGs, and so on can take a surprisingly long time, especially on the Windows version, depending upon the complexity of the artwork. The process is also easily interrupted if you try to leave FreeHand MX churning away in the background or allow your screensave to kick in, so it’s best to give the program as much memory as you can. We were also disappointed to see that the upgrade still fails to export to SVG format. While Macromedia has a decent argument that Flash surpasses SVG, the latter is as much an open Web standard as HTML, JPEG, and PNG, so its absence is a limitation to FreeHand MX’s Web functionality. Nips and tucks On a brighter note, Macromedia has clearly been reading all those user wishlists, because there are a lot of little additions to the program which actually make a big improvement to its usability. For example, there is now a New Page button in the status bar, so that adding a new page is a one-click task no matter what tool or panel you have open. The famously hideous and jaggy working view has been replaced with a beautiful anti-aliased view. Even the Keyline and Fast Mode views are anti-aliased now. Not least, FreeHand MX provides a panel called Answers, which links to tutorials and relevant online articles, and is updated directly from the Web. Again, it’s a little feature, but it works really well and is about a million times better than comparative features in CorelDraw and Adobe Illustrator. In short, existing Macromedia FreeHand users should upgrade at the earliest opportunity – and every Flash MX animator ought to go out buy themselves a copy. We’re not sure if there’s enough in FreeHand MX to ensure that long-term users of other illustration programs will make the switch, but we think they’ll be sorely tempted. If you ever thought about making the change to FreeHand, this is the one upgrade that could win you over.