Macromedia FreeHand 9 review

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  • Price When Reviewed: £279; upgrade £99 plus VAT

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It’s been two years since Macromedia released FreeHand 8 with some excellent new creative tools, but the announcement of FreeHand 9 still came as a bit of a surprise. FreeHand has been around forever. What can there be left to add? Well, there are the inevitable Web tools, but while Macromedia is headlining its increased support for Flash Web animations, fortunately there are enough new creative and production features to interest the design-for-print crowd too. You can buy FreeHand separately or as part of the Flash FreeHand Studio, which bundles it with a copy of its full-function Flash 4 authoring program. If you’re new to FreeHand, the story so far is that it’s a popular and well-specified drawing program originally launched by Aldus in 1988, since when it has constantly slugged it out with Adobe Illustrator for the title of number one professional illustration package, pitched above the CorelDraw level. FreeHand has better multi-page support than Illustrator, and 1988’s FreeHand 8 added some very tasty ‘lens’ menus for applying special localized effects such as proper transparency, magnification and lighten/darken. FreeHand 9’s new features are grouped into three categories: illustration (meaning drawing tools); production (concerning colour management, multiple page control, file import/export); and Flash (Macromedia’s vector-based Web graphics technology). Two new illustration tools really stand out. The perspective grid is just marvellous. It lets you set up a grid of parallel lines receding to a vanishing point, and then to pin any object or group to the grid, so it takes on the same perspective. As you move the object around the grid it faithfully keeps the perspective, which opens up the potential for seemingly complex animations produced very easily. You define the perspective grid with a ground/horizon plane and one, two or three vanishing points. You can click-&-drag the vanishing points and horizon around the window. This tool is immeasurably useful for setting up realistic depictions of 3D scenes in 2D and save a lot of fiddling around with manual distortions and alignments. If you’re doing complex illustrations this is worth the price of the upgrade alone. Live Enveloping means that you can group sets of objects and distort them collectively using bézier points and curves. Enveloping has been available for years through third-party plug-ins with separate filter windows, but this operates within the main drawing window and is fully integrated into the menu system. Here a bounding box (the envelope) is displayed around the group, with points and handles you can manipulate to warp the contents. Pre-set distortions for all sorts of shapes are available, or you can set up your own shapes. Objects and text within envelopes remain editable, and the distortions are reversible by removing the envelope. Also improved are the transparency tools, now editable after you’ve set up the show-through effect; and custom scaling and units for practically any scale from millimetres to nautical miles. Other illustration newcomers include an improved, more precise freehand drawing tool, magic wand one-click tracing of single or multiple vector objects plus placed bitmap image contents, and Illustrator-like multi-function transformation boxes. Probably the most important of the new production tools is the improved multiple-page management. FreeHand makes a pretty effective desktop-publishing program in its own right, crucially supporting multiple columns, text flows from page to page and step-&-repeat. The new Page Tool lets you arrange pages on the pasteboard, add, duplicate or remove single or grouped pages, and name each one. There are numeric controls over page size and positions. A handy little menu option lets you ignore any broken links to placed images, so you can open multi-page documents without spending ages locating missing graphics that you don’t need. There’s also a helper button to find missing files if you need them. A new symbols library lets you store frequently used items. Even better, it’s updateable: you can change all instances of a symbol in a document by replacing the item in the library. Each symbol item is only stored once no matter how many times it’s used in the document, which keeps file sizes down. This carries over into multi-frame Flash movies, keeping them as small as possible. There’s a decent set of colour management tools, with full control over input, output and display profiles. Cross-application support is improved with the ability to export FreeHand 9 layers as Photoshop 5.0 layers (which also work with Adobe ImageReady and Macromedia Fireworks). GIF export is improved with four dithering options, automatic removal of unwanted colours and optional conversion of colours to the nearest Web-safe equivalent. The quality of exported bitmaps has been improved too. There’s a new option to automatically open up exported files as soon as they are saved by a native reader, such as Photoshop, Acrobat or Flash 4. Placed graphics can also be launched into a designated editor and re-saved back into the document. Flash animations can be set up and exported as native SWF format files. Animations are based on layers or multiple pages, with tools to define and control the way these are handled as frames. FreeHand 9 includes a Flash antialiased previewer. You can protect your copyright by turning off SWF file import. PDF files can be imported for editing, or FreeHand can export documents as PDF 1.2 or 1.3 format with PostScript 3 smooth gradient support. Sadly any true transparency is lost in the process, so you have to use the more limited ‘faked’ transparency. The most important PDF creation options are supported, such as compression and font embedding, but you’ll need the full Acrobat Distiller if you want the full option set such as profile embedding and fine tuning font handling. URLs in imported PDFs are recognized and preserved, and there’s a new URL editor for exporting with PDFs. Another export option is HTML, which can publish layouts in table or floating element form for use with Macromedia’s Dreamweaver Web-editing tool. It made a complete pig’s ear of my test pages; seems I’m fated to be unlucky with HTML converters. Yes, it’s worth paying for the upgrade. If you are starting from scratch, FreeHand 9 can handle practically all your design for print or Web requirements apart from photographic/paint pixel editing. The layout for print tools are adequate if you don’t want a full DTP program, but it seems to fall over on Web-page design – doubtless Macromedia would like you to buy its Dreamweaver program for this. However, it’s great for designing individual graphic elements for the Web, or creating Flash vector graphics and animations.

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