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Macromedia Fireworks 4

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In: Reviews > Product Reviews

By Jesse Nieminen

Published on July 10, 2001

Macromedia Fireworks 4 This latest installment of Fireworks is raised to the current standard of Macromedia's other products and offers some impressive and easy-to-use enhancements. Although there is not a multitude of new features, there are substantial reasons to consider it. Macromedia hopes that tight integration with Dreamweaver and enhanced support for handling the PSD (Photoshop) format will convince designers to spend their money on Fireworks, instead of relying on Imageready, its main competitor. As an answer to Adobe, they've taken the intelligent step of bundling Fireworks 4 into the "Dreamweaver Studio."

The Interface

Macromedia has given the Fireworks interface a major update, bringing it in line with the current "panels" standard used in other current Macromedia applications. The look is more refined and organized, though I still say that the panels should be collapsed with the separate tabs still showing as is the case with Adobe titles. The tools are grouped according to common usage, and there is now a "launcher bar" at the bottom of the document window that allows users to access various panels without having to use the menus.

launcher bar

Changes and additions to the icons have also been made, meaning that experienced users will need to spend time acquainting themselves with these new elements. On the other hand, keyboard shortcuts can now be customized.

One of the most welcome interface improvements is the new Layers panel, which keeps each layer's objects organized in separate "sublayers." Create a new object on a layer, and an object sublayer is automatically created under the active layer. Blending modes, masking and opacity controls have also been changed so that their behaviors would be recognizable to any Photoshop user. In fact, there is now little difference between the way that Fireworks and Photoshop handle layers, which has obvious consequences for the application's learning curve.

Among other advances made to Fireworks 4 for speeding up workflow, the new Batch Process feature is a standout. It provides powerful controls for compression, scaling, searching-and-replacing, renaming, and commands, and can greatly reduce production time for experienced users. The custom compression dialog is especially nice.

In addition to selecting which functions are performed, you may also choose the order in which they are performed (though I'm unsure why that's such a great thing). One possible oversight that I regret is the failure to provide Web Photo Gallery functionality in the Batch Process interface; instead, it remains in the Command menu alone.

New and Improved Features

In response to confusion over Fireworks' rollover functionality, version 4 now provides drag-and-drop support for this feature. Instead of being forced to the Behaviors panel, the designer can drag the target icon of a button to the slice where the rollover is desired. Once this is done, a selected button will show a line connecting to the rollover slice, which is a nice feature to have when building complex interfaces. This is an improvement over the previous approach, but I'm not so sure that it's a process that's easy to master.

set pop-up menus

Watch out for renewed proliferation of pop-up menus on the web, as Fireworks 4 enables a designer to create these without having to know JavaScript. Users are given the ability to build pop-up menus with submenus, with image files or HTML. The images are based on styles, so you can either use the ones provided by Macromedia or import your own. Unfortunately, pop-up window designs are limited to common HTML text attributes, unless you can follow the software with some markup and scripting savvy. Further, Fireworks exports the JavaScript to external files, an implementation which poses additonal obstacles to new users. Personally, I would be glad to see an Import option for pop-up windows, but even without such a capability I expect to be a regular user of this feature.

Moving onto animation, Fireworks has taken a cue from Flash. Instead of being forced to work frame-by-frame as in ImageReady, the user can settle for setting attributes in the objects panel. From there, it becomes possible to drag endpoints into the document window for making adjustments to an animation. This is a wonderful way to create an animation, but there are a couple of things that bother me.

It's necessary to convert an object to a symbol before you can animate it - and you have to dig into a menu to convert it, via a dialog appropriate to the type of symbol you create. Ideally, the objects panel would include the controls for making an image into a symbol.

Another major peeve of mine is that Fireworks still operates on a system that specifies frames for the whole document rather than by object. While I appreciate that such an approach is useful for understanding objects and actions in relation to one another, I doubt the majority of users would prefer it, had they a choice. Also, the frames are stacked vertically and can easily be confused with layers. At the same time the automatic-tweening capabilities of Fireworks go a long way toward making up for these drawbacks, and the results produced through automatic tweening are usually far superior to those produced frame-by-frame.

Format and Compatibility Improvements

First available in Photoshop 6, selective JPEG compression is now offered in Fireworks 4. Basically, this allows the user to output JPEGs with differing compression schemes within a single image. This is a great solution for those needing high quality indices and low download times from the same presentation.

selective JPEG

Marquee selection determines which areas of the image will be higher-quality. The optimize panel allows for two different compression settings - one for the selected area and one for the less-important areas that do not need to be high-quality. I found that with a little practice I was able to dramatically reduce file sizes with subtle changes to the image quality. It would be nice if there was a feathering option, especially when there is a great disparity between the compression settings. I also think that all selective JPEG controls should be accessible through the compression panel - it is inconvenient to have to dig in the menus for them.

With its purpose of being a strong competitor to ImageReady, Fireworks is more hospitable to Photoshop image files, with some conditions. Layer masks, blending modes, and layer effects in imported PSD files convert to correpsonding Fireworks attributes if they exist, and will be preserved when opened again in Photoshop. Likewise, exported Fireworks files opened in Photoshop retain editable text, effects, layers and masks.

It is crucial for Fireworks to "play nice" with Photoshop, as many designers use Photoshop as their primary design environment. Although it is getting better, Fireworks currently does not support more than one alpha channel, adjustment layers, clipping groups, or paths. Thus if you use Fireworks for production, you may have to sacrifice some of the editability of your PSD files before moving them to Fireworks.

Export controls are also much more sophisticated, offering precise manipulation of many variable factors. Moving far beyond just how files are named, the export dialog allows you to choose things like markup style (which a godsend if you are intending to export the markup to a specific application), including comments, file creator type and other attributes. This is a great timesaver and helps in the task of keeping output appropriate to a given project.

Fireworks 4 is not a major upgrade, but does offer some significant features worth consideration. To me, the selective JPEG compression and the pop-up menu creator are certainly worth the upgrade price.

Macromedia continues to improve on a solid product with a great compression engine. However, there are several improvements that I think can be made easily, such as moving some of the functions into more-accessible interface elements. I have also read complaints about Fireworks 4's speed, but have not had cause to complain about this myself. Of course, there is a delay when previewing the compression, but this is similar to ImageReady. As for image quality, there are slight differences between Fireworks and ImageReady. Your best bet is to try both head-to-head on the same set of images, and see which application of the two gives the results you like best. Macromedia offers a free 30 day trial version for download here:

http://www.macromedia.com/software/fireworks/download/

Macromedia® Fireworks™ 4
full version: $299
upgrade: $149
Dreamweaver4/Fireworks 4 Studio is also available.

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