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Macromedia Freehand 10

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In: Reviews > Product Reviews

By Jesse Nieminen

Published on August 14, 2001

picture of freehand 10 product box Not too long ago the competition between professional vector illustration programs was fierce. The big software developers (in this case Adobe, Macromedia, and Corel) offered ambitious features and capabilities, aiming to edge out the competition with each new release. The latest version of Macromedia® Freehand™ signifies either a lull in the battle, or Macromedia's willingness to stick with the users it already has. Although there are new features and enhancements worth mentioning, there aren't any giant leaps forward here to crush the competition. As with Fireworks 4, Freehand 10 seems focused more on streamlining what's already there and fortifying its integration with Macromedia's other products.

Like all recent Macromedia offerings, Freehand 10 receives the "Common Macromedia User Interface" facelift. While an improvement over previous versions, I still find Freehand to be possibly the most confusing and unintuitive to deal with among current professional graphics applications. Although some of the tool panels are well-organized and offer remarkable control, others seem have been treated as afterthoughts. The layer system is absolutely horrendous - especially in contrast to Adobe Illustrator's. If you are unfamiliar with Freehand, it's likely that you will have a hard time adjusting; experience using Flash or Fireworks won't really prepare you despite the "Common User Interface" label.

Illustration features

Freehand 10's new illustration features are few and humble, which is especially disappointing considering this is a full version-number upgrade. Speed and productivity are enhanced, but there is nothing new to really inspire creativity.

For example, the new "True Contour Gradients" option improves upon Freehand's old system by doing away with the need for complex color blends. This feature allows a user to create a multi-color gradient fill that follows an outline path. Macromedia claims that it makes shading organic shapes easy while keeping the file size small. But it can hardly compare to Illustrator's gradient mesh tool, which (despite the larger files that result from its use) far surpasses Freehand in precision and control. While the contour gradient feature does a great job on geometric shapes, it does not begin to compete at the task of shading organic shapes.

screenshot of freehand 10 true contour gradient tool

Freehand 10 offers the ability to apply "Spray and Brush Strokes" to any path, adding a nice punch to its illustration capabilities. Spray and brush strokes are based on symbols, which can be applied as a single instance stretched along a path, or distributed as several instances. You can even apply multiple symbols to the same path at the same time. Comprehensive controls let you define how symbols behave in relation to the path, with attributes like scale, offset, and angle. Illustrator has had a similar feature for a while, but Freehand's controls are more powerful and advanced, and the effect is closer to that seen in Corel's Painter application.

screenshot of freehand 10 spray and brush strokes tool

The pen tool now works as it does in Fireworks and Flash, which cuts down on headaches if you frequently switch between several Macromedia applications. Macromedia should also be commended for changing Freehand's pen tool to work more like Illustrator's, making life easier for designers who use both applications.

Macromedia's obvious strength has been in the web arena, especially with Flash dominating the web animation pile. With good reason, much effort is spent on making Freehand 10 the most compatible and hospitable illustration environment for Flash users.

Increased Flash integration

Perhaps the most useful new feature to that end is the ability to test SWF animations within Freehand in the "Flash Player Window." Previously, users had to test animations either in the standalone Flash Player application, or within Flash itself. Not only can you test your animation quickly within Freehand now, but the controller toolbar puts settings adjustment and export functions at your fingertips.

screenshot of freehand 10 flash controller toolbar

Going a step further, the new "Flash Navigation Panel" enables users to name objects, assign URLs, and even apply simple Flash actions such as "go to" or "play." These useful Flash preproduction capabilities are a great timesaver. Plus, it's now possible to create simple interactive animations in Freehand without even using Flash!

screenshot of freehand 10 flash navigation panel

Freehand 10 boasts an editable symbol library that works much like Flash's. This is not just a boon for Flash users, but for anyone who uses many instances of the same symbol within a document. Symbols are organized in the library panel as in Flash, which partially makes up for the lack of a decent layer system. Clicking on a symbol's icon in the library panel opens an edit window where the symbol may be altered, and changes made here are distributed to each instance of the symbol within the document automatically.

Although the main focus of this version is web capabilities, Freehand 10 comes equipped with some new features that print designers will appreciate.

Additional media features

The most important is master pages - templates that hold objects and page attributes to be used across multi-page documents. Edits to a master-page will update all child pages using the template. This is a feature usually found in publishing programs like Quark Xpress, and really enables Freehand to be a one-stop solution for publishing certain types of documents. Astonishingly, each document can contain as many as 32,000 master pages. Beyond print work, master pages aid in the design and organization of things like backgrounds and scene elements for documents destined to be used in Flash. The only disappointment to note is that you cannot assign page numbers to master pages, which defies common sense and takes some of the publishing value away.

The "print area" feature is a flexible new tool, allowing the user to select either a small portion or a whole work area for printing on normal-size paper. Whether you need to zoom in on a particular detail of a design or show a multiple-page spread on a single piece of paper, you can do it quickly and easily with this option. Defining the selection is as easy as dragging a cursor marquee in "print area" mode.

Freehand vs. Illustrator, this round

Despite the new features and Flash friendliness, I still feel ambivalent about Freehand 10. Overall, it performs more quickly and stably than Adobe Illustrator. It is a more efficient environment when producing for Flash. Even though I primarily use Illustrator, I will use Freehand more with my Flash projects to take advantage of the obvious benefits. And for day-to-day illustration work, I keep Freehand around for unmatched tools like the perspective grid and distortion envelopes.

On the other hand, Freehand is losing big to Illustrator in some key areas. The interface is still idiosyncratic and tough to deal with. The handling of layers needs major attention. Freehand's transparency method is getting a bit archaic, in stark contrast to Illustrator's wonderful transparency and blending modes. Furthermore, the new true contour gradient feature seems like a joke compared to Illustrator's gradient mesh tool.

If your primary use of vector illustration tools is for Flash production, then Freehand 10 still stands as a strong choice. This upgrade modestly improves upon the previous version and has no apparent bugs or speed issues. I plan to keep and use both Freehand and Illustrator for their individual strengths, because no single vector illustration program is the best at everything right now. I would like to see Freehand get back in the game and compete on all fronts, instead of focusing so much on the web and its integration with Flash. Here's hoping that the battle to be the overall best will be rekindled soon.

Macromedia® Freehand™ 10
$399 Full
$129 Upgrade
$499 - Flash 5/Freehand 10 Studio

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