Fireworks 4
at a Glance

Maker: Macromedia
Price: $299
URL: http://www.macromedia

Overall Impression: Version 4 introduces Macromedia's cleaner interface, which makes it a bit easier to get around and makes for a more pleasant experience. Fireworks is an excellent image editor, especially for Web graphics, where it clearly dominates.

Key Benefits: There are four great reasons to use Fireworks. First, it compresses graphics for the Web better than anything else. Second, it can use Photoshop filters and, what's more, allows you to edit their effects later on. Third, it makes interactive Web graphics creation easy, including interactive pop-up menus. And, fourth, its vector tools are great.

Disappointments: As with previous versions of Fireworks, large image files can cause trouble. I'd like to see more intuitive animation features and support for pressure tablets. I'd also like to see more tools for working with bitmaps. Finally, I don't think there are enough new features to call this a full version upgrade.

Recommendation: Strong Buy

Macromedia Fireworks 4

Image editing and Web graphics creation software

by David Nagel
Executive Producer
[email protected]

I've been using Macromedia Fireworks just about every day for the last year. I've been impressed with its ability to crunch large files into tiny JPEGs with virtually no loss in quality, and I've fallen in love with its effects and batch processing capabilities. Now, for the last few weeks, I've switched to Fireworks 4, which is available as a stand-alone product or in a bundle with Dreamweaver 4. This latest release builds upon the firm foundation laid in Fireworks 3 with a refined interface, some improved functionality and a smattering of new features.

For those of you unfamiliar with Fireworks, the program is basically an image editor similar to Adobe Photoshop but much more heavily geared toward Web production, with a particular emphasis on vectors. I would never choose Fireworks as a replacement for Photoshop, but it does make an excellent companion, particularly for Web designers. For example, you do not get the control over bitmap images that you find in Photoshop (not even close), but you do get a whole slew of features that make editing and creating graphics for the Web much easier than in Photoshop or ImageReady. It's not just a tool for making buttons and bevels; those sorts of tools are freely downloadable from shareware sites. Rather, you get a full-featured application that can create rollovers, selectively compress JPEGs, create and edit vector objects and apply effects while maintaining their editability.

JPEG compression
The thing that has always impressed me the most about Fireworks is its ability to reduce images to the barest kilobytes while maintaining outstanding image fidelity. If Fireworks could do nothing else, I would still use it every single day for crunching images. It reigns supreme for compression.

The latest version goes even further by adding the ability to compress images selectively. So you can munch the bejeezus out of the background of an image while still maintaining crystal clarity in the foreground.

Fireworks 4 adds selective JPEG compression, which allows you to
select an are of the image to be compressed more or less
than the rest of the image. (The pink area surrounded by
a marquee in this image is the selected area.)

Selective JPEG compression can be applied to any area of an image with any of the marquee tools you're familiar with, as in the example above. You simply select an area and then choose Modify > Selective JPEG > Save Selection as JPEG Mask. The selection can be either higher or lower than the rest of the image, and you can even feather the selection for a gradual transition into the more compressed areas.

Live effects
Another major attraction to Fireworks is the program's ability to use Photoshop filters and keep the resulting effects editable. In other words, it's nondestructive. You're probably used to this sort of thing vis a vis Photoshop's Layer Effects. This is similar, except just about any Photoshop filter can be used in the way. So, basically, you can apply a filter, turn it on or off at any time, update the filter as you make changes to your image or even go in an edit the filter's settings. These are called "live effects."

Sound too good to be true? Well, admittedly, in some cases it is. Some filters just don't work well as live effects and can have unpredictable results. Sometimes a filter just doesn't look right, while other times it might cause Fireworks to forget where your plugins folder is, so you have to reload the folder and relaunch Fireworks.

Not to fear, however. Fireworks keeps two pull-down menus for effects. There are the regular, old, destructive filters and the live effects. If you find a filter to be buggy as a live effect, you can simply remove it from the Effects palette but still access it from the filter menu (called Xtras in Fireworks). Basically it's up to plugin developers to make their filters useable as live effects. Many are already doing so.

Interactive graphics
As I've said before, the strength of Fireworks is in its ability to create graphics for the Web, and this applies to interactive elements as well. Of course, the program has nowhere near the interactive capabilities of Flash. But it can still get you through a project with some pretty hefty tools.

For simple animation, Fireworks can handle tweening for common transformations, such as rotation and position. It can also be used to create rollovers and can very easily generate slices of an image that can be hyperlinked directly in Fireworks or in a Web page layout program.

But, again, version 4 goes even further with a complete, step by step wizard for creating interactive pop-up menus, a feature that once again brings it to the front of the interactive graphics pack. This is so shockingly simple that you can't even imagine it. It would actually take me significantly more time to type out an explanation of how it works than it would to create a pop-up menu in Fireworks. So I'll give it to you the quick way. All you have to do is select an area of your image that will trigger the menu. Then you just select Insert > Pop-up Menu and fill in the blanks. It's really this easy.

Creating pop-up menus in Fireworks 4 is just a matter of filling in a few
blanks. Here I've created three main menu items (Tutorials, Reviews and
Features). I've also created a submenu under Tutorials called "Web
Design." Beneath this, I've placed two tertiary menus called "Web Page
Layout" and "Web Graphics." It was all done with a few drags and drops
and a few button pushes.

After you've filled in your information for each menu item, you just move on and select your formatting. You can use text or graphics, with various options for each. Excellent implementation.

So what else is new?
In addition to all of these new and/or improved features, Fireworks 4 also includes a number of improvements over version 3. The first and most obvious change is in the interface. While menus remain exactly the same, palettes change for the better, both in terms of appearance and functionality. I find the new interface of Fireworks 4 to be a decent and not too terribly shocking improvement over version 3.

It also gains the ability to create rollovers through a simple drag and drop process. Just drag a part of the image onto the button maker, and you're there.

The button creation window in Fireworks 4 allows you to drag and drop
elements from your composition to create various button states.

Finally, the program also gets enhanced import and export capabilities, including better handling of Photoshop files (including layer masks) and the ability to customize automatic file naming, table handling and other output options.

The bottom line
Fireworks 4 is unquestionably the way to go if you're creating or editing graphics for the Web. Its features are unparalleled, especially for image compression and the creation of interactive navigational items. An upgrade is also available from any previous version of Fireworks for $149. That's not an unreasonable price to pay for the handy new feature and overall improved functionality of this program. You can also upgrade to the Dreamweaver 4/Fireworks 4 Studio from any version of Fireworks (no Dreamweaver required) for just $50 more. That, to me, is the bargain du jour. (We'll have a separate review of Dreamweaver 4 next week.) I give Fireworks 4 a strong buy recommendation.

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of the Creative Mac, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion and Synthetik Studio Artist WWUGs; and executive producer of Creative Mac, Digital Media Designer, Digital Pro Sound, Digital Webcast, Plug-in Central, Presentation Master, and Video Systems sites. All are part of the Digital Media Net family of online industry hubs.
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