JULY 18, 2001
Macromedia is nearly as dominant in certain areas of graphic creation as Adobe is in others. Although the two graphics giants do clash in many areas, nowhere is the battle as fierce, or relatively unsettled, as in the vector drawing arena. Macromedia's FreeHand 10 is the latest version going against Adobe's Illustrator 9.
Not surprisingly, both behemoths leverage their claims for ultimate vector victory on how "familiar" their product will be to the throngs already using their flagship products. In Adobe's case, many of the new tweaks and features in Illustrator 9 were designed to make Photoshop users feel comfortable. Likewise, Macromedia is linking to its strengthsFlash, Fireworks and Dreamweaver.
Does this really make a difference? Probably. Is the advantage (one way or the other) enough to be the sole determining factor when choosing between the two? Probably not.
The truth is that illustration/drawing applications are not casual, "I think I'll load the program and have it mastered after lunch" type programs. Rather, they are powerful, and therefore complex, professional tools that are inherently different from photo-editing, paint and layout programs. After a late night working (or playing), it might make a difference in how easily you remember the shortcuts, but most of the time, it's a tossup.
Flash animations can be previewed inside a Flash panel within FreeHand. As with Illustrator, FreeHand pages can also be exported directly into Web pages. Overall, the combination of common interface design and Flash preview does give FreeHand an edge over Illustrator for Web-centric designers.
Much is made of multi-purposing of contentthe ability to create once and easily publish to print, the Web and other delivery mediums. Illustrator does this well; FreeHand does it well. In fact, it's increasingly difficult to find any application that doesn't do this well. Despite what marketing people want us to believe, it isn't that hard to ramp content down for bandwidth-constricted use. The challenge is in enabling quality-sensitive, high-bandwidth content to be created as easily and intuitively as possible and then not totally mucking it up when it is repurposed.
Macromedia hasn't forgotten the core market for vector graphics creation. Although this is a mature market (version 10!), there are still a few new wrinkles and goodies for print designers, and some even work real well for Web folk too.
The biggest and best new feature is the Master Page feature than enables you to modify elements automatically across large multi-page projects. You can also now specify print areas, including elements in the work area, but not necessarily in the document. This can be handy for zooming in on a particular area for a highly detailed printout, or for showing alternative designs. For example, you might have two versions of a small logo within a complex graphic page; rather than redesign the page with the alternate, you could simply include it in the printout.
Editable symbol libraries, symbol-based brush and spray strokes, true contour gradients (which print more reliably than gradient fills), embedded font support for EPS graphics and the expected bevy of improved and polished features from prior releases round out the package.
The bottom line
This isn't a decisive victory. The battle promises to continue, with vector graphics simply one of the tools used as Macromedia and Adobe strive to lock you into working with their respective uber-interface no matter what you're creating.
Our final recommendations are as follows: If you use a previous version of FreeHand, this is an upgrade worthy of a strong buy recommendation. If you use no vector illustration program but need to purchase one, FreeHand 10 ties with Illustrator 9 overall, with an edge going to FreeHand 10 for Web design work. Frankly, an illustration program belongs on every designer's computer, and, in this respect, for compatibility and features, both Illustrator and FreeHand are "must buy" products. If you already use Illustrator 9, FreeHand 10 doesn't offer too many compelling reasons to switch, unless you need more (and easier) Web functionality.
Finally, if you're on Mac OS X, there's no competition. FreeHand 10 works natively, while Illustrator doesn't, and there's no word on when Illustrator will.
FreeHand 10 is available for $399 for the full version and $129 for the upgrade. A Studio version is also available that includes Flash 5 for $499, with an upgrade for $199. Student, volume and site license programs are also available. For more information, visit http://www.macromedia.com.
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J.V. Bolkan runs Bolkan-Nelson Media Services a multimedia creation, testing and evaluation firm nestled deep in the rain slicked depths of the Northwest. He admits responsibility for a large body of printed and Web-published work in the computer graphic field dating back to 1983, including a stint as columnist, lead reviewer, and editor for PC Graphics & Video and NT Studio magazines. When he isn't hip deep in blackberry vines and computer parts, he works as an editor at the International Society for Technology in Education. He can be contacted at [email protected].