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First Look: Macromedia Fireworks 8

Web graphics creation tool stays the course By Dave Nagel
Earlier this week we saw the announcement of Macromedia's Studio 8, which introduced new versions of Flash, Dreamweaver, Contribute and FlashPaper, as well as an update to the raster, vector and interactive Web graphics creation program known as Fireworks. The new version of Fireworks sports probably the fewest enhancements of any of the version 8 Studio applications, but it is, nevertheless, still a crucial tool for many Web designers and graphics professionals out there.

Since about version 4, Fireworks hasn't changed much at all. Most of the improvements in the program over the last few years have come in the form of slight workflow and interface tweaks--generally improvements in interoperability with other Macromedia programs and a rearrangement of interface elements--as well as occasional and very minor new/improved creative features. And the same is true of Fireworks 8. The new features in this version are, essentially, rearrangements of features found in previous versions, plus a few new methods for getting things done. It does, of course, retain those features that have always earned it a "Strong Buy" recommendation in my reviews, including unparalleled JPEG compression, live (non-destructive) filters and a great mixture of vector and raster creation and editing capabilities. It just hasn't added anything that, in my mind, would truly compel a user to upgrade (although, of course, if you're buying Studio 8, you get the new version of Fireworks thrown in for good measure, so you can't complain too much about that).

So what would I consider to be the "big" new features in Fireworks 8? Well, there aren't any, really. But there are some changes that should make Fireworks 8 a bit easier to use in a Flash/Dreamweaver workflow, as well as a few enhancements on the creative side.

Creative improvements
There are precisely four improvements on the creative side in Fireworks 8, one of which Macromedia doesn't mention in its marketing materials. And it's this one that I think is the most significant: improvements in the area of filters and live effects (which Macromedia now calls "live filters"). The first and most dramatic of these improvements is that on Mac OS X, Fireworks now, once again, works with Photoshop filters properly. What I mean buy this is that now only can I use third-party filters designed for Photoshop CS and CS2, but I can also apply these as live filters.

Live filters, for those who don't know, are filters that are applied non-destructively to a layer. Much as with Layer Styles in Adobe Photoshop, live filters update themselves when you edit the contents of a layer, and their settings can be altered at any time. The bonus of how this works in Fireworks is that it doesn't limit you to just a few styles, but opens up all compatible filters to be used non-destructively. (And I certainly hope that, if nothing else, Adobe adapts this technology for use in Photoshop. It's long overdue.)

In addition to a fix for third-party Photoshop filters, Fireworks can also use more built-in filters as live filters, including Auto Levels, Gaussian Blur and Unsharp Mask.

On the disappointing side, these live filters continue to appear awkwardly in the Properties panel, rather than in a separate Appearance palette. (Maybe you prefer it this way; I don't.)

Also new in Fireworks 8 are twenty-something new blend modes, which, of course, allow you to affect the appearance of a composite by changing the ways in which layers blend together. Some of these are handy, like Average (which is great for creating diffuse glow effects), while others are just sort of variations on pre-existing blending modes that are easily enough to replicate by varying a layer's transparency in addition to using a blending mode. (The new "Soft Dodge" mode, for example, is almost the same as using a Color dodge with the layer at 50 percent opacity.) And then there are some that are extremely useful, like Inverse Color Dodge and Inverse Color Burn. These function just like Color Burn and Color Dodge, but they burn the underlying layer through the top layer, rather than the other way around, which can be important when you need that effect but can't rearrange the layers physically without ruining your composition. I've actually run into this problem a few times in Photoshop, where an Inverse Color Dodge or Color Burn would have been useful.

The new modes include: Average, Color Burn, Color Dodge, Inverse Color Dodge, Soft Dodge, Color Burn, Inverse Color Burn, Soft Burn, Fuzzy Light, Hard Light, Exclusion, Negation, Red, Green, Blue, Overlay, Reflect, Glow, Freeze, Heat, Additive, Subtractive (which, sadly, is not the same as blending subtractive colors as in working with natural media), Subtract, Interpolation, Stamp and XOR.

Blending modes, like live filters, appear in the Properties palette for a given layer or object, but they also appear in the Layers palette as well.

The third creative improvement is a simple one: the ability to convert selections to paths. This function is available under the Select menu. When you make a marquee selection, you can then convert it t a path, which is then placed on a new sub-layer and filled with the currently selected fill color and stroked with the currently selected stroke. 

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