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Macromedia Fireworks 4

Image editing and Web graphics creation software By Dave Nagel
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.

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