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Macromedia Freehand MX

Next-generation vector illustration suite By Dave Nagel
If I were to take all of the work I've done in Freehand and stack it up next to the work I've done in Adobe Illustrator, I'd say that the Illustrator stack would be about 500 times as tall as the Freehand stack. Yet, with the release of Freehand MX, this situation is rapidly reversing itself--or at least equalizing. This latest version of Macromedia's vector illustration suite is just that good.

My newfound favoritism toward Freehand MX is owing to some incredible--and wholly unexpected--new creative features that have found their way into the latest release, as well as new workflow, interoperability and interface improvements that make this program just a dream to work with.

Now, I'm not a partisan in the war between the two programs Illustrator and Freehand. Up to the recent past, Illustrator has just fit in with my workflow better. It could handle anything I needed to do with a vector illustration program, and it integrated well with the applications I use much more often for my creative work--that is, non-vector-illustration programs. Illustrator, to me, was more intuitive, and Freehand never really had anything over Illustrator that would cause me to go to the extra effort of making it fit with my workflow. Freehand MX is a very different story.

First of all, I no longer have to go out of my way to make it fit in with my work. Where earlier versions had trouble integrating with applications like Adobe Photoshop, Freehand MX does not. I can jump back and forth between Freehand and Adobe products as easily as I can with Illustrator--maybe even more easily now. And I no longer have to make a severe mental adjustment when going back and forth between Freehand and other programs. In other words, the interface in Freehand MX is far, far more intuitive than previous releases. Now, these are nice points. But the clincher for me is the new collection of creative tools that I simply can't find in Illustrator, even with third-party plugins.

And so, in short, Freehand MX now has a permanent slot in my dock alongside other thoroughly necessary Macromedia applications like Fireworks and Dreamweaver. Whether I'll be using Freehand to the exclusion of Illustrator will depend somewhat on Macromedia addressing a few issues (discussed below) that affect the current Freehand release, but I think that this will happen.

Features and workflow
Now, when I heard that there would be another full-version release of Freehand so soon after the 10.0 version, I wasn't particularly enthusiastic. Let's face it: When an application has been around as long as Freehand, it's hard to imagine any innovative, exciting features making their way into new releases. (For many, including me, Freehand 10 itself was proof of this.) And then when I heard that this new release of Freehand would join the MX family, again, I wasn't expecting much: an interface tweak and maybe some new Flash integration features, nothing more.

I couldn't have been more misguided.

Yes, Freehand MX does have new integration and interface features, as expected. But these actually exceed my expectations, especially in the interface area. But it's the new creative tools that really highlight this release.

I'm going to start with one that might not be the flashiest creative tool ever invented, but that is surely one of the more useful. In fact, this is a feature that I've always thought was missing from vector illustration programs--an interactive eraser tool. Now, of course you've been able to intersect and subtract paths from one another for some time now. But with Freehand MX, you can actually use an eraser just as you would in a raster image editor like Photoshop, the difference being that this tool works on vectors.

The screen shot above shows the result of a simple freehand erasure on an ellipse. You can see that Freehand automatically draws calculates and breaks up the original object according to your erase path. And, as you can also see, this tool is pressure-sensitive. In fact, it also supports the eraser on a Wacom pen (with pressure sensitivity as well), so you can just flip your pen over to erase rather than switching to a different tool from whatever one you're using.

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