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Macromedia Fireworks MX 2004

Image editing and Web graphics creation software By Dave Nagel
Macromedia Fireworks is one of about a dozen applications I use every single working day of my life. Designed originally as a relatively simple Web graphics tool, it has developed over the last few years into a more general-purpose graphics creation and image-editing application, along with the original Web animation and and optimization tools that have allowed it to survive and thrive amid the wreckage of those who have ill-advisedly made a play for a piece of Adobe Photoshop's market share.

This is owing to the fact that it's designed to complement, not replace, Photoshop, although it's a solid and competent enough application to support the requirements of graphics departments in some situations. If you do graphics for print, no, you're not going to replace Photoshop with Fireworks. That would be crazy. But if you're in a mixed environment--Web and print--you certainly do want to include it in your software tool chest. And, of course, it can be used effectively in any environment that requires a combination of vector and raster image creation and manipulation features, whether on the Web or in video.

But how does Fireworks MX 2004 fare as an upgrade from the previous release? Actually not too well. The program is, in and of itself, a great graphics tool. But frankly, in the new version I haven't found anything to justify a paid update--especially not a $149 paid update. We'll get to this below. First, a general look at Fireworks.

What it does
If you're unfamiliar with Fireworks entirely, let me try to give you a brief introduction. Fireworks is unusual in that it combines popular features of both vector and raster graphics applications. And it's unique in how it integrates them together so effortlessly. An application like Photoshop, for example, is fantastic with raster images, but woefully inadequate with vectors. Applications like Macromedia Freehand and Adobe Illustrator are great with vectors but are just awful for anything but the most basic use of raster images. Fireworks gives you both, and it incorporates a fairly deep feature set in both categories. Then you add to this Fireworks' ability to create frame-based animations (as well as symbol tweening), its variety of Web functions, its live effects, its robust vector painting tools, its integration features and its still unparalleled JPEG compression algorithms, and you have yourself one full-featured graphics suite.

Since I've reviewed several prior versions of Fireworks, I'm not going to rehash the application's entire feature lineup. But I will highlight some of this program's strong points before we move into the new features in Fireworks MX 2004.

First, as I mentioned, is its versatility. It has most of the features you'd want in an RGB raster-image manipulation program, along with support for a large number of Photoshop filters. It has Web animation features, including the ability to create pop-up menus in a variety of styles; the ability to create and tween symbols for vector animations; easy frame management for animated GIFs; guided interactive button creation; and a wealth of other features.

Pop-up menu creation in Fireworks MX 2004

And it's quite competent with vectors, including a very robust vector painting engine that is truly editable and affords a tremendous degree of creativity.

Some of the characteristics of Fireworks' paint engine, including new previews

And remember, it's not just versatile, but virtually seamless. I can draw a vector paint stroke on top of a bitmap layer without going through any intermediate steps. I can apply filters and effects to either type of object. I can paint with bitmaps or vectors.

The Layers palette, showing layer sets combining bitmap and vector elements

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