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Adobe tries hard with ImageReady, but when it comes to Web graphics creation, Macromedia's Fireworks is still the undisputed king. It sports a comprehensive set of graphics tools; a sleek, efficient interface; and tight integration with other members of Macromedia's MX family (Dreamweaver, Flash, FreeHand). The program is simple to master, too. Although it's a little light in the bitmap-editing department, Fireworks more than compensates with super-slick special effects and effortless exporting to all popular Web graphics formats. We recommend this program for both amateurs and professionals who need any type of Web graphics and want the best application money can buy.
Setup & interface
Fireworks 2004 MX is a medium-grade overhaul, but Macromedia added enough new goodies to warrant the $149 (~£95) upgrade price. For starters, the program finally ditches that microscopic on-screen type that made the interface virtually unusable for anyone over the age of 40. Like other Macromedia products, Fireworks operates with a system of groupable panels that you can dock (attach to the side of the main interface) or reposition anywhere on the display. A toolbar provides instant access to object-creation and editing tools, and the extra-convenient Property Inspector lets you examine object settings and tweak them as necessary. Windows users can quickly access open documents by clicking the tabs that appear at the top of the screen. And this version includes cool new visual previews for brushes, textures and fills. One more minor but convenient touch for newcomers is the Start page, where you can select a task (New File, Open File, Get Help, Read Tips). Fortunately, old hands can turn off the start-up screen and jump straight to the Fireworks desktop. We installed the Windows version, and it was simple, although you do have to activate the product, either by Internet or by phone. The beta we tested required 48MB of disk space.
Fireworks MX 2004 blends vector and raster graphics tools together to produce a potent and flexible program for Web illustration tasks. It's equally simple to create static images, basic animation, and cutting-edge visuals such as rollovers, navigation bars and pop-up menus -- no programming knowledge necessary. Our only complaint is the single, straight-line animation option. We would like to curve and swirl objects without investing in Flash. Although Adobe’s Photoshop is still the program of choice for professional image editing, each release of Fireworks includes additional bitmap features. This time, Macromedia has thrown in in tools for removing the red-eye effect from digital photos and remove-and-replace colour functions. Fireworks MX also includes new customisable anti-aliasing features for improving text readability; the improvement is particularly noticeable with smaller type sizes. However, Fireworks cannot stand in for a dedicated image-editing program such as Photoshop, with advanced features for adjusting colour, channel editing and touch-up. This version of Fireworks includes, in addition to customizable dashed lines that you can use to create various shapes, new Autoshapes--that is, vector objects with special rules that determine shape and visual appearance. For example, the star Autoshape creates an object with 3 to 24 points. You can add or remove points, adjust the angles of the points and change their sharpness. Autoshapes are especially handy for creating highly structured illustrations such as flowcharts. Plus, you can animate shapes and add live effects such as Bevel and Emboss. Unfortunately, the Autoshapes' connector lines don't stick to other objects; you must use the grouping command to keep all your chart bits aligned. We think Fireworks has the coolest gradients around (including Fold, Ripple and Wave), and were especially delighted with the new contour gradient feature. This option fills an object with a gradient of the same shape. By yanking around the control handles, you can create some impressive looking three-dimensional shading, not to mention some really strange colourations. And speaking of cool, there are two new live effects: Add Noise and three types of Motion Blur for embellishing animated GIF files. Macromedia has also added Unicode and IME support -- invaluable for sites that incorporate Unicode character systems (such as Japanese-language sites).
Service & support
Macromedia offers online help at the Fireworks Support Center, including FAQs, tutorials, online forums and advanced technical information. Macromedia allows two free technical-support calls within the first 90 days of the initial contact. After that, you must buy one of the (expensive) support plans. The most comprehensive plan, Gold, costs £1,930, with Silver costing £770 and Bronze £510. Griping is futile; other illustration apps have similarly exorbitant policies -- but that doesn't mean we like it. We called technical support with a ridiculously simple question and immediately received a patient, accurate answer. Our niggling email about a procedural problem brought an equally patient and accurate answer within 36 hours -- a little slow, but still acceptable.