Fireworks Gets the MX Treatment

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Fred had Ginger. Laverne had Shirley. Lassie had Timmy. Some couples are more than the sum of their parts. So when Macromedia started to update its popular Web publishing software, the company knew it needed a super-charged image editor to go with it. Fireworks MX, which will be released at the same time as Dreamweaver MX, includes several new features, as well as improvements to old features, which promise to give Web designers more flexibility over their graphics with less work. Although the program is still in beta form, here's a look at what you can expect.

Interface Updates

Some of Fireworks' most significant improvements appear on its retooled interface, which significantly reduces unnecessary clicking and makes building Web graphics more intuitive.

All Together Now One change that had us cheering is the addition of a Property Inspector, similar to the one found in Dreamweaver. The Property Inspector displays all of the available options for a selected tool or object. This means no more endless switching between multiple panels to complete even the simplest task. For example, to draw or modify a shape in previous versions of Fireworks, you needed to adjust the Stroke, Fill, Effect, Object, and Info panels. Now you can set all of these attributes from the Property Inspector.

If your Web graphics incorporate both bitmaps and vectors, you'll be happy to know that Fireworks MX has at last eliminated the need to manually switch between different editing modes. Previous versions required you to double-click in the document window when you wanted to edit a bitmap image, then double-click in it again to switch back to vector mode. But Fireworks MX automatically switches between the two modes, depending on which tool you select from the toolbox. And to make your tool selection clearer, Macromedia also rearranged the toolbox, physically separating the bitmap-editing tools from the vector tools. (The toolbox is now divided into four categories according to the tool's purpose: Selection tools, Vector tools, Bitmap tools, and Web tools.)

Fireworks also added several new retouching tools to its bitmap-editing arsenal to give users more precise control over their images. The toolbox now includes Blur, Sharpen, Dodge, Burn, and Smudge tools. A new Gradient tool, which is coupled with the Fill tool, lets you quickly define and apply gradients to selected objects.

Quicker Text Editing Although the previous version of Fireworks offered extensive controls for designing text -- including leading, kerning, and live effects -- most users found the process cumbersome. To change a typo or the text's size, for example, you had to open the Text Editor, make your changes, apply them to the document to gauge the result, then close the Text Editor. But now you can create and alter text directly within the document window. The Property Inspector offers all of the settings previously relegated to the Text Editor, plus a few new options such as paragraph indents and spaces before and after paragraphs. And because no one is perfect, Fireworks MX comes with a spelling checker.

Navigation Improvements

One of the most important -- and time-consuming -- tasks of building a new Web site is creating clear and effective navigation. Fireworks MX offers several enhancements that simplify this process and give designers more flexibility.

Symbols Save You Time Previous versions of Fireworks let you turn buttons -- including rollover behaviors, Alt text, and assigned URLs -- into symbols for later reuse. If you needed to make a change to the text color, say, you could simply adjust the symbol, and the change would be reflected automatically in every button based on that symbol. This method was great for creating a single button that reappeared many times on the page. But because the symbol's instances all had to have the exact same text and attributes, this turned out to be less useful for creating navigation.

Fireworks MX solves this dilemma by adding variables to its button symbols. Each instance of a button can now contain its own text, URL, target, and effect. You can save time by creating a button once, then reusing it with variations throughout a site.

Powerful Pop-ups For Web sites with multiple levels of navigation, pop-up menus provide an effective means of displaying submenus (and even sub-submenus) without forcing the user to click through several pages. Fireworks 4 introduced the Set Pop-Up Menu wizard, which let you quickly create basic pop-up menus without having to write the code yourself. But while Fireworks 4 made it easy for designers to create a menu, it offered them little flexibility in the menu's appearance.

Fireworks MX gives designers more control over pop-up menus by adding a set of advanced options to the Pop-Up Menu Editor. For example, whereas version 4 could only create vertical pop-up menus, Fireworks MX also offers the choice of horizontal menus. Using a set of four tabs, you can specify a menu's cell height, width, or padding; turn borders on or off; specify in which direction the menu should pop-up; and even define how long the menu remains visible before closing.

Import and Export Options

If you've ever been faced with updating a Web site that no longer contains the graphics' original source files, you know how traumatic it can be to re-create those files. In these cases, Fireworks MX can save you sleepless nights with its new Reconstitute Table feature. Located under the File menu, this feature lets you open any HTML file that contains a table with image slices. Then Fireworks seamlessly joins the slices and creates one new PNG source file -- including any rollover effects, pop-up menus, or animations. Although the page's text and vectors will no longer be editable, you can readjust slices and add new elements to the design.

Fireworks MX also lets you quickly create and export multiple variations of the same design with its new Data-Driven Graphics wizard. Using this wizard, you can take an XML file of variables (such as car models, options, and prices), select a folder of images (say, car product shots), and automatically create dozens of versions of the same ad with specific details for each car.

MX Has More to Offer

While many of the program's new timesaving features will be impossible to miss (for example, the Property Inspector), Fireworks MX also comes packed with plenty of smaller improvements that will shave valuable time off your work day: you can merge layers; save selections for reuse later; access a Quick Export menu in the upper-right corner of the document window; and use a new Open Recent option in the File menu to quickly access frequently used documents. Together, all of these nips and tucks add up to make Fireworks MX a more efficient tool for designing Web graphics and a valuable member of Macromedia's power couple.

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