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FreeHand Turns 10

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Although Adobe Illustrator was the first PostScript drawing program to market, Macromedia FreeHand is the application that comes to mind when I think of firsts. And of its many firsts -- color, type on a path, parametric gradients, text and graphic styles, multipage layouts, and a freehand drawing tool -- its first first was the biggest. As trivial as it may seem by today's standards, FreeHand 1 was the first program to preview Bezier paths as you drew them. Illustrator didn't catch up for several years, and when it did, the feature appeared on the PC before we saw it on the Mac.

With version 10, FreeHand is first again. The only major publishing application so far to integrate seamlessly with Mac OS X, FreeHand 10 beats not only Illustrator but also Adobe Photoshop, QuarkXPress, and Macromedia's Dreamweaver and Flash. Because the Carbonized FreeHand runs natively in OS X rather than inside OS X's Classic environment, it can take advantage of new system-level features such as protected memory and preemptive multitasking. It also means that FreeHand doesn't need to redraw the screen image when you move a window or switch applications. Editable preview becomes persistent preview, which means less time waiting for FreeHand to show you what you've done.

Gradients and Pages

Fortunately for the vast majority of designers, who are using older operating systems, FreeHand 10 also works with OS 8.6 and later. And most of its enhancements work as well in OS 9 as they do in OS X. For example, FreeHand 10 introduces contour gradients, which fill an object with a concentric blend that updates whenever you reshape the path. Shape gradients have been around for a long time, but combined with FreeHand's plentiful color-placement options, they let you easily create star bursts, neon strokes, and glows. Compared with Illustrator's gradient mesh, they're pretty limited, but they're also considerably easier to use.

FreeHand has long excelled at creating multipage documents; version 10 improves on that ability by adding two page-management features. First, the new master pages let you use one page as a template for other pages. That's a common feature in publishing programs, but in FreeHand any page on the pasteboard can be a master page; there's no need to copy and paste elements onto strictly ordained master pages, as in QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign. Also, you can share master pages between documents. The downsides are that one master page can't be based on another and that there are no automatic page numbers, eliminating the opportunity for repeating folios.

Second, FreeHand lets you marquee any area of the pasteboard -- including as many pages or partial pages as you like -- and request that it print on a single page. Better still, the program makes no attempt to constrain you to a specific page size or orientation. Suffice it to say, if you've been wishing for something beyond the standard 2-Up and 4-Up options, your wish has been granted. Mysteriously, however, the print area is invisible in the antialiased preview mode, so you may draw a boundary and see nothing on the screen.

Fuel for Flash

Just as Illustrator has lately been reaching out to Photoshop users ( Reviews, September 2000), FreeHand extends special courtesies to Macromedia's fastest-growing audience: Flash users. FreeHand 10's Library palette lets you create and manage symbols, or reusable graphics (see "The Implication of Symbols"). Edit the master symbol, and all other instances update automatically. You can also apply a symbol to a path to create a brush stroke, a capability previously seen in Illustrator 8 (though Illustrator's brushes are easier to apply and edit). Using symbols as brushes, you can modify a symbol and watch as brushes update throughout your illustration. Finally, when you export a drawing to the object-oriented Web format SWF, symbols define repeating elements just once, cutting down on file size.

Speaking of SWF, you can now preview SWF animations in FreeHand -- great for checking your work after animating a blend. (In the past, you had to view your FreeHand-created animations in a browser or the stand-alone Flash player.) A new navigation palette lets you more easily assign links and Flash actions to objects. And what upgrade to FreeHand would be complete without modifications to the pen tool? As always, the changes make the pen behave more like the one in Illustrator.

Execution and Interface

While FreeHand is often first, Macromedia has a tendency to leave a feature unmodified after its introduction, giving Adobe and others ample opportunity to leapfrog. Object transparency, arguably the most important advance in vector-based drawing in the past five years, is an example. FreeHand 8 introduced a very basic transparency option, after CorelDraw but more than a year ahead of Illustrator. Sadly, that's the last time the feature got attention. As a result, compared with Illustrator 9's broad support for transparency and color calculations, FreeHand's small assortment of options seems piddling, inaccessible, and downright archaic.

Nevertheless, as someone who regarded the previous version of FreeHand less enthusiastically than any that came before it ( Reviews, July 2000), I must say that the program appears to be on the mend. Macromedia has obviously attempted to resolve differences between FreeHand on the Mac and its Windows peer. Macromedia loyalists will be glad to know that the new FreeHand bears a stronger resemblance to its siblings Dreamweaver and Flash. And several of the interface problems I've been grumbling about have been remedied: palettes are better organized, icons are more recognizable, and -- good news if you don't have five monitors tethered to your computer -- precious screen real estate is put to better use. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that FreeHand 10's interface, particularly under Mac OS X, is downright pleasing to look at.

Macworld's Buying Advice

For an artist who switches back and forth between Illustrator and FreeHand, Illustrator remains the better program with the more compelling feature set; its live effects alone make it a higher-order drawing program. But FreeHand gets points for speed and stability -- issues that prompted two bug fixes for Illustrator 9. (To evaluate FreeHand 10 in Mac OS X, I ran it for several days straight without a single crash. In the same amount of time, Illustrator 9, running in OS X's Classic environment, went down twice.) FreeHand also offers greater control over screen previews, and it's better at displaying thin black lines, which turn gray in Illustrator 9.

On the other hand, if you're a loyal FreeHand user trying to decide whether to upgrade, the answer is a definite yes. Whether or not you're using OS X, you're sure to appreciate FreeHand 10's improved drawing capabilities and cleaner design.

The Implication of Symbols: After turning the top view of the SUV into a symbol (upper right), I introduced it into my architectural plan with a simple drag and drop. I could then replicate the symbol or export
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