Review: Freeway 6 Pro offers visual Website design with a few quirks

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The primacy of Apple’s iWeb may be gone, but visual Web design is alive and well on the Mac, thanks to applications like Softpress’s Freeway Pro. Recently updated to version 6, Freeway has gained several new and improved features that can help designers create sophisticated websites with modern technologies, all without typing a line of HTML code. But while Freeway is a flexible tool, its utility is undermined by some rough edges and an interface rooted squarely in the Mac’s past.

New features

Foremost among Freeway’s new features is support for creating HTML5-compatible sites, including new semantic elements and media formats like H.246-encoded MPEG4 video. You can even upload those videos to the Web linked seamlessly to files in alternate formats like WebM, Ogg, or even Flash, to ensure visitors using almost any browser or operating system can see the movie you intend, not a broken plug-in icon.

Forms have also gotten an HTML5 makeover in Freeway, with added support for new input types, border styling, background colors, and labels displayed inside blank input fields, for richer, cleaner-looking forms. Enhanced CSS layout options and effects like object shadows and opacity, plus Disqus-powered visitor comments, can make the rest of your site more attractive, dynamic, and up-to-date.

Combined with features introduced in version 5.5—such as HTML email creation, SFTP uploads, and Showcase (a bundled companion app for creating professional-looking photo galleries and slideshows)—Freeway 6 Pro offers a wealth of options to choose from when creating and sharing your sites. Note that Freeway comes in an Express version ($50) as well as a Pro version ($150), and because the latter contains all the Express features and more, this review is based on the Pro version.

As always, Freeway offers desktop publishing–friendly tools for Web designers.

WYSIWYG design

Forgoing direct access to your sites’ underlying code, Freeway’s design approach will be familiar to users of desktop publishing software. Pages are created visually, by arranging text and graphic objects, then customizing them with an Inspector comparable to the similar palette in the iWork suite. Freeway’s Inspector is context-sensitive, automatically displaying appropriate controls based on objects you select. It’s a time-saver and a great way to quickly get the hang of the program’s options.

Freeway’s sidebar displays a list of all the pages in your site; you can also use it to view and navigate among items on a page with a few clicks, ideal for working with layouts loaded with content. To simplify the job of keeping busy pages uniform as you work, Freeway lets you create master pages that define the appearance, formatting, and functions of pages linked to those master pages, throughout your website.

Most of those functions can be created with Actions, elements that add complex features to your site with minimal user effort. Actions can be rollovers, image filters, navigation menus, HTML widget code from the Web, and much more. Freeway comes with a variety of Actions that affect everything from individual page elements to an entire site, and many more are available free or for purchase from sites like ActionsForge and FreewayActions.

You can build websites from scratch, of course, or use templates to get started. Freeway comes with eight site templates, plus three HTML email templates. Each is stylish, but most are suited in appearance and function to small-business needs. If you want something fun for events like vacations, school activities, or weddings, you’ll have to design the site yourself and save it as a custom template. Additional templates are available for free from the Softpress website or sites like FreewayStyle, but I’d prefer to see a wider range of options bundled with the program.

The Freeway 6 interface.

Some rough edges

While Freeway offers many website-creation features, it lags behind modern design applications in some frustrating ways. Only one level of undo is available, and objects vanish as they’re moved or resized in Freeway’s workspace, replaced by outlined bounding boxes instead of a live preview of changes. These feel like unnecessary limitations in 2013.

Direct access to iLife libraries is included only in Showcase, which loads your iPhoto library and the contents of your Pictures folder, adding a layer of complexity to working with many media files. Worse, Freeway’s generally solid documentation contains a few glaring omissions, such as exactly how Showcase works with Freeway. Most veteran Mac users will have little trouble working through these gaps, or resigning themselves to Freeway’s old-fashioned fit and finish, but in an era of gorgeous iOS-inspired software that “just works,” this lack of refinement might be jarring for newcomers.

The Showcase feature could be more intuitive, but Mac users should be able to get the hang of it.

Bottom line

Despite the aforementioned flaws, Freeway 6 Pro is worth considering for more experienced users who want to build full-featured sites without touching code or being confined by templates. However, Freeway will be a truly excellent choice when its interface and design features catch up with its robust tools.

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