FreeHand has had a long, distinguished career since its launch 15 years ago, but time has caught up with it. While Macromedia concentrated development on its Web-oriented MX applications, FreeHand was put on the back burner and fell seriously behind its main rivals CorelDRAW (see issue 60, p54) and Adobe Illustrator (see issue 51, p88). So, is this latest release evidence of further decline, or has FreeHand finally risen to the challenge?
One of the surest signs of FreeHand's age – and Macromedia's lack of interest – was the program's antiquated and unhelpful interface. But the working environment has now been given the full MX treatment, with the previously free-floating palettes conveniently docked and arranged into collapsible panel groups. There are still occasional idiosyncrasies, such as the dedicated Halftones panel, but the new shared Spell Checker and Answers panel reinforces the cross-application MX identity, boosting efficiency.
The biggest boost comes from the new Object panel. This incorporates the features of the former Object, Fill, Stroke and Text Inspectors into one central panel for controlling everything about your design elements' appearance. The way FreeHand MX manages its formatting has also been radically overhauled. In particular, objects now support multiple attributes, allowing you to add more than one stroke and fill to your object. Each attribute is listed at the top of the Object panel, and each can be quickly formatted.
The range of formatting power has also been enhanced. For its fills, FreeHand MX includes support for the latest Pantone libraries, as well as two new gradient types: Cone and Rectangle. Gradient handling has also been greatly improved, with four new behaviours: Normal, Repeat, Reflect and Auto Size. These determine how the gradient fills its object, and the introduction of Fill Handles lets you interactively change the direction and centre of your gradient. FreeHand MX also offers smoother brush paths and a new Calligraphic option, which produces naturalistic line effects by using any object shape as a customisable nib.
FreeHand's Object panel not only allows you to add and control fills and strokes, but can also apply an entirely new kind of formatting attribute to your design elements – Live Effects. These change the object's appearance, or just its fill or stroke, but non-destructively. So you can always alter parameters to fine-tune the effect or remove it entirely. The flexibility and creativity this opens up is extraordinary, especially as FreeHand offers vector and bitmap-based effects.
Of the six vector options, the Bend, Ragged and Sketch effects all distort and randomise lines to give a less clinical feel to your artwork, while the Expand Path command lets you widen strokes and add fill-based formatting. The Duet effect is particularly striking, enabling the creation of arrangements based on clones of the current object. Transform is the most workaday effect, but also the most useful as it allows you to apply scaling, skewing, rotation and positioning effects as an object attribute.
The raster effects are even more welcome, however, as they enable bitmap-based formatting within FreeHand's vector-based environment. The Blur and Sharpen effects are self-explanatory, while the Bevel, Emboss, Shadow and Glow filters will be familiar to Fireworks users. The Transparency effect is the most powerful of all, as it expands FreeHand's existing lens-based approach by enabling feathered and gradient transparencies.
Put FreeHand's new support for multiple fills, strokes and effects together and it's possible to create some amazingly rich formatting very quickly. Plus, once you've created an appearance you like, simply drag it onto the Styles palette ready to apply to any other object. You can also quickly redefine existing styles by editing an instance and then dragging it back onto the palette – all objects that share the style are automatically updated.
FreeHand's new approach to formatting is undoubtedly powerful, but it's worth pointing out that the real credit for this belongs to Adobe, which pioneered the system in Illustrator. Of the two implementations, Illustrator remains the more creatively powerful with its support for features such as blend modes and Photoshop filters, but the FreeHand system is simpler to manage. Regardless of which company deserves the credit, there's no question that it takes FreeHand's creative power to a new level.
And that's before we look at FreeHand MX's revamped toolset. It's unrecognisable at first, as nearly all the old tools have been replaced by new offerings. This is largely due to a much-needed rationalisation, which sees linked tools (such as the various transformation tools) grouped in flyouts; former tool variants (such as the Pen tool's Variable Line and Calligraphic variations) promoted to standalone tools; and many of the previously semi-detached Xtras (such as the Roughen, Smudge, Shadow and 3D Rotation tools) incorporated into the toolbox.
Other changes to the toolset are less obvious but more fundamental. FreeHand's core drawing capability has been improved with a new rubber-banding feature for the Pen tool, letting you preview the next line segment. There's also a new Snap to Object feature to work alongside Snap to Grid. FreeHand MX's core shapes – rectangles, circles and polygons – have also been given Live-Edit intelligence, so you can quickly turn them into rounded rectangles, arcs and stars.
There are also plenty of new tools. The Eraser works like a rubber to delete the portion of the vector path it passes over. The Connector Lines tool lets you drag-and-drop connecting lines between objects that automatically adapt as you move the objects – useful for flow diagrams. There's also a new Output Area tool that lets you set an area of a page for outputting to print or exporting. You can also mark up a series of pages in the same way – a reminder that, unlike Illustrator, FreeHand supports multiple pages.
FreeHand MX also features two new effects-based tools. The point-and-click Blend tool offers a quick and interactive way of setting up blends – simple but very effective. The Extrude tool applies 3D depth to an object by simply dragging to specify a distance and direction. Once the main effect is set up, you can double click on the object and rotate it in 3D space while using the Object panel. A variation I haven't seen before is the ability to apply path-based profiles to the extrusion, which enables 3D lathing effects and the creation of realistic objects such as vases.
The Extrude tool is surprisingly powerful and, with the ability to share vanishing points, makes an excellent partner to FreeHand's existing Perspective tool for producing pseudo-3D artwork. It's certainly the highlight of FreeHand's improved new toolset, but again a sense of deja vu is unavoidable. This time it's CorelDRAW that largely deserves the credit, as nearly all the new tools and handling seem to be straight lifts. Again, FreeHand users won't be worried about that – they'll just want to get stuck in.
FreeHand's major weakness has always been its bitmap handling, and this version still lacks the ability to apply colour corrections or filters to bitmaps. You can forget Deneba Canvas-style pixel-based editing, but it does now support alpha-channel transparency for imported TIFF, PSD, PNG and GIF files. This might not sound important, but it's essential for producing layouts that seamlessly combine bitmaps and vectors.
Rather than offering its own internal bitmap power, FreeHand relies on the u