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Adobe Fireworks CS3 review

By Jem Matzan

The good news about Fireworks CS3 is, it's still the best tool for designing Web graphics and for rapid site prototyping. But like nearly every other Adobe product in the Creative Suite 3 series, it just doesn't offer enough new features to justify the high cost of upgrading.

Fireworks overview

Originally released by Macromedia, Inc. in the late '90s as a Web graphics tool, Fireworks has grown into the premiere application in its class -- if you can find any other programs in its class, that is. Fireworks is unique in its depth of features and intuitiveness of interface; with it, you can quickly create a single vector or raster image, or you can build an entire graphical Web site (though that site will not be maximally efficient or cross-browser compatible -- this is mainly useful as a prototype site to show clients and managers).

The default file format in Fireworks is PNG, but it can export images to BMP, GIF, animated GIF, AI (Illustrator), JPG, SWF (Flash), PSD (Photoshop), TIF, and WBMP. It can also save in a "flattened" PNG image, combining multiple layers into one.

Fireworks was originally intended to be a standalone program for creating graphics for online use, but was eventually made to work interoperably with Macromedia's other products -- the Dreamweaver HTML IDE, the Flash animation creation program, and the FreeHand vector drawing tool. In their later incarnations, each program was capable of creating entire Web sites based on content you created -- be they drawings, animations, applications, storyboards, or hand-coded HTML. Macromedia experimented with bundling the four products in duo packages, eventually including them all in the Macromedia Studio suite.

In December 2005, Macromedia was bought out by Adobe Systems, Inc., and both companies' products were merged into a variety of slightly different application suites. Adobe killed off FreeHand in favor of its own Illustrator vector drawing program, but smartly kept Fireworks for creating Web graphics and entire graphics-oriented Web sites.

Versions and packages

You can buy Fireworks CS3 as a standalone product, as an upgrade to a previous qualifying version of Fireworks (see the next section for details), or as part of the following Creative Suite 3 packages:

  • Web Premium
  • Web Standard
  • Master Collection

Upgrade eligibility

If you already have a legal license for a qualifying upgrade product, you can upgrade to Fireworks CS3 or any of the Creative Suite 3 packages that include Fireworks at a substantial discount. You must own one of the following Fireworks products to upgrade:

  • Macromedia Fireworks MX
  • Macromedia Fireworks MX 2004
  • Macromedia Fireworks 8

Versions of Fireworks prior to these are not eligible. If you have an MX, MX 2004, or version 8 edition of Dreamweaver, Flash, or Macromedia Studio, you will be able to upgrade to a suite at the same discounted rate.

What's new in CS3

Like its other former Macromedia Studio siblings, Fireworks CS3's primary new features involve interoperability with canonical Adobe products (Photoshop in particular). Here are the highlights:

  • Integration with Photoshop and Illustrator
  • Improved layer management
  • Improved bitmap scaling
  • Adobe Flex integration
  • Ability to create multiple Web page prototypes in a single PNG file
  • Photoshop-inspired blend modes
  • Adobe Bridge integration
Adobe Fireworks CS3
Fireworks CS3: still the best Web graphics tool

Putting it to the test

The first thing I did in Fireworks was get back into using it. I used to have Fireworks running all day, every day, playing with site prototypes and various Web graphics that I wanted to use. It's just such a fascinating and powerful tool that it's difficult not to get wrapped up in using it. I got into Fireworks at version 4, and upgraded twice before abandoning the Windows platform for Linux. At the time, that forced me to leave Macromedia and Corel behind as well, and learn all new programs and processes. So coming back to Fireworks CS3 was a bit nostalgic.

Before reading up on any of the new features in CS3, I wanted to see if I could discover them through normal Fireworks usage. So I started a few new projects like the ones I used to do -- site prototyping and various slice behaviors for buttons and content manipulation -- and even modified a few existing raster graphic files, but I never did find any noticeable difference in functionality from what I remember all those years ago.

To me, the integration with Photoshop and Illustrator is meaningless. Part of adjusting to the Macromedia tools years ago was to learn to work without Photoshop. Either you went with Adobe and you got inferior Web-specific tools but superior print graphics tools, or you went with Macromedia and you got slightly inferior graphics tools and unmatched Web design tools. If your budget limited you to only one suite (or before the suites, one or two good design apps), and you went with Macromedia, you more or less wrote off Photoshop as unnecessary. Including both programs in the same suite seems like overkill, and I can't think of any reasonable scenario in which I would need to work with both programs. I'm sure there are a minority of professionals out there who think this is a great new feature, but I'm not one of them.

Fireworks had a great vector drawing tool companion in FreeHand. FreeHand had some really fancy vector functions that Fireworks and Flash did not have, so if you wanted to do something particularly complicated with vector graphics, you had to start in FreeHand. Unfortunately, Adobe killed FreeHand so that its own competing Illustrator program could inherit its users, and so Fireworks now has better Illustrator support as a result. The big problem here is that I was used to FreeHand and I liked it a lot, and Illustrator has a dramatically different interface and workflow. If I had continued with Macromedia Studio all those years ago and my work life were now intimately tied to its workflow, I would find this CS3 upgrade to be a gigantic hassle because of the FreeHand replacement.

I do like the Photoshop-inspired color dodge and burn tools. To be honest, those are the only tools that I find particularly unique and useful in Photoshop when doing creative artwork. This furthers my previous point about Photoshop being unnecessary to someone who is already productive with Fireworks. If you move the best features of Photoshop to Fireworks, then why bother with Photoshop?

I did discover one bug in Fireworks CS3: When using the erase tool, the cursor flickers and lags a bit. Somehow the erase function is causing a significant performance issue on Windows Vista 64-bit.

The only new feature in Fireworks CS3 that I found really useful was the Pages panel. With this, you can create multiple pages in a single PNG graphic, each with its own layers, animations, and slices/hotspots. This makes it much easier to prototype a site in a single file instead of a series of files. Since Fireworks produces an unbelievably messy collection of tiny graphical pieces and HTML files, from a creative standpoint, it makes it much easier to keep track of a site prototype if there's only one source file to work with.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

I highly recommend Fireworks for designing Web graphics and for designing working, graphical prototypes of Web sites. If you're on Windows or OS X, there is no better tool for these purposes, and Fireworks CS3 is definitely the best edition so far. However, as is my recommendation with most of the other Adobe Creative Suite 3 programs, I do not recommend that existing users spend the money to upgrade to this new version unless any of the above-listed new features would make you measurably more productive. Fireworks reached its peak with version MX, and hasn't had very many new worthwhile new feature additions since then. Even when you take all of the changes since MX as a single group, Fireworks CS3 still does not offer enough to justify an upgrade for most professionals, especially if you have no plans to upgrade to Windows Vista.

Is there any hope for Fireworks as an upgrade in the future? Perhaps. Here's what I'd like to see in future releases:

  • Lower prices. Fireworks is a powerful professional tool, but it's about twice as expensive as it needs to be. For Studio or Fireworks MX users, $75 might be an acceptable cost to upgrade, but $150 is not. The best way to avoid so-called "piracy" is to provide an affordable product. That brings me to my next point...
  • Eliminate the product activation scheme. Everyone hates product activation, especially when it is limited to a small number of reactivations. I know a lot of people who get a new computer every year, or reload the operating system every year or so. What happens when you run out of activations? Well you have to call Adobe during normal business hours and explain to someone why you need another product activation. It's easier to download the product activation crack tool from a P2P network or warez site, and if you do that, you may as well download the whole program for free anyway. Limited-use product activation is absurd.
  • Come to Linux before it's too late. Not having a native version of Fireworks for Linux does not harm Linux as much as it harms Adobe. The absence of Fireworks makes alternative tools like The GIMP better. I'd at very least like to see Adobe dedicate some resources to making Fireworks operate better under Wine.
Purpose Web graphics creation, and graphical site prototyping
Manufacturer Adobe Systems, Inc.
Supported platforms Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or later, Windows Vista Home Premium or better, Mac OS X v.10.4.8 or later.
License Proprietary, heavily restrictive. Requires Internet-activated, limited-use product activation and user registration.
Market Web designers, developers, and artists.
Price (retail) U.S. $300 for the full version, $150 for the upgrade. Also available as part of Adobe Creative Suite 3.
Previous version Adobe Fireworks 8
Product Web site Click here