One hand in the grave

Adobe is merging with Macromedia and Illustrator has learned vector tracing. Come in freehand, your time is up!

It probably isn't polite to start referring to FreeHand in the past tense, but is it really worth delaying the obituary any longer?

The dust won't settle on Adobe's merger with multimedia arch-rival Macromedia for months, but we know one thing already: Macromedia FreeHand has as much chance of surviving the merger unscathed as I have of hosting the 2012 Olympics in my back garden. Not much then.

History lessons

Experience tells us it's time to pen an effusive farewell to this venerable vector editing program. Back in 1994, when Adobe took over Aldus in order to get its hands on the (then) market-leading DTP (desktop publishing) application, PageMaker, FreeHand was the part of the bargain labelled "unwanted extra".

Adobe quickly discarded FreeHand because it didn't see the need to have another illustration application alongside its own. Since then, Adobe Illustrator has cemented its position as the market leader, so there's no reason to think the company will be any more welcoming this time around.

There are those who argue that dumping FreeHand was a silly move. After all, 11 years later, FreeHand is still easier to use than its rival and, in some ways, more powerful. Its fans point to features that have never made it to Illustrator, such as multi-page support - although I've never found that a compelling reason to pick an illustration program.

A far more vital piece of one-upmanship has been FreeHand's tracing tool, which speedily and accurately converts imported bitmap images into vector files. Although programs such as CorelDraw have comparable features, Illustrator traditionally had nothing. If you wanted to convert pixels to vectors in the Adobe world, you had to buy a separate application - Streamline.

Vector conversion is a big deal to digital artists. Working with vectors offers plenty of advantages: as the images are made up of curves and polygons, they can be resized without loss of quality. This is useful if you need to repurpose an image for use in print or on the Web. And they are also usually smaller in file size and easier to edit than their bitmap equivalents.

Trace elements

So the thing that surely nails the coffin shut on FreeHand is the arrival of vector tracing in Illustrator CS 2.0. Admittedly, Adobe has just exhumed the functionality of Streamline, given it a new name - Live Trace - and tagged it on to Illustrator, but it's clearly the program's standout upgrade. And, as it's more powerful than FreeHand's vector tracer, the final reason for Adobe to hang on to it has disappeared.

At first, Live Trace looks nothing special. If you import a bitmap and apply Illustrator's default trace preset to it, you end up with rudimentary black-and-white, high-threshold line art, but the beauty of Live Trace is that you can switch between a number of presets for increasing levels of detail, and even tweak those settings in an exhaustive dialogue box. Illustrator will then redraw the trace according to the settings.

It's called Live Trace because the link between the original image and the artwork remains throughout the vector translation process, allowing you to fiddle about to get the settings you want. It's only when you press the incongruous-sounding Expand button that the changes are made more permanent. Live Trace can hardly be described as fast - the complexity of the translation calculations slows things down and more impatient types will end up holding a finger in front of the progress bar to check it's moving.

But at the highest setting it's nearly impossible to tell the difference between a vector drawing and the original photo. And that's good.

Paint killer

What adds further value to Live Trace is the associated Live Paint feature. This makes it much easier to colour complex documents, breathing life into simple vector files.

Rather than treating the docu-ment as a layered file, Live Paint lets you work with it as seen - even the intersections between paths can now be coloured separately. This makes it easy to apply complex colour effects to line art drawings.

Cleverly, paint effects move with the object they are applied to. For example, if you apply a Live Paint fill to an object that overlaps another area, its colour will follow when the other expanse moves.

The process is made easier with Live Paint's Gap Detection feature, which accepts that the objects in vectorised images are rarely neat polygons. Gaps between lines are closed, so it's much easier to apply colours to discrete areas of the image. Not perfect, but a lot easier.

Illustrator may be difficult to love, but these improvements surely mean FreeHand has no future at Adobe. Still, it would be some compensation if it was spun off yet again to a company that would cherish and develop it. Microsoft, Corel - are you listening?

Click here to view the original file as imported into Illustrator.

Click hereto view the default Live Trace preset as it produces rather stark results.

Live Paint makes it much easier to colour layered documents(Click here to view image).

When applied to intersecting objects, Live Paint effects move with the intersecting layer(Click here to view image).

Live Trace settings are very customisable(Click here to view image).

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Tom Gorham

PC Advisor (UK)
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