A Guide to Web Image Compression Software: Macromedia Fireworks

Software type:  universal web graphics program!

The other programs I've reviewed in these pages have been utilities that compress graphics. Some of them have other capabilities, but I've really only evaluated their compression performance. As a result, I've not reviewed programs like DeBabelizer, PaintShop Pro, Photoshop or Xara Webster, all of which do compress graphics, along with a host of other things.

In part this has been because the main purpose for looking at the programs has been because they target Web graphics, whereas the other applications focus at least as much on output for the print medium. They are also in general much more expensive than most of the compression programs, reflecting their increased capabilties. I've concentrated on smaller applications that are primarily for compressing Web graphics.

A few weeks ago, Macromedia, better known for Shockwave and Flash and the splendid Dreamweaver HTML editor, released the first public beta of their Fireworks graphics application. Its stated aim is to prepare graphics for the Web. So I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at it to see what it offered.

Company: Macromedia Inc
URL: http://www.macromedia.com/
Program: Fireworks
Program URL: http://www.macromedia.com/software/fireworks/
Platform: w95, mac
Type: Image compressor, palette optimiser, image manipulation and editing and tons more!
Price: $299, or free 30 day trial

What is it?

Macromedia's Fireworks is a complex program with many capabilities, far beyond simple compression of graphics. For example it will prepare button GIFs that change when you move the cursor over them, and it will prepare the HTML/javascript to do this, as well as the GIF images! It has both bitmap and vector graphics capabilties. It will allow you to create animated GIFs. It will allow you to create neat GIF buttons. All sorts of things.

To be honest, in the day or so I've been playing with it, I've gone nowhere near finding out everything it will do. But I have explored the graphics compression capabilities, and it's these I want to report on.

I should open by saying that Fireworks is a beta release. It is most definitely buggy, too. Nothing catastrophic so far, just little glitches like it not reporting the compressed file size correctly if you use the compression wizard, slight screen refresh problems etc.

Does it do anything really new?

Well, if you confine yourself to graphics compression, the answer is no. It allows you to output GIF, JPEG or PNG files. It will accept a modest range of file types as input. It has a compression wizard that analyses your image and recommends the output options. You can also select the compression process manually. It provides you with tools to reduce GIF colour depth, a numerical quality setting for JPEGs, and all the usual stuff. It provides you with a compressed file preview window, with a switch to show you the before and after compression views. It tells you how big the compressed file will be.

If you look at its other capabilities, the answer is a resounding "yes". It is a pretty impressive program. If you want to create buttons on you web page that change appearance when activated, this is the program you'll choose: it automates the process, and even generates the HTML!

Does it do things better?

If you confine yourself to compression, again the answer is no. Its compression capabilities are quite competitive, but not the best. For example, like several other programs, it leaves rectangular blotchy artifacts in compressed JPEGs in areas of slowly varying colour and tone. In this regard it does not match Pegasus's offerings. It does seem to handle well the small "wrinkly" artifacts near high contrast edges. Its "smooth" control is to my mind too heavy handed: setting it to the lowest level (above zero) softens the image too much, at least for photographic images.

It runs quite slowly on my rather elderly P120, compared to most of the other compression programs, but nothing disastrous.

The interface?

I was initially impressed with the clean layout of the toolbars. But then I found its operation a little counter-intuitive. It's hard to tell if the program can do something, and you just can't find out how, or if it won't do what you're after. For example, I tried to select a particular colour within a TIFF image. Simple in Photoshop, but I couldn't work out how to do it in Fireworks. Even selecting the main image seems circuitous. That may be because it is a complex program and you can't expect to have everything completely obvious.

Nonetheless, it is a little hard to get into. I get the impression that it does very difficult things easily and simple things less easily. But maybe that's just me. The program is a beta version, so the manual and helpfile are not yet complete, which is fair enough.

Is it worth getting?

This of course depends on what you want. If you're preparing fancy commercial web pages, this is a program you'll really like. If you just want to compress images, no, it's not the best value for money. It would be like buying an aircraft carrier when you only need a motor boat.

But make no mistake, this is a powerful program for web site makers. This brief review has only looked at a tiny part of its capabilities.

At present, Macromedia is offering it at their web site as a free download. The beta version expires in June.

If you have a bit of spare disk space and want to see some of its more impressive capabilities, it's worth the download. One warning: Fireworks uses PNG as its internal preferred file format, and when you install it under Windows 95, it will kidnap the file association for PNG files, without asking. Annoying but not a disaster.

24 March 1998

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This information is Copyright © 1998 David Nicholls. These pages may be linked to, provided you don't embed them in frames, but may not be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the author.