Softpress Freeway 4 Pro £165

1st Jan 2006 | 00:00

Softpress Freeway 4 Pro

The missing link between DTP and the web

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Good for print designers moving to the web, but still no match for Dreamweaver

Like:

<p>No need to learn HTML</p><p>Create graphics from text</p><p>Transparency features</p>

Dislike:

<p>Cannot edit HTML directly</p><p>Poor handling of other apps' code</p><p>Fixed-width layouts</p>

Virtually every print designer who wants to make the transition to the web looks for two things: a way to avoid writing code and a program that is as close to page layout programs such as QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign as possible. It's no surprise then that Freeway has earned itself a following among many designers, since it grants both wishes at an affordable price.

The program has never managed to attract the attention of web pros - they regard it in the same way as a print designer regards AppleWorks. However, the latest version, Freeway 4 Pro, builds on an already strong toolbox of functions that should at least tempt web designers, even if it probably won't be enough to drag them away from Dreamweaver or GoLive.

Anyone familiar with XPress will find Freeway easy. You place boxes on your layout where you want your page elements to appear, then type into them or import text and graphics.

Where Freeway really trumps the likes of Dreamweaver and GoLive is in its ability to go beyond conventional HTML layout restrictions. You can rotate boxes, group them, get text to flow from one to another, just as you would with a print layout, with Freeway calculating how to make this work in HTML. This makes it easier for you to get creative on the page than it is with other programs that force you into thinking about the code as you're designing.

One of the big problems of this approach, however, is that it leaves you at the mercy of Freeway's coding abilities. Previous versions have produced code that was either older than the Ark or so bloated that you had time to make a cup of tea before your page loaded in a browser. Version 4, however, sweeps most of that away to bring proper support for the latest HTML and XHTML standards, as well as cascading stylesheet-based positioning. The code is cleaner, and it loads a whole lot faster as a result.

Change for the better

There have also been very visible changes to Freeway's interface, all of them for the better. While Freeway 3.5 looked like an OS 9 application that had been tinkered with to work with OS X, Freeway 4 has the full-on OS X look and feel, complete with customisable toolbar, scrollwheel support and contextual menus. Most of the toolbar icons echo existing palette options, but with a crowded screen, a toolbar at the top makes more sense than an obstructive palette.

While there are a large number of minor worthy additions - such as Spotlight and Unicode support, the ability to upload content directly to a .Mac homepage, and a drag-and-drop site-management panel - the biggest improvements to Freeway are its new graphics capabilities. These trump even those in XPress for the most part, making Photoshop a rare visit for the Freeway 4 user.

Create text and style it any way you like in Freeway, taking advantage of the same kinds of typographic tools you'd expect in a normal DTP package, and come publishing time, it will create GIFs out of anything that won't translate well into HTML.

Don't worry that your entire page will become a graphic: Freeway won't let you style anything in a way that's incompatible with HTML unless you specify the text should have GIF formatting. Version 4 also lets you style imported images with embosses, duotones, posterizes, fades and a long list of other Photoshop-style filters without having to buy a FAST add-on pack as before.

Unfortunately for Softpress, pro web designers are still going to look down their noses at Freeway. First, there's its insistence on fixed-width layouts. While Softpress may be trumpeting how XHTML and CSS make code suitable for mobile devices, by insisting that users must specify how wide their layouts should be, Freeway rules out that option, unless you go to great and ingenious lengths.

Then there's the code itself. While it is undoubtedly cleaner than previous Freeway code and didn't have any problems in Mac or Windows browsers as far as we could determine, Freeway does have a marked preference for HTML 3.2-style write-up and tables when left to its own devices. The XHTML that it exports, while very nearly standards-compliant, fails the advanced pedantry of the W3C Validator and BBEdit's syntax checker.

And if the bloat that's now missing from Freeway's HTML has gone anywhere, it's taken refuge in stylesheets, which seem to ooze redundancy, strange programming choices and class specifiers at every possible opportunity.

Freeway also has problems dealing with other programs' code. While you can import HTML into your sites and layout - external stylesheets are given short shrift, however - Freeway will wrench, distort and tear the HTML, injecting it full of table formatting. It makes a bad team player that should only be used by itself or to design layouts, with other software picking up the heavy lifting once Freeway has generated its HTML.

Lastly, dynamic content via PHP et al, while supported, gets none of the error checking, code completion and syntax highlighting that the big guns offer. Any serious coding also makes nonsense of the page layout metaphor, as it does with the other WYSIWYG packages, but while they offer a source code view to compensate, Freeway resorts to dialog boxes to give you editing freedom. It's a poor choice if you develop a highly dynamic sites.

Freeway 4 Pro is great for anyone creative who wants to make web pages as aesthetically pleasing as their print layouts with the least amount of effort. But for serious web work, while it can offer an excellent starting point, you're still going to need something more powerful. Rob Buckley

Text effects without Photoshop Tired of switching apps to do anything creative? With Freeway, you never have to leave to create stylised text. While not as powerful as Photoshop's layers, its toolkit includes drop shadows and glows. Best of all, though, you can change the opacity of the text and get it to overlay the background - something you can do with other page elements, too.

The latest standards

While Freeway 3.5 Pro fell pretty short of embracing modern HTML standards, only really being happy with HTML 3.2, version 4 can generate XHTML 1.0 and 2.0 pages as well as HTML 4.01-compliant pages and cascading stylesheets (CSS). It also adopts the full CSS positioning system, rather than the half-hearted attempts of earlier versions.

Any font, any time

Third up, is the very pleasing fact that Freeway 4 Pro now enables you to style up text just as you would in QuarkXPress or any other DTP package. You can change its colour, font, size and spacing however you like, and when you publish the site, Freeway will convert the text into a GIF, preserving the layout's look and positioning exactly.

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