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Windows Software Development Software


Graphic Software for Creative People

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Detailed Description and Review

Freeway Express 3.5 3 out of 5 stars

Mac Software Softpress Systems Ltd

Freeway icon [Mac] Freeway Express promises speedy results and ease of use in creating websites on the Mac, but getting to grips with this web design tool can be far from straightforward.

Website: www.softpress.com


System Requirements

Mac

Mac OS X or Mac OS 9

Pros: a good feature-set at a highly competitive price
Cons:
unintuitive, patchy results. No spell checker, link map, or code view

System Requirements: Mac

Mac OS X or Mac OS 9

Freeway Express Features

The whole website is created in a single Freeway document
Drag and drop images and text directly from the finder window
Scale, rotate, distort, and overlap graphic elements and combine them with HTML text
Freeway Express completely re-writes the HTML code and re-compresses all the graphics automatically
Master pages allow site-wide changes
Preview website in the browser of your choice
Publish website using onboard FTP
Use definable styles (not CSS) to speed the formatting process
View resources
Editable 'Actions'
Definable font sets
Ability to enter META Tags
Create online Forms
Insert HTML Markup and items
Extendable with additional 'Fast Packs', families of plug-ins that allow many complex web design tasks
Online help
Freeway Express Support
Free technical support by email
Active discussion lists
Internet walkthroughs available at softpress.com

Overview

Freeway Express is a Mac program and unavailable for the Windows platform. Its purpose is to create websites simply and is targeted to those who do not wish to get involved with html coding.

Mac website design tools are not that common so this software will likely be on the shortlist of any Mac user seeking a simple solution to create their website. Freeway Express is far less expensive as compared with the likes of the industry standard Dreamweaver (also available for the Mac), yet promises much of its capabilities with an 'intuitive' drag and drop interface.

Freeware Express drag and drop screenshot

This review focuses on Freeway Express which also happens to contain the core functions of its bigger brother Freeway Pro. Freeway Pro delivers more features than Express including greater coverage of the kinds of files the program can work with, CSS Styles and layout, and other capabilities designed for the web professional.

Freeway Express might therefore seem like the perfect solution for the Mac user who hasn't created a website before: the drag and drop functionality is familiar, the promise that all html is handled by the program, the 'legendary ease of use' and 5 star reviews quoted on the developers site reassure the potential new user and point to a winning application. In practice however Freeway Express has serious usability flaws that will confuse and intimidate many first-time users.

Freeway ships with a number of website templates that work adequately even if they're a little short on inspiration (choose the simplest to start with as some templates are more difficult than others to modify). If you want to deliver a simple website, Freeway Express will do the job well enough, but as you begin to use the program in earnest you'll soon have to delve deep into the manual to understand how even the simplest of functions is handled.

Download and Installation

The program weighs in at well over 60 MB, and for those who don't enjoy a broadband connection, it takes a considerable time to download. Fortunately Softpress also provide a CD and printed manual version at a slightly higher price. The CD will be posted on upon request.

Freeway Express is simple to install and requires the input of a registration key to unlock the trial mode. Separate 'Fast Packs' can also be 'bolted on' and require registration from within the program.

Program Launch

When Freeway Express is first launched it provides a list of website templates that have been pre-built. This seems a great start for those who are not familiar designing web pages. Unfortunately the implementation of some of the template sites isn't up to scratch and you'll discover error messages appear when previewing some template sites from within the program. This is poor attention to detail. If the program developers produce errors then it's certain the common user will.

launch panels

Program Layout

After Freeway Express has launched and a new document or template has been chosen, the main screen elements appear. As a default these consist of seven main elements:

1 the text menu containing all the main software functions

2 the document window where the user edits their web pages

3 an inspector window that provides details about the particular element that is selected at any one time (much like a properties window in Dreamweaver)

4 a styles window that allows the user to define and edit styles that can be used in the development of the website

5 a site window that presents an overview of the site and links

6 a tools icon window with a range of shortcuts like the selection tool, zoom tool, sketch and link tools etc.

7 pop-up windows accessible via the lower left of the document window that allow changes to the magnification, and the selection of pages

Configuration

Preferences screenshot Freeway Express has a simple and effective preferences window where the user can alter the main settings of the program.

The user may alter preferences relating to the general interface, text, grids and guides, output, and graphics.

General Usage

Making a website is a complex process and any tool that keeps the code from the eyes of the developer has to function perfectly. Unfortunately the very nature of producing web pages that 'degrade gracefully' on a range of browsers and on different platforms requires compromise and a strong element of human judgment, and this is where a program like Freeway falls short.

Users can place text and images directly from the finder onto the page via panel dialogues (window dialogues) and drag and drop functionality, after which they can resize and change the text and image objects.

I found however there were occasions when all seemed fine in the document window but all was far from fine when previewed in a browser. That's part of the usual process of designing a web page, however, the problem becomes serious as the user can't see exactly what's causing the difficulty as there's no code view from within the program. The only way to make certain the page resolves appropriately is by way of trial and error, and depending on the complexity of the page, this method can take a considerable amount of time.

Freeway Tools The screenshot on the left shows the tools palette which lets users create and edit items on the page.

Unfortunately some of the commands available from the tools palette are not undoable. For example, if the text box linking tool is used the only way to undo the command is to 'revert' back to the last saved version of the document (using the 'Unlinking' tool can alter the layout of text as compared with the original version).

This inability to undo is a major usability shortfall of Freeway Express and should be addressed in future versions.

When the drag and drop feature functions well it might seem like a great time saver for the novice user. Simply locate a jpg or gif image file from your finder and drag and drop the image directly onto the Freeway Express document window. The trouble is that any dragging and dropping may significantly affect other page elements and may indeed prevent them working altogether.

The attributes of any given object can be easily edited as the 'inspector' panel is context sensitive and changes depending on the object that is selected. That said when I first used the program I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to change the text of a rollover image. Eventually I had to resort to reading the manual before I realised I'd need to practice what I'd view as a 'workaround' and delete or move an element then replace it after I made the appropriate changes. This is indicative of the untintuitive nature of Freeway Express. I use many professional web and graphics programs on a daily basis but found I had to learn a whole new way of doing things when it came to using Freeway Express.

Well produced software encourages exploration of the program and assists the user at every corner. If users find they have to constantly resort to the manual most will soon give up and favour a simpler solution.

In contrast the FTP integration was easy to configure and worked without error when tested on a Unix server. Be aware you may need to select the 'Passive FTP' mode to successfully connect to your server. During the upload process Freeway copies any files that have changed since the site was last uploaded and deletes any files that are no longer needed. Files are not uploaded if they have not been changed.

Fast Packs

Softpress generously provided the Graphics and Navigation 'Fast Packs' for this review of Freeway Express which significantly extends the functionality of the software by allowing users to edit graphics directly from within the program and create complex drop down navigational menus. Fast Packs are usually purchased separately and can almost double the price of the program.

Documentation

The documentation of Freeway covers both the Express and Pro versions. The pdf guides are particularly well written and produced with copious screenshots and clear explanations. The size of the user guide (398 pages) shows just how much functionality this program has. It's also an indication of how complex Freeway is to use.

A 'Quick Guide' is also provided to familiarise the user with the essential features of the software.

Anyone deciding to opt for Freeway should read the documentation first. I couldn't emphasise this point more as attempting to create a functioning website using Freeway Express without reading the online documentation will be a challenge.

The Freeway Express interface is delivered in many languages and features copious tool tips and a searchable on-line help facility.

Conclusion

So how is it that this review is at odds with the stack of reviews quoted on the softpress website that give it a consistently higher rating? I've carried out this review from the perspective of the average user. After all, that's who Freeway Express has been targeted towards. Freeway Express is quoted as being the 'consumer' version.

Some creative professionals may well find the program easier to use than I've suggested as the familiar quick-keys they've used in Photoshop and other paint programs may give them a head start. The majority of first-time users however are likely to be very disappointed by the often complex methods of achieving tasks, and the constant opening and closing of dialogue windows as the site is developed.

Crucial features like the link map view and spell checker should not be confined to the professional version. Rather they should be considered as core functions in any high quality website creation software.

Another change I'd like to see in the next version is to drop the implementation of Fast Packs with the view to delivering 'complete' Express and Pro versions. The purchase and integration of additional Fast Packs makes Freeway Express more complex to learn as they are not part of the core feature-set and require separate activation. The advantages that result from the integrated Fast Packs considerably improves the software's functionality and I'd like to see them as integrated into the core program. The development of more user-friendly 'Actions' would also significantly improve the software's overall effectiveness.

The attention to detail in the functionality of Freeway Express is testament to the effort that has gone into producing this software. Softpress place great emphasis on the ease of use of Freeway Express, and it's therefore a great irony that the program seems to make the process of designing a website more difficult than it need be.

The most fundamental task in any website design software is to create links easily and quickly from one page or page element to another, and yet the implementation of this in Freeway Express is convoluted. An indication that many of the core functions require redevelopment with far greater emphasis being placed on the usability and accessibility of functions.

So, if you decide to opt for Freeway Express do one thing above all else: read the manual!

Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable®


Mac Software Developer's website: www.softpress.com

(the link above opens a new browser window)


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