SOFTWARE WORTH SEVERAL THOUSAND WORDS

In today's world of specialists you have Illustrator artists, Freehand artists and Corel artists. And ask any of them why they do what they do, and the answer is always the same: ''My program is easier to use and has features the others don't have.''

So what's an unartistic and unbiased reviewer to do when confronted with new versions of all three programs - Adobe Illustrator 8 ($374.85), Macromedia Freehand 8 ($389) and CorelDraw 9 Graphics Suite ($459.99).First there's the ''wow factor,'' which often translates into ''Can you really do that on a computer?''

This area has always belonged to Corel. Anyone who has seen artwork created using Corel's advanced layering techniques has to be amazed. And the collection of clip art included with CorelDraw has always blown away the competition, if only because of its sheer volume.

But Illustrator and Freehand really shine when it comes to developing the less glitzy artwork used to accompany articles in your standard magazines and newspapers. They're also designed to work with other commonly used programs ranging from Macromedia's Director and DreamWeaver to Adobe's Photoshop, PageMill and PageMaker. Work created in these programs can also be easily imported into a Microsoft Word document or a PowerPoint presentation.

I found that Illustrator was a bit easier for the untalented novice to use, with Freehand being more for the creative geniuses who know their way around a palette.

Here's a blow-by-blow description of the new features offered in each of these programs:

The CorelDraw 9 Graphics Suite includes CorelDraw 9, Corel Photo-Paint 9, Canto Cumulus 4, Bitstream Font Navigator 3, Microsoft Visual basic for Applications 6, Corel Texture, CorelTrace, Corel Capture and Corel Script.

The suite provides the ability to experiment with interactive tools without losing your original drawing; to create multipage documents with all the features of a desktop layout program; to open and edit more than 100 types of graphics files; and to publish directly to the Internet. It also has 25,000 pieces of clip art, 1,000 TrueType and Adobe Type 1 fonts and 1,000 high resolution photos.

Of course all of your standard drawing, smoothing and rotation tools are still there (and those cute little roll-up menus can now be docked anywhere on a page), but what you can do with them has changed significantly.

You can now easily change foreground or background colors; drag and drop colors onto a selected layer of a drawing; cancel all operations by hitting the escape key; view objects layer by layer; easily remove unwanted effects; and customize multicolor guidelines for each piece of art.

Freehand's new features, in addition to the usual brushes, nibs and eyedroppers, include: Lens Fills that provide transparency effects and darken, lighten and monochrome filters; embossing, shadow, and mirror tools; a Graphics Hose that allows you to spray objects throughout a document; a free-form and reshaping tool; the ability to convert images to bitmaps without exporting and importing them from other programs; libraries of preset stroke and fill styles; and customizable shortcuts, toolbars and views. And it works smoothly with Photoshop, Quark XPress, Illustrator, CorelDraw and Adobe Acrobat.

New enhancements for Illustrator include: Brush effects that let you simulate a paintbrush or stretch artwork along a path; a Gradient Mesh Tool that converts an object to a multicolored mesh object; a Photo Crosshatch Tool; an enhanced blend tool; Navigator, Links, Pathfinder and Actions palettes; Type Sampling by using the eyedropper and paint bucket to pick up the attributes of fill, stroke, character and paragraph attributes from an object and distribute them elsewhere in your document; enhanced handling of text and layers; enhanced color and swatch palettes; and Free Transform, Pencil, Smoothing and Erase tools.

Obviously these programs aren't for the easily confused or those who just want basic drawing software. All have features only a professional artist could love.

But if you need that professional touch for your presentations or your annual report, there's really no other way to go.

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