(Apple’s Mac App Store has a nearly three-year-old version of Freeway Express. The current version is available on Softpress’ website.)
In the early days of the web, designers used HTML tables as a framework for laying out sites. It was a kludgy workaround for a problem HTML hadn’t yet solved, but it got the job done. In 1998, the earliest versions of CSS layout arrived, providing a cleaner, easier way to lay out page elements. Though it’s hard to say exactly how long CSS has been the standard, “at least a half-decade” is an incredibly safe bet.
Freeway Express does an admittedly clever job of hiding these shortcomings at first. It lets you drag and drop elements onto your pages anywhere you want, sized however you prefer. It doesn’t actually generate the underlying HTML code until you preview your site. This might actually be a clever solution to avoid cluttering up clean code with layers of revisions, if that code were up to modern standards. As it is, the separation merely makes it harder for you to easily see how your site will look as you edit it. Too often, you just get empty boxes with labels on them.
Once you figure out how to use Freeway Express, you can actually accomplish some pretty nifty tricks. Though I wasn’t impressed with Freeway’s paltry, unappealing roster of standard fonts, I did appreciate its ability to create fully editable graphical text elements using any of my system fonts. Configuring the built-in, no-frills FTP to upload my files required only minimal fiddling with the settings. I also built a reasonably slick CSS dropdown menu, and followed the exhaustive tutorial in the instruction manual to construct an interactive photo gallery, complete with selectable thumbnails that displayed a larger image.
Unfortunately, many of the more complex tasks I mentioned prove woefully unintuitive, thanks to an interface that hides a lot of key commands in menus, displays different options in different places without obvious clues to help you understand those distinctions, and demands you follow steps that seem more like programming workarounds than logical procedures.
To make that CSS menu I mentioned, I couldn’t just select the “CSS Menu” action—one of Freeway Express’s army of interactive or specialized page elements, which can be expanded with downloads from the program’s online repository—and then build how I wanted it to look and where I wanted each link to go, as I could in other programs I’ve tested.
Instead, I had to create a text box, use poorly marked arrow buttons to indent some elements of the text into a bullet-pointed list, apply links to each item via a command hidden in the program’s menus, and apply the CSS Menu action to that list, and then style the menu’s appearance in one of the many obtrusive floating palettes that always seemed to hover over whatever part of the screen I needed to see. I would’ve had no idea how to do any of that if I hadn’t consulted Freeway Express’s clearly written, numbingly thorough help manual.
Building that interactive photo gallery proved similarly obtuse, as I jumped back and forth between multiple Inspector tabs for multiple Actions applied to various stacks of elements. It still worked better than Freeway Express’s actual photo gallery action, which just manifested a big, blank box. I’m sure reading the manual would have clued me in – but I’ve tested plenty of other programs whose design made it obvious how to set up a gallery without having to lunge for the help files.
I have no doubt that if I toughed out the learning curve, I’d find myself able to accomplish even more impressive feats with Freeway Express. The sheer number of built-in actions, not to mention the downloadable add-ons, suggest a program with more depth and breadth than many others I’ve tested in the past few months. But expending that effort hardly seems worthwhile if it only yields sites built on creaky, cluttered, dust-covered code.
Freeway Express seems outdated by design, since creators Softpress also offer the much more modern Freeway Pro. This shiny new version supports HTML5, CSS positioning, responsive design, and more. I didn’t evaluate Freeway Pro, but its feature set looks legitimately impressive.
However, Freeway Pro still appears saddled with much of Express’s same baffling look and feel. And at $150, it’s nearly twice as expensive as any other Mac web design program I’ve evaluated, including several that provide a respectable portion of its abilities within far friendlier, more intuitive interfaces.
Freeway Express feels like a bumpy stretch of dead-end road. The Pro version’s abundant features might be worthwhile for patient users with money to burn, but I can’t recommend Express to even the most cash-strapped designers. Learning to write code in a text editor matches Freeway Express’s zero-dollar price tag, probably requires no more of a time commitment, and will produce better results in the end.