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  • Price: £259 plus VAT; upgrade £99; FreeHand 9 Flash Studio £399

  • Our Rating: We rate this 10 out of 10 We rate this 10 out of 10

Macromedia’s vector-animation tool Flash totally dominates the field of Web-enhancement technologies, bringing a rich mix of animation, audio and sophisticated interactivity to the meagre palette of HTML. With Flash 5, Macromedia has added a new range of possibilities to the program, and made a good tool into a great one. In fact, to call it merely a vector-animation tool is a completely undersell the full potential of Flash – with support for sound, bitmap, video, dynamic content and advanced interactivity, Flash is a complete multimedia authoring tool. While it’s optimized for Web delivery, standalone projectors can also be made for distribution through other means, including CDs, download, and even floppy disk. This is a major upgrade – not only has the user interface been overhauled, but there are dozens of functionality enhancements, some major, some minor, but all well considered, and all welcome. First the new interface, which has been overhauled in line with Macromedia’s Common User Interface, making it cozily familiar to anyone used to other Macromedia products such as Fireworks and Freehand. The new paradigm is tabbed palettes replacing the cumbersome dialog boxes of previous releases. After a few hours of using Flash 5 I discovered I was working about 25 per cent faster – a huge productivity leap. You can modify the arrangement of palettes to suite yourself, and even save the layout so that it can be shared among a group of developers. There are a couple of new palettes in Flash 5, including a Movie Explorer palette, which allows you to track and modify the usage of symbols and clips across the movie, and a Debugger window which can help flag down problems in your Action scripts. The Movie Explorer really comes into its own with big, complex movies allowing you to make changes, for example editing a script, without having to manoeuvre the timeline to find the required instance. Feature wise, the most compelling new feature has to be the bézier-curve support. Now, in addition to the traditional freehand drawing tools you can now create precise curves and shapes with the bézier pen tool. This works exactly the same way as the Pen tool in FreeHand, with the ability to edit and tweak control points to create accurate vector shapes. And more familiar for Freehand users is the revised stroke and fill implementation. Speaking of FreeHand, you can now import native FreeHand files (how long have we had to wait for this), and there are a range of options and added benefits to this, including mapping of layers, symbols, and FreeHand pages to Flash scenes. Such tight integration makes FreeHand the perfect accompaniment to Flash, great for projects with an online and a print component. For heavy-duty Flash users, these new features are testament that Macromedia has really been listening to its users. But it doesn’t stop there. Symbol libraries can now be shared across movies, with an external common symbol library – ideal for developers working in a team environment. Similarly, scripts can now also be saved and edited in an external program. Adding interactivity with scripts in Flash 5 continues the development started in Flash, and has now been developed into a fully fledged, object oriented programming language, ActionScript, based on a JavaScript-style dot syntax. There’s a whole host of new commands too, with the commands grouped by type. The scripting environment has been drastically improved from the woeful script editor of Flash 4, essential given that the scripts are getting longer. You can now toggle between a menu based scripting environment (Novice mode) to an Expert mode which is little more than a text-editing window. A Debugger allows programmers to track and isolate variables in order to help trap errors in the ActionScript code. Flash 5 is getting more complex, more powerful and more programming oriented. Projects that previously would have required Director and Shockwave, such as creating arcade games, can now be created in Flash alone. While such additional complexity will be welcomed by the professional Web developer, for the beginner Flash is becoming ever more daunting. To get the most out of Flash you’ll need to get to grips with multiple timelines, advanced expression evaluation, targetting movie clips, and before you know it you’ll be a OOP code monkey. For many users, attracted to Flash for its graphical and animation capabilities, they may find themselves being drawn down a road they don’t want to go. Macromedia has attempted to solve this dilemma by introducing SmartClips, which are effectively Movie Clips, but with customizable parameters. Director introduced a similar concept called Behaviours with release 7, and opened up advanced capabilities to novice users, and with users able to share behaviours through Web sites and the user community. SmartClips are clearly meant to follow the same route, and if it takes off then Macromedia will have something really special. The new Macromedia Dashboard window brings help, resources and the user community right into the application itself. Flash is now so ubiquitous that for many sites it has replaced HTML code as the main tool for Web-site creation. With careful use of layers and movie clips it is possible to create an entire Web site as a Flash movie. With Flash 5, you can now also insert HTML code within a Flash text element, including text styling and hyperlinks. Using Macromedia Generator, Flash can be used to display dynamic content, including data drawn from databases. Flash 5 has the Generator Authoring Extensions built in, so you can create the Generator templates (.swt) into which the live data will be incorporated. While you will still need the Generator Developer or Enterprise Edition to actually serve live content online, there are other ways of getting information into and out of Flash. One of the most powerful of these is the new XML actions, allowing the import of structured data into and out of Flash. There are dozens of XML commands available, but at these rarefied heights it’s strictly for the Flash gearheads only. Flash 5 manages to achieve the impossible – adding a slew of new features and functions that make it better, more powerful, and more productive for the professional user, but at the same time, easier to use, and easier to harness the programming power of ActionScripts for the beginner. Flash has completed its evolution from a vector-animation tool into the most powerful Web-development tool around.