Flash MX 2004 review

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"This is Flash as you know and love it, taken to the next level.” That’s part of the marketing blurb accompanying the launch of Flash MX 2004. Yet the Flash of today bears little resemblance to the Flash that was originally developed to create animated graphics for Web sites. The animation application of yesteryear has mutated into a full development platform, and that’s especially true of this latest version, which has split into two separate products. The standard version, Flash MX 2004, is a powerful, but straightforward upgrade to its predecessor, Flash MX. Like all previous versions of Flash, this upgrade is aimed at Web designers who want to create interactive multimedia content for their Web sites. Its tools focus on creating and importing text, graphics, and multimedia – and allowing you to manipulate that content. However, there’s now a second version, Flash MX Professional 2004, which moves into entirely new territory. Instead of catering to individual users, it’s aimed at larger development teams that consist of both Web designers and application developers who may have a more traditional programming background. This pro version of Flash concentrates on creating links to external databases. It even provides new working methods and a different style of interface that actually allows you to do away with the program’s animation timeline altogether. It’s an impressive piece of software, but it’s certainly not Flash as we’ve known and loved it in the past. Flash MX Professional isn’t an entirely alien beast, though. It’s essentially the standard version of Flash with some new development features bolted on. It shares all of the new features that are found in the standard version, so that’s where we’ll start. The Timeline has always been the core of Flash, but it’s never been the most intuitive of tools to work with. Thankfully, though, Macromedia has made a number of improvements that will speed things up. Many animation effects and transitions can now be applied to objects without having to touch the timeline at all. Select the object to which you want to add an effect then right-click it (control-click with the single-button Mac mouse) to view the new Timeline Effects pop-up menu. There are two main options here – transitions and transformations. The Transformation dialog allows you to animate settings such as rotation, colour and size, while the Transition dialog includes options for creating fades and wipes. You can set the duration of any effect so that it lasts a specific number of frames, which means that you no longer have to worry about setting keyframes on the timeline. This will be a great timesaver when creating many standard animation effects, and makes Flash more accessible for new users, as they’ll be able to get really impressive results without spending hours looking over the manual. Another useful timesaver is the improved selection of behaviours – ready-made scripts written with Flash’s ActionScript language. New behaviours for controlling video, audio, and other content make it easy to quickly create front-end controls for interactive applications. More experienced scripters are catered for as well. The entire ActionScript language has been upgraded to version 2.0, which follows the industry-standard ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers’ Association) specification. Each successive upgrade seems to make Flash more complicated than ever before, so it’s nice to see that Macromedia hasn’t lost sight of the basics this time around. There’s a lot of help for new users. The Start page that appears when you first launch the program has been improved so that you can open a recently used file, start a new Flash document, or choose one of the improved range of templates. There’s an option to take a tour of the program or start a tutorial, and the online Help system has been overhauled as well, making it a lot more useful for beginners. Experience required Other improvements make Flash quicker and easier for experienced users. The spellchecker is only a minor addition, but the new Find-&-Replace option is very powerful, allowing you to search for text, graphics, audio or video clips, and even colours, and to then replace them with alternative files or settings. We also liked the History Panel, which lists all the changes you make and allows you to quickly step backward or forward by using a simple slider control to move through the list. You can even copy-&-paste changes from one document to another, perhaps copying some text formatting or a colour fill between documents. The program’s file import options have been improved, with better support for importing PDF and Illustrator files. The new Video Import Wizard provides a wide range of options for importing and encoding video clips, and you can even perform basic editing by marking In and Out points and combining multiple clips into a single library item. Output options are more varied too. The new publishing options allow you to create a HTML page that can detect which version of the Flash Player is being used to access the page. If it’s an out-of-date version you can redirect visitors to an alternate page, or simply allow Flash to automatically generate a message that tells them to update their player. There’s also a new option, called the Strings Panel, which allows you to create multiple versions of a Flash file using different languages. Unfortunately, the use of the Strings Panel is poorly explained, and the panel itself is hidden away – along with the History Panel and one or two others – in a sub-menu simply referred to as Other Panels. They might just as well have called it Stuff We Didn’t Know What To Do With. It’s always difficult to organize menus in a program as complex as Flash but we can’t help thinking that Macromedia could have come up with something a bit more intuitive than that. Going professional The question of intuition brings us neatly to Flash MX Professional 2004. At this point, designers who just like to use Flash for creating nice graphics and animations will run screaming. However, people who work on large-scale application development may well fall in love all over again. Flash MX Professional may even seduce people who have always considered themselves programmers, rather than designer types. When you launch Flash MX Professional you see a Start page very similar to that of the standard version of Flash. However, you’ll notice a few changes. As well as creating a standard Flash document, which consists of the Stage and Timeline windows, you now have the option of creating several different types of document. The two main options here are the Slide Presentation and Form Application. Both options employ the same new approach to creating Flash content, based on the idea of screens. There are two types of screen – slide screens for presentations and form screens for creating form-based applications such as ecommerce sites. Stick with the metaphor of screens being like the slides within a presentation and you should get the idea. Instead of seeing the familiar stage and timeline, you now see a single large window divided into two areas. The bulk of the window is the Document panel, which is similar to the Stage as it allows you to view the objects you place within the current screen. To the left of the Document panel is the Screen Outline panel, which shows thumbnails of all the screens and their place in the application hierarchy. All the other Flash palettes, such as the Inspector, remain the same, and you do still have the option of viewing your project in the traditional Timeline view. However, people who have worked with visual development tools such as Delphi, or even authoring programs such as Macromedia’s own Authorware, will probably feel more at home with this screen-based approach. You then build your application or presentation simply by creating a series of screens, adding content to each screen and then linking the screens in a structure that determines how the application works. You can use all of the standard Flash tools for creating and importing text, graphics, audio and video content, but Flash MX Professional provides additional tools designed for handling external data sources. These tools are provided in the form of new components. The standard version of Flash includes ready-made components such as buttons and menus that can be used to create application interfaces. But in Flash MX Professional there are new components for accepting data input, feeding data back to servers and for linking to external XML files. Long-time Flash users may not be familiar with these techniques, but they’ll be very useful for people with a background in applications development. There are also new version control features that allow multiple users to collaborate on large-scale projects. This split between Flash MX and Flash MX Professional reminds us of the way that Dreamweaver was divided into two products – standard Dreamweaver and UltraDev – not that long ago. That experiment didn’t last long and Dreamweaver was soon merged back into a single product. We wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happens to Flash in the near future One interesting thing we noticed is that the demo version of Flash – a 30-day trial available from www.macromedia.com – consists of a single application that can quickly switch between standard and Professional modes, allowing you to compare the two versions of Flash. This suggests that there’s already a single unified version of Flash in existence, and that the decision to sell Flash MX Professional as a separate product was primarily about marketing. To be fair, Flash MX Professional does represent a step forward for Flash that takes it into new areas and could even attract an entirely new generation of Flash users. And even if you’re not interested in the Professional version, we’d still recommend that existing users upgrade to Flash MX 2004 immediately, simply to get hold of the more streamlined Timeline tools, which will make even old-fashioned animation work easier and more enjoyable.

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