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Macromedia Studio MX 2004

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In: Reviews > Product Reviews

By Jesse Nieminen

Published on April 14, 2004

Macromedia Studio MX 2004 Although the name is ridiculously convoluted, Macromedia’s flagship suite of software has really matured into the most formidable Web design package out there. Considering all the new features in this latest version, the price is an incredible bargain that will easily pay for itself in short order.

Studio MX 2004 bundles Dreamweaver MX 2004, Fireworks 2004, Flash MX 2004, and Freehand MX. As you might have noticed, Freehand remains unchanged from the most recent version. Also, and perhaps most importantly, there is the option to purchase the package with Flash Professional for only $100 extra. This option includes the impressive new features in Studio MX 2004, which I will cover later.

Dreamweaver MX 2004

To the chagrin of many hardcore developers, we mere mortals still make heavy use of WYSIWYG editors, but, undeniably, they are much better than they used to be and in most instances are serious Web development tools. The competition between Dreamweaver and Adobe’s GoLive has seen the latter bloat into a feature-rich but difficult behemoth. Fortunately, Macromedia has made numerous improvements to Dreamweaver that give the application greater ease-of-use and performance.

Dreamweaver MX 2004’s new interface is svelte and nimble. While everything you might need is not immediately at hand, it is considerably easier to find without too much digging. The layout of tools and panels is clear, and the insert bar is much smaller, providing more crucial screen real estate for editing documents. Performance is quite improved, solving perhaps the worst problem of Dreamweaver MX—it no longer plods along like it used to. It’s also nowhere near as buggy or quirky as MX was.

Enhanced CSS integration is central to this upgrade. Page properties are now handled with CSS, and CSS styling options are now on the Property Inspector next to the font attributes (which could possibly be confusing to novices). Creation of style sheets is an easy task, but there are still rules that can be broken if you’re not careful. Thankfully, the Tag inspector now indicates when a specific CSS attribute overrides another. This is great, because it’s easy to forget the hierarchical rules of CSS. CSS files can also be shared between Dreamweaver and Flash’very important when you want your presentation to be consistent.

One very cool new tool is the built-in Graphic Editor. Obviously it doesn’t have the abilities of Photoshop or Fireworks, but it’s a very handy thing to use for simple changes like cropping, adjusting brightness/contrast, or sharpening the image. If anything more is necessary, there are also buttons for directly launching the image in Fireworks or optimizing it in Fireworks’sending the file directly into Fireworks’ export module. I’ve been using these tools for a while, and, in certain instances, they’ve saved me quite a bit of time.

I like the way this version deals with tables. Selected tables now helpfully display horizontal width information, and are more easily discernible from other tables in your layout. I can’t tell you how many problems I’ve had in the past with table width glitches, so these visual cues are very much appreciated.

The coding environment enjoys many enhancements that aid in quicker and more professional results. The Tag Inspector provides available options for a selected piece of code, and a new right-click menu offers code-editing options directly within the document. If you are working with custom tags, you’ll appreciate the Tag Library Editor which enables you to store and edit tag properties. And for those of you relegated to a lot of "find-and-replace work", you’ll cheer the fact that these searches can now be saved for later use.

Dreamweaver MX 2004 cares about how your code will function in the real world. The browser validator will check your site’s compatibility—and the accessibility toolset has been expanded to meet the most rigorous requirements.

In addition to being an HTML editor, this version offers greatly-enhanced support for ASP, JSP, PHP, XML and other programming languages. Upon launching Dreamweaver, you can choose to create one of these document types and edit it in a friendly environment. To go even further, the Reference panel offers content from O’Reilly on SQL, ASP.NET and PHP—not too shabby.

And for those jobs that require greater security, Dreamweaver now supports built-in Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP). No more need for quirky standalone SFTP applications.

Dreamweaver provides an abundance of new features and better performance. In my testing it has been very stable and I have not encountered any bugs. I am especially pleased about Macromedia’s focus on CSS. It has been implemented quite nicely and should provide a smooth transition for those who have never used CSS before. The code that Dreamweaver generates is getting better with each release, although some attention could be paid to making it leaner in some areas (particularly Javascript behaviors).

If you are a Dreamweaver user, I highly recommend upgrading since several tasks have been made easier and quicker. I was surprised to actually find myself comfortable modifying JSP code with it, something I’d never done before.

Fireworks MX 2004

Fireworks also gets a facelift and some new improvements, although somewhat modest. The best thing about the new version is the enhanced performance. It’s much faster than it used to be.

The interface is nice and intuitive, featuring the same twirl-up panels found in the other applications. The Property Inspector has been improved, putting impressive context-sensitive control over text and images. Less digging around in menus is always a great thing.

There are some new photo-editing tools that offer interesting options for working with bitmaps. That said, I wouldn’t ever consider Fireworks to be a replacement for Photoshop. Photoshop offers a level of sophistication and powerful tools that make many Fireworks features look like toys in comparison. Most designers using Fireworks will use it in conjunction with Photoshop, and, thankfully, Fireworks MX 2004 handles layered Photoshop files very well.

Web designers are constantly fighting with fuzzy and poorly-displaying bitmap text. Fireworks now offers a great deal of control over the anti-aliasing of text that surpasses that of Photoshop. A pulldown menu offers quick options like "crisp," "strong" and "smooth," but goes further by offering system anti-aliasing—which uses your computer’s text smoothing—and custom anti-aliasing, with controls for oversampling, sharpness, and strength. When you’re having trouble getting a font to display just right, this is a godsend.

The Transform Tool is improved, giving more precise control, and including the ability to constrain text scaling by point size. The new Data-Driven Graphics Wizard aids in quick creation of content/ads that rely on dynamic information. This feature will definitely help you cut down your workload if you are producing a lot of variations on a single design.

As with the other new apps, there is a "Start" page that lets you quickly access recent documents, start a new document, or access helpful information, tutorials and extensions. Personally I find it a bit annoying to have this pop up every time there’s not an open document, but turning off the feature is simple.

Macromedia has cleverly added a couple of features that are handy to have directly within Fireworks. Version control means that a group of designers working together can keep track of any editing made to documents. I’ve also found it helpful in organizing my own work files’no more haphazardly overwriting versions I need to keep. Integrated into this file management system is built-in FTP which will work as long as your files are stored within a defined Studio MX site folder.

Fireworks’ tight integration with other Macromedia Web products, and its low cost when purchased as part of the Studio package, make it a worthy contender against the competition. While Photoshop users may feel more comfortable sticking with ImageReady, I urge them to look at the possible benefits of moving to Fireworks.

Flash MX 2004

Flash MX 2004 also receives several improvements, new features and greatly-enhanced performance.

The increase in speed is truly jaw-dropping. Slowness was a pet peeve with the previous version of Flash, especially in such simple tasks as opening documents. Everything is faster now, which is a nice surprise considering the wealth of new features.

The interface is improved as well. I used to consider Flash to have one of the poorest interfaces around, but that’s no longer the case. Everything is organized and easy to find. I especially like the new Help panel, which puts references and tutorials at your fingertips. Those who upgrade to the Professional version will appreciate this.

Flash MX 2004 provides full support for PDF and EPS files, including Illustrator 10 files. I used to have all kinds of troubles bringing my Illustrator files into Flash, but all those problems seem to have been fixed.

Timeline Effects

Perhaps the flashiest new feature in MX 2004 is Timeline Effects. Not only do they greatly simplify adding the most common types of animation to your projects, but they also offer some nifty effects that would otherwise take a lot of time and effort to produce. Accessible through the Insert menu, the various effects are split into three categories: Assistants, Effects and Transform/Transition. Each Effect has its own parameter and preview window, allowing precise control with real feedback on how the change will appear in your document. My only complaint is that there’s no pulldown menu to quickly jump to another effect.

The two Assistants, Copy to Grid and Distributed Duplicate make reproducing and arranging objects a snap. The time-saving and creative implications of these are massive.

The Effects range from useful to sort-of-cheesy, depending upon how they are used. High-end Flash developers have been using blur effects for quite some time through various methods. The Blur effect makes the process almost too easy, and looks pretty good. Drop Shadow is self-explanatory, another example of eliminating the hassle of a bothersome task. Expand lets you grow or shrink a selected object over time, or make it do both to give a throbbing appearance. Explode breaks the selected object into fragments and distributes/rotates them outward.

Transform and Transition take care of the most widely-used types of Flash animation. Transform controls an object’s position, rotation, color change and alpha in a single pass. Transition easily provides some fading and wiping effects for removing objects from the stage or changing scenes. Hopefully more transition types will be available in the future. My favorite thing about Transform and Transition is the Ease In/Ease Out slider, a simple way to add a more natural feel to animation.

Actionscript 2.0

Although it seems like a headache to have to learn an updated programming language, Flash’s Actionscript continues to improve. Version 2.0 sees even more of a migration toward object-oriented programming. Experienced Java programmers are likely to be more at home with this latest revision.

For less-advanced coders, the Behaviors panel is a welcome addition. Nearly identical to the functionality of Behaviors in Dreamweaver, it simplifies common scripting tasks to just making a choice from a pulldown menu.

History

The new History panel is similar to that in Dreamweaver, allowing users to step back and forth easily through different phases of editing. If you need to perform the same edit on another object, simply select the necessary steps in this panel and hit the replay button. If you plan on using the same edit numerous times, simply save it as a command and it will always be available for any Flash document you open. One suggestion I would make is to have the commands accessible through either the History panel or a dedicated panel, rather than only through a top-level menu.

Text Control

This new version offers powerful control over the display and formatting of text. Kerning, Tracking and Justify parameters help you with text placement and the alias button lets you turn off font smoothing. A new spellcheck is a valuable addition, as is the enhanced search-and-replace function.

Extensibility

MX 2004 features a Javascript API extensibility, making it easy for third-party developers to make and see/share components that can be taken advantage of by other Flash users. This allows you to add functionality to your Flash projects that you either don’t have the knowledge or time to develop. Flash extensions are available to address any kind of design or application functionality need that you might have, and are available on Macromedia’s Web site.

Flash MX 2004 Professional

You may not need Flash Professional if you don’t build Flash-based applications, work with high-quality video, or develop for wireless devices, but the capabilities—offered for just a paltry sum more than the standard version—are quite impressive.

Macromedia has simultaneously added a new layer of complexity as well as simplicity with two key features of Flash Professional. For both Forms and Screens development, a new pane is added to the left side of the familiar Flash document window. This window allows easy insertion and navigation of sequential "slides." For example, if you are building an application with Forms, inserting a new screen will give you the next sequential step in that application. This does away with the dependence upon timelines and scene changes to add steps to your final Flash movie. Screens is very similar, with Flash taking on the role of producing a slide show. Static or animated content, including video, can be dropped into any screen. Each screen for both Forms and Screens also has its own timeline and layer set, allowing you to easily build very complex Flash movies without some of the hurdles of previous versions. It’s a smart and approachable design that makes working with Flash Professional an extremely efficient process.

Flash Professional also includes several advanced components for complex data and UI functionality, such as Calendar, Data Grid, and Accordion. Application developers will find the data-bound components to be very useful’these connect your Flash application with server-based dynamic data.

Flash’s video capabilities are quite impressive, but Flash Professional’s are even better. The video encoding is of a higher quality, plus the Professional version offers streaming media components—a set of skin-able player interface elements that help users bypass confusing and time-consuming coding tasks. The Flash Video Exporter allows users of video production applications—like Final Cut Pro, Avid and Discreet Cleaner—to export directly to Flash, meaning the highest-possible quality with no technical hiccups.

As Flash expands its presence on the Web, it’s also popping up in a lot of handheld and mobile devices like telephones and PDA’s. Flash Professional includes an updateable template set for many popular mobile devices which effectively emulate how your content will look. Sound is covered as well, with support for MIDI ring tones.

It’s easy to make the case that this version of Flash is the best reason to upgrade to Studio MX 2004. The improvements and new features will greatly benefit both creative and application developers. With the strides made in the Professional version, I envision more designers crossing over into development duties. Who would have thought that Flash would become what it is today? It’s exciting and inspirational to work with and puts awesome power into the hands of anyone who uses it.

Summary

If you are using any of these applications (barring Freehand MX), it’s a no-brainer to upgrade today. They look nicer, work better and faster, and offer improvements that will shrink development time and expand your capabilities. Almost every new feature in each of these applications is something useful and important, with few or no useless toys thrown in to wow non-professional users. Macromedia has done a great job with this iteration of Studio MX, and I look forward to even more improvements in the future.

Macromedia Studio MX 2004
Studio MX: $899
Studio MX with Flash Professional: $999
upgrade: $399

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