Macromedia Flash 5

Macromedia Flash 5

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In: Reviews > Product Reviews

By Jesse Nieminen

Published on March 5, 2001

Macromedia Flash 5 Who would have thought a few years back that a little app known as FutureSplash Animator would come to dominate the world of web animation? Apparently, Macromedia did and made it happen. Already at version 5 in about 3 years, Flash is at the top of web employers’ wish lists when it comes to designers and content developers. It is amazing what can be done with Flash, simply because (if done right) it bypasses bandwidth limitations that would be choked by full-motion video. There’s no doubt that you know what Flash is if you’re reading this, so let’s pop the hood on the latest version and see what’s new.

The first thing you’ll notice is improvements to the interface that bring it up to speed with the other new Macromedia products. Menus and tools are now grouped more logically. The use of tabbed “panels” improves ease of use and makes the workspace more efficient (and also sparked a lawsuit by Adobe). You can now dock panels together or pull out just the ones you need. Some panels bring out tools that were once bound to menus, and everything seems more compact. New icons are tighter and smarter looking, and overall the interface looks much less toy-like than previous versions. One thing I’d love to see is the ability to detach the timeline from the movie area, because I’d be much more comfortable with the timeline on the bottom. Plus, I think it would eliminate a lot of annoying scrolling for those working at smaller screen resolutions.

Flash 5 also adds some new tools and improved functions:

  • Designers can now integrate HTML text straight into the movie, which lends diversity to the design aspects and also gives the possibility of dynamic content, as external HTML files can be loaded into the movie during runtime. (I’ll talk about Generator later.) One thing I really like about this is that it enables designers to create a site that is not so obviously a “Flash” project. Some of us like the look of HTML text in appropriate places.
  • The “Movie Explorer” gives the user a structured overview of a whole project in a nested, hierarchical format that can be searched. This is a nice feature that helps account for every asset used in the context of the movie.
  • New shared symbol libraries enhance both the efficiency of production and playback. If you are part of a team working on a large project with several common assets, you can pull what you need from an external, shared library. Also, end-viewers will only have to download any symbol once in the course of viewing the final product.
  • Keyboard shortcuts can now be customized to fit the user or a particular job. If you hate rummaging through menus or using your mouse too much, this is a godsend.
  • Color selection is much more refined, breaking swatches into more intuitive groupings. I hated the old color handling of Flash–something that kept me from doing much actual drawing within the program.
  • The guides are supposed to be drag-able, but unfortunately I found a bug when trying to view the rulers – the movie area simply disappears. Hopefully there will be a fix for this in the next update.
  • Bezier handlesA new bezier pen tool now offers greater drawing control and editability to vector objects – which answers the complaint that no real serious vector drawing could be done within Flash itself. Multiple pen tool modes work in much the same way as vector drawing programs, although Flash’s pen tool has some interesting quirks to get used-to. For example, the path stops once it intersects itself, which can be confusing and frustrating. Version 5 also offers improved Freehand import, a strong reason to consider it as your illustration tool of choice. (There’s also new PNG file import, which aims at making Fireworks an easy bitmap app to choose for working with Flash.)
  • Working with sound is also improved in the new version. MP3 files can be directly imported and played back, and sound controls are more refined. The new sound panel compacts the most useful functions into one place.
  • New “web-native /files/includes/print.cssing” supposedly offers a better alternative than other current options, such as “/files/includes/print.csser-friendly” HTML and large PDFs. The technology works through the existing Flash players, and allows end-users, for example, to /files/includes/print.css a whole page of information by clicking on a banner ad rather than downloading the whole page into the browser first. I haven’t tested this out, but it sounds like a good option if you are producing a site that includes product spec sheets or white papers.
  • The biggest factor behind complex interactivity in Flash, ActionScript, has been modified quite a bit. Chances are that if you knew how to do it in version 4, version 5 will be easy to pick up- but there are significant changes. The syntax/structure is basically JavaScript now, so there are new ways to achieve the desired results. The ActionScript editor panel is nice–for newcomers or non-programmers a number of functions are available in “novice mode” as drag and drop modules. If you construct a function wrong, offending syntax is highlighted. Unfortunately, though, there isn’t any hints built-in to tell you WHY it won’t work. Even in novice mode, ActionScript is far from idiot-proof–hence the hefty ActionScript Reference book that came in the box, which is substantially thicker than the Flash user manual. It is a lot to take in, especially if you are on your own. On the other hand, if you are an expert, you can write your own code in expert mode or import files composed in an external text editor. In a nutshell, Actionscript is behind the Flash movies that make everyone exclaim “How the hell….”ActionScript

Overall, these new features make the upgrade well worth it. Although I encountered some quirks and possible bugs, I didn’t run into anything that slowed me down too much. The organization is much better, and the interface looks less like a toy than previous versions. Hopefully Macromedia will get to keep the tabbed “panels,” because they make life much easier. I found working with version 5 to be more streamlined and intuitive than previous versions, but I still think newcomers have a somewhat tough learning curve. Thankfully, there are still helpful tutorials included, and all documentation is included and viewable through your web browser.

Although my impression of Flash 5 is favorable, I must admit that I don’ use the program on a daily basis. My professional experience with it has been occasional and not very complex when it comes to scripting. Early after the release of version 5, I heard grumbling from a few developers about the changes in ActionScript. I think that since more people are comfortable with writing JavaScript than version 4’s ActionScript, this version will be friendlier to the web development community and those just starting to use ActionScript.

Click to see more detail

My primary complaint with Flash has always been the fact that the timeline is frame-based rather than object-based. While the frames are necessary for some types of animation, I think it would be great to have a choice. Sometimes the frames can be clumsy, and going back in and editing at the end can be a chore. Since so much of Flash’s functionality is built around frames, I highly doubt we will see a change in this area. That said, Flash does things no other application can, and does them extremely well.

Macromedia® Flash® 2
Macromedia Flash 5: $399
Flash 5/Freehand 9 Studio: $599
Flash 5/Generator 2 Studio: $/files/includes/10.css99

A review of Macromedia’s Generator 2

By Jesse Nieminen

Generator 2 is aimed at developers working on web sites that require regular updates. Although at nearly a grand, it may seem a bit expensive, it quickly pays for itself when contrasted to the time otherwise spent updating static pages. Able to pull from live info, databases, and other web sites, Generator allows web sites to stay dynamic without the need for the developer’s constant attention.

There are 2 editions of Generator: Developer and Enterprise. Developer is suitable for low-traffic and small-scale web sites and Intranets. In other words, the Developer Edition will not work for high-traffic entertainment, info, and e-commerce web sites. Enterprise Edition adds capabilities like data caching and can easily support 1 million visitors.

The program is tightly integrated with Flash, and relies on templates and objects (pre-made or custom) to build dynamic pages. But thankfully design is kept separate from content in Generator, so there won’t be any worries about fouling up your design when working with the content areas. It’s a nice way to bring in data and images to your Flash presentations without having to tinker with the FLA files every time the content changes.

Anything that cuts down on tedious repetitive web work is great, but unfortunately for now authoring can only be done on a Windows box.

Macromedia® Generator® 2
Developer Edition: $999

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