Macromedia Flash 5

Macromedia’s Flash has established itself as the leading vector-based animation and interactive content-creation tool for the Web. This is mainly because of its file-compression ability and ease of use. Now, Macromedia has released version 5 – a much-improved and simpler version. Last upgraded in June 1999, world wide use of this vector-based, interactive-content-creating tool has grown dramatically – as have the number of users who can view the content. Version 5 browsers now bundle the Flash Player plug-in with their installers, removing the need for extra downloads from Macromedia’s Web site. There have been many improvements in Flash 5 – such as Movie Explorer, Web-Native printing, ActionScript enhancements and Timeline tweaks. Some of Flash 5’s new features are not supported by version 4 – meaning viewers will need to download the new player from Macromedia’s Web site. Moving backwards
Backwards compatibility may cause some problems initially. For instance, Flash 4 .fla files cannot be opened in Flash 4 once they’ve been opened and saved in Flash 5 – although Flash 5 movies can be exported as Flash, 2, 3 or 4 files. One major irritation in earlier versions of Flash was the not-so-user-friendly working environment. The earlier manifestations of the user interface were so different from any other Macromedia products that users found the learning curve very steep. Now, the revamped user-interface should make life much easier. The updated interface matches the rest of Macromedia’s products – such as Fireworks and Dreamweaver. Macromedia has said that it’s committed to delivering a more approachable working environment right across its suite of products. Macromedia has also made Flash 5 less intimidating for newcomers. A launcher bar at the base of the working window has been added, allowing one-click access to frequently used function panels – such as Show/Hide Library, Object Actions, Character, Mixer and Movie Explorer. However, unlike the completely customizable Dreamweaver functions, there appears to be no option to add your own shortcuts to this bar. Palettes, or “panels”, as they’re called in Flash 5, are available at the click of a button on the launcher bar. You can dock them together, or snap them into place. Tools such as the beziér pen behave consistently across Macromedia’s products. The Colour Selection palettes have also been revamped, as have the menu-bar structures, Launcher bar and Toolbox layout. If you prefer the Flash 4 selection style, it can be switched on in preferences, and the improved Timeline can be undocked from the “stage”. The Timeline now works in a similar way to the Director 8 timeline. You can stretch a span of keyframes by dragging out the end keyframes, or move it by dragging from the centre of the span. Individual keyframes can be selected by command-clicking on them. Colour coding also makes using the timeline more intuitive. The Movie Explorer in Flash 5 has been added, to improve the production process by showing a structured hierarchy of objects and locations over time – this will be especially useful when working on extremely complex projects. For more honed searching, you can filter what’s seen in the window by graphics, fonts, videos, sound, bitmaps, frames or layers – or create your own customized view. You can “edit in place” and collapse and expand branches of elements. As well as the easy-to-use vector-drawing tools, Flash 5 now caters for the traditional illustrator, with the addition of the beziér pen. Point-to-point drawing and a sub-selection tool for manipulation of artwork created in the natural vector-based tools have been added to the Pen Tool. There are also multiple Pen Tools to enhance the Flash experience. On the text-options panel, you can select Dynamic, Static or HTML text, and the alignment of objects can be selected in another panel. Compatibility
Following Macromedia’s promise to produce a complete suite of products geared to Web-content creation, Flash now allows for the import of FreeHand files – the company’s vector-based illustration tool. Symbols from the FreeHand library can be imported into Flash libraries, and FreeHand layers imported as keyframes. Flash 5 supports FreeHand 7, 8 and 9. It’s now possible to drag-&-drop, or copy-&-paste, designs from FreeHand into Flash, while maintaining effects or converting to Flash equivalents. Imported .png files from Fireworks remain editable. Another new feature that will speed-up production processes is Shared Symbol libraries. This means that assets or graphics, for example, can be used many times in a single project, minimizing file sizes, and, therefore, download times. Also, any changes made to shared assets during production will be updated across project files. As an increasing number of Web sites rely on dynamically-generated data pulled from server databases, the process of transferring the information to and from client-side applications to servers has become vital to Web sites. Any interactivity in Flash projects is created and controlled using ActionScript coding. ActionScripts are needed to tell specific elements in a Flash file what to do, and when to do it. Whether it’s to collect information from a backend-server source – such as a database of products – or merely to stop a movie at a certain point. This programming code is similar to JavaScript, and ActionScripts in Flash 5 have been made easier to learn thanks to a revamped ActionScript editor and a Debugger. ActionScript Syntax is now a fully fledged programming language. However, many users will question the need for yet another Web-based programming language. There are now different levels of ActionScript in which users can author. Novice or Expert mode can be selected. You’ll be able to either drag-&-drop commands into a project, or use the text editor to create code. Code can also be exported into ASCII editable-format to edit outside Flash, then re-imported. The ActionScript-editing window has been made larger. There’s also a real-time debugger so expert programmers can fix any small glitches quickly. Another useful new feature is Smart Clips, which allows you to store selections of components of projects in Flash, using ActionScripts, as separate elements. These separate Smart Clips, such as drop-down menus, navigation systems or pre-loaders, can then be shared and re-used. Just like downloading additional Behaviours for Dreamweaver, designers will be able to share their creations with others more easily. An 800-page ActionScript manual will be available from Macromedia for those wishing to dig deeper. What You Print Is Not What You See (or WYPINWYS for short) is a clever new addition to Flash 5 – what Macromedia calls Web-Native printing. This is basically the ability to print content from a Web page in a format that’s easy to read and that will fit on a piece of A4 paper. The difference between what you can view online, and what is available for printing in a comprehensive format, can be huge. No additional plug-in besides the Flash Player is necessary, as this feature can be built into the Flash Web site by the developer. Other new features in Flash 5 include XML capabilities that enable designers to integrate with back-end systems such as databases. The use of XML for e-commerce Web sites is growing in popularity, as the benefits of up-to-the-second data become recognized. HTML text can be incorporated into Flash animations, and in this version, anti-aliased display text or HTML-rich text allow HTML files to be updated at any point. Sound capabilities have also been improved in Flash 5. Flash’s MP3-import has been enhanced, allowing high-quality sound clips to be added to buttons and animations. The publishing preview is more customizable and further export settings have been added. Macromedia has also included a new help function, called Macromedia Dashboard, which, when launched, will connect to a range of assistance resources on the Web.

OUR VERDICT

Some Flash users on Macromedia’s forums are concerned about the new ActionScript learning curve, and the time it will take for the Flash 5 player to be taken up by the viewing public. There are plenty of small changes in Flash 5, and many useful new features. The beziér drawing-tool and FreeHand import will be the biggest boon for designers already working in Flash, and, for newcomers, the revamped interface will make learning Flash easier. If you want to take advantage of the new features then Flash 5 is recommended.

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