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Macromedia Flash 5

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Pros

  • Streamlined user interface
  • improved scripting, debugging, movie navigation and file format support.

Cons

  • Drawing tools remain basic.

Macromedia's Flash has received little fanfare compared to A-list products like Director, FreeHand and Dreamweaver. However, the popularity of the Flash 4 plug-in has persuaded its developer to pull out the stops for version 5.

The changes are apparent as soon as the application launches. The confusing and inconsistent layout of the old interface has been replaced by a panel-based system that will be familiar to users of other Macromedia products. Users of Adobe applications like Photoshop or Illustrator will also recognise the interface layout--a fact that has not escaped the attention of Adobe's lawyers. Legal issues aside, it's not a perfect solution as the profusion of panels can quickly clutter up the screen, but it's certainly an improvement.

A welcome development in Flash 5 is the new editing environment for ActionScript, the code that allows you to control Flash movie elements. Previously you were forced to type your code into a tiny box, whereas you now have a resizable window. There are two editing modes: Normal Mode keeps things simple with drop-down menus and option boxes ensuring that your script is error-free, while Expert Mode allows you to type freely, but without the automatic syntax correction. When you're done, the Check Syntax function will verify your script for you.

ActionScript (AS) itself has been completely overhauled in Flash 5. In place of the proprietary script found in version 4, ActionScript is now 'based on the ECMA-262 specification', meaning that it uses many of the same constructs and conventions. Greater emphasis has been placed on Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) methods, but although coders who have experience with JavaScript will feel at home, the two are not interchangeable. Even so, those frustrated with ActionScript's previous limitations will be heartened by the inclusion of extensive maths functions, true array creation and manipulation commands, and date handling--the sort of facilities you'd expect from a 'grown up' scripting language.

Flash's core functionality sees little change in version 5, although the new OnClipEvent actions offer enhanced trapping for mouse and key events independently of playback speed. Smart Clips provide a new way to create 'widgets' that can be easily distributed and shared among developers, complete with their own interface within the authoring environment. This has tremendous potential for streamlining the development process by allowing for the creation of libraries of common elements.

The new Movie Explorer window greatly simplifies the task of keeping track of the structure of your movie, offering a tree-based view of the relationships between all your objects. Another welcome addition is the Debugger, which allows developers to monitor the values of variables and the properties of all objects in a movie during playback. When it works it's indispensable, providing all the information you could possibly desire for diagnosing problems. Unfortunately we had trouble getting the Debugger to function reliably.

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The drawing tools have received almost no attention whatsoever, having remained virtually unchanged since Flash 3. The ability to edit Bezier curves is welcome, but the best results are still achieved in conjunction with a fully-fledged graphics application like Illustrator or Macromedia's own FreeHand. Flash 5 can now read FreeHand 9 files, but Illustrator support only goes up to version 6. Other new file format options include: support for loading, manipulating and exporting XML objects; some limited recognition of HTML entities; MP3 and QuickTime (sound only) file import; and export to RealPlayer.

Newcomers to Flash will find version 5 the friendliest release yet, thanks to its more conventional interface and the inclusion--at last--of detailed and well-written documentation. However, the learning curve remains steep.

It will be six months to a year before the new version of the player software (Flash 5 movies are not backwards-compatible) is widespread enough to make it worthwhile developing in the new format. However, the software can still export to older versions if you're careful with your syntax. And the improvements in the authoring environment alone--the new script-editing window, the debugger, the movie explorer--make it well worth upgrading.

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