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As vendors rush to establish standards for Web-based media such as video and audio, one program has emerged as something of a standard for Web animation. Macromedia's Flash has quickly become the dominant tool for creating animation and simple interactivity, offering easy-to-use development tools and low-bandwidth animation files. And with this latest version, Macromedia has added even more reasons to adopt Flash technology: streaming-MP3 support, new actions, and improved development tools make Flash 4 ideal for Web designers who want to jazz up their sites with animations but who don't necessarily have Java-scripting skills.
With Flash, you can create compact, streaming Web animations that are easily viewable on just about any platform. Because the program is vector-based, its animation files are very small and make for quick downloads. The Flash player takes care of rendering the vectors into bitmapscomplete with smooth, antialiased edgesand displaying them on screen.
Experienced users will notice a wealth of changes in Flash's interface, ranging from a redesigned Timeline window to improved drawing tools. For example, Flash's vector tools eschew the complicated control handles and points of illustration packages such as Macromedia FreeHand and Adobe Illustrator; instead, users can reshape an object simply by dragging its edges. It also adds several tools that experienced illustrators have come to expect, such as round-cornered rectangles.
The drawing interface benefits from long-overdue improvements such as default shift-selection of multiple objects and streamlined tool palettes, and the Inspector palette has been revamped with tabbed subdivisions containing multiple inspectors (see "Flashy Interface"). Curiously, flip controls aren't included in the Transform palette. We'd also like to see the addition of mirror transformations.
Flash's Timeline interface has undergone several improvements that make animation scripting easier. The window itself has been redesigned and features new toggles, including switches for locking and hiding objects. Although the process of creating an animation remains largely the same, Flash 4 adds Guide Layers that let you script an object's animation by drawing a path along which it moves.
The new animation tools are as powerful and easy to use as ever, but velocity controls would be a nice addition. Although the program retains version 3's ease-in/ease-out feature, it's not always possible to synchronize complex motions with audio or to tightly choreograph multiple complex motions.
Among the new actions in Flash 4 are IF/ELSE commands that let you create conditional structures. The new LOOP command lets you create simple WHILE loops, and the new CALL statement lets you branch to a particular frame's actions, just as you would branch to a subroutine in a mainstream programming language.
Flash 4's new actions also let you create forms, dialog boxes, and pop-up menus. Forms can include standard interface elements, such as radio buttons and checklists, and can return data to the Flash player or to Web-based applications. Like all of Flash's other features, these interface elements are platform- and player-independent.
Interface elements are easy to implement with the new version's handy, powerful scripting actions. But although those elements offer a simple way to gather and post data, Flash 4 is short on "building blocks" for creating more-sophisticated custom interfaces.
Flash 3's audio support was good, but that of version 4with its MP3 compressionis better. MP3 compression makes adding streaming audio to your Flash animations much more practical. In previous versions, you had to use audio very judiciously so as not to slow throughput. With version 4, not only can you attach small audio files to events such as button clicks but it's even practical to add long voice-overs and music beds under the audio. And each audio file in your Flash presentation's library can have separate audio settings, so you can tweak the compression, depending on the particular sounds.
Flash 4 is a must-have upgrade for any Flash user. The program's interface improvements streamline development, and the new scripting controls let you create much more sophisticated presentations. For animated Web sites, Macromedia has defined the standard.
RATING: PROS: New scripting actions; streaming-MP3 support. CONS: Drawing tools still playing catch-up; no velocity controls for animation. COMPANY: Macromedia (800/457-1774, http://www.macromedia.com ). ESTIMATED STREET PRICE: $299.
October 1999 page: 35