capsule review

Flash 5

At a Glance
  • Macromedia Flash 5

These days, it's hard to surf the Web without being flashed. Macromedia Flash-based animations -- and even entire sites -- are all the rage, thanks to Flash's bandwidth-friendly design and Web users' ability to view Flash content without downloading additional software.

Since its 1996 release, Flash has evolved from a simple animation format into a platform for developing entire Web sites. Flash 5 continues the trend. From its revamped interface to its enhanced authoring and workflow features, Flash 5 is the most impressive release yet.

However, Flash movies that use some of the program's most powerful features can be played only with Flash Player 5 -- the latest version of the Flash plug-in and not the version most Web users have.

That doesn't mean Flash designers should put off upgrading. Flash 5 still exports to the Flash 4 format, and there are enough new productivity-boosting features in Flash 5 to make it an immediate must-have for Web motion-graphics designers.

Exploring Flash   Flash 5's Movie Explorer feature (lower right) offers a big-picture view of a movie's structure and assets. Also visible: Flash 5's new positioning guides and tool panels.

Flash 4's user interface was rough around the edges ( Reviews , October 1999), but version 5's is much better. Macromedia reorganized the program's menus; spruced up its tool panels; and most significant, improved the interface consistency between Flash and its cousins Dreamweaver, Fireworks, and FreeHand.

Flash's relatives are replete with customizing features, and Flash 5 catches up here, too. You can't reorganize Flash 5's menus as you can Dreamweaver's, but you can customize keyboard shortcuts. The program even offers a variety of built-in shortcut sets that match those of other applications, including Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Speaking of Illustrator, designers will welcome Flash 5's new pen tool, which allows users to draw Illustrator- and FreeHand-style Bézier curves. Flash 5 retains version 4's brush and pencil tools, which work in the same unique (and often bizarre) way.

Many Flash designers have been using FreeHand for its superior illustration tools, taking advantage of FreeHand's ability to export files to the Flash format. Flash 5's ability to directly import FreeHand 9 documents eliminates this export step. At the same time, though, Flash 5 lacks the many file-optimization goodies that FreeHand's Flash-export feature provides. Flash designers may have to tweak their design processes, optimizing FreeHand-drawn elements after importing them into Flash.

A complex Flash site can comprise multiple Flash movies, which may use the same assets -- identical buttons, graphics, and sounds, for example. With Flash 5, designers can create shared libraries whose assets are available to all the Flash movies in the site. Some designers I talked to say this could halve the size (and download time) of complex Flash sites. Alas, a project using shared libraries needs Flash Player 5, so designers eager to reach the largest audience will have to forgo their use until the new player's popularity reaches critical mass.

Flash 5's new Movie Explorer feature, on the other hand, provides immediate productivity benefits. Movie Explorer depicts a project's structure using a hierarchical, outline-style view. You can quickly scan for assets, examine scripts, and search for items.

Flash 4's ActionScript programming language helped establish Flash as a platform for developing advanced interactivity. But Flash 4 scripting lacked much of the power of a "real" programming language, and often hacks and workarounds were needed to accomplish complex tasks.

ActionScript   With Flash 5's new scripting environment, you can create scripts by choosing options from the Object Actions panel or by simply pecking them in yourself.

In Flash 5, ActionScript has grown up. Macromedia has reworked the language, using syntax and control structures similar to those of the ubiquitous JavaScript.

ActionScript newbies can still create code by choosing from pop-up menus and option lists, but advanced coders can also peck scripts directly into Flash 5's Actions panel or import them from text editors such as BBEdit. A new Debugger window lets you monitor the contents of variables and properties. And ActionScript now supports XML-based data transfer to and from a server. This lets a Flash movie communicate with a server to receive content updates and send back information. (XML is another feature that requires the Flash 5 player.)

Other Flash 5 improvements will help in creating dynamic projects. Text boxes can interpret several HTML 1.0 tags, including hyperlinks and font tags, and Flash movies can load HTML from a remote server at run-time. Therefore, a Flash movie can grab and display HTML-based content as necessary, providing up-to-the-minute updates. Flash 5 is also more tightly integrated with Macromedia Generator, a five-figure add-on that generates Flash movies on-the-fly.

Even with this revision, Flash 5 lacks features that would enable blind and other disabled users to navigate Flash interfaces. Macromedia says it's working to address accessibility issues. Until it does, designers who want to build Flash-based sites must decide whether it's worth leaving out a small but growing population of Web users.

This doesn't diminish Flash 5's many enhancements. But now that Flash has matured into a platform for site development, the time to become inclusive has arrived.

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Powerful programming capabilities
    • Superb interface and workflow improvements


    • Using some features requires new player
    • No accessibility features
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