Friendly design tools for formatting data collection and presentation elements.
Integrates smoothly with Flash Catalyst.
Coder-centric environment has steep learning curve.
Software is for coding experts only.
No export to mobile devices.
Powerful testing and coding features are available only in the Premium edition (which does not ship with CS5).
Flash Builder 4, newly recruited into the Adobe Creative Suite for the release of CS5, is essentially a program for building interfaces that collect data (through forms) and present data (through views) from server databases.
Previously called Flex Builder, the program is a distant cousin of Flash Professional, but a close fit with the new Flash Catalyst CS5 (). Interestingly, the more I worked with Flash Builder, the more it seemed to me that its closest CS5 relative is actually Dreamweaver ()—with which Flash Builder shares many interface and procedural similarities when it comes to binding server databases and collecting and presenting data.
Flash Builder doesn’t carry the CS5 label for a few reasons: It shipped in advance of CS5 and Adobe decided to continue the previous numbering system that it established when the program was called Flex Builder. Flash Builder 4 is the upgrade to Flex Builder 3.
The Flex framework is an open source platform that generates either MXML format or ActionScript 3.0 code. It is possible to build Flex applications with a free SDK, but I can’t imagine undertaking a Flex coding project without Flash Builder, which provides helpful tools like automatic testing, debugging hints, and all syntax hints for generating code.
Flash Builder 4 comes in two editions: The Premium Edition ($699; upgrade, $299) has all the features of Flash Builder 4 Standard plus professional testing tools such as profilers, network monitoring systems, and unit testing support. Flash Builder 4 Premium also includes a license for Adobe ColdFusion Builder software. Flash Builder 4 Standard Edition, the less expensive version ($249; upgrade from Flex Builder 3, $99), ships as a standalone app or as part of the CS5 Web Premium and Master Collection.
Improvements in Flash Builder 4
With the adoption of Flash Builder into the Flash family come three substantial coding enhancements:
1. Flash Builder 4 introduces Spark components—tools that make it easier for developers to create customized interfaces and skins.
2. Applications running in Adobe Flash Player do not connect directly to databases—those connections go through ColdFusion, PHP, and Java, and are now easier to define.
Developers who already have Eclipse installed can download a special Eclipse plug-in version of Flash Builder. The other option is to install the standalone version of Flash Builder, which uses a custom build of Eclipse, and does not require a separate Eclipse install. The standalone version, however, lacks Eclipse Java tools like Apache Ant, a powerful set of data tools. Developers who opt for the one-step-install standalone Flash Builder will want to download those plug-ins separately.
Coders will appreciate new features like better integration with the Flash IDE, Unit Testing, clearer project organization, and some welcome speed improvements.Test Operation view calls operations from a service (a set of related functions) and views the results of the operation. Results include any error messages returned from the service.
Also new to Builder 4 are debugging tools that make it easier to check a line of code or to define a conditional break point to launch a debugging test (for example, testing only the code in a game that launches after a player achieves a set score). Coders in Flash Builder 4 can take advantage of helpful new tools like enhanced code refactoring, which facilitates navigation and the ability to restructure code by renaming all references to a class, method, or variable. Rich visual layout is improved—developers can visually design and preview user interface layout, appearance, and behavior using a library of built-in components.
Given the wide variety of applications created with Flash Builder, an array of plug-ins supplement and extend Builder’s capacity. SourceMate for Flash Builder 4 adds additional refactoring and code generation tools. Flash Builder 4 has substantial support for touch events, including simple gestures. But developers who want to take full advantage of more than two points of touch, perform more than one gesture at a time, or transition between gestures without pausing, can turn to open Flash libraries such as GestureWorks to add more comprehensive multitouch interactions.
While hard-core Flex and ActionScript developers will spend their days in Code View, where they have low-level control over every aspect of the application, those who appreciate a more visual approach to design and layout (such as Flash Professional experts) will find a fully functional Design View. I was pleasantly surprised by the friendly design interface. The Properties and Appearances tabs provide access to sizing, positioning, and formatting of interface elements.
Integrating with Catalyst
While Flash Builder 4 features bulked up coding tools, designers—even those who don’t code—will feel the positive effects of Flash Catalyst CS5. This new addition to the Flash family allows designers to create and prototype interactive user interfaces and interactive graphics. A simple dialog quickly and smoothly generates a Flash Builder project from Flash Catalyst interactive graphic elements. The Catalyst-Builder workflow corresponds to and facilitates the emerging Model-view-controller (M-V-C) approach to application development. M-V-C divides application development into two streams: one is processing data (managed in Flash Builder 4); the other is interface design (using Catalyst).
All the graphic elements I created in my Catalyst project imported accurately, and were easy to locate and work with in their new home in Flash Builder.
Flash Builder and Flash Catalyst work perfectly together: one picks up where the other leaves off. Flash Builder allows developers to focus entirely on the coding of functionality. The ability to import graphics, media, and coding directly into Flash Builder from Flash Catalyst has intriguing potential for the designer-coder workflow, and for enabling coders to focus on coding, while designers see their original graphic elements emerge unscathed in the coding process.
Waiting for mobile
Flash Builder applications can run either on the Web or on the desktop via Adobe AIR. But tools that are available in Flash Professional to publish or export applications for mobile devices are not available in Flash Builder. Flash Builder applications do not run on Apple’s mobile devices (an issue shared across the spectrum of Flash products). In addition, the tools for porting them to mobile devices that do support Flash are not yet available. This is a potentially serious issue. Adobe has said it plans to add this capability shortly so that the same publishing capabilities offered in Flash Professional CS5 will also be available in Flash Builder 4.
Macworld’s buying advice
While those of us on the design side of the world tend to think of Flash as mainly an animation application, Flash Builder has little to do with that. Instead, it is a tool for building complex and powerful applications for both Web and stand-alone platforms. It meshes smoothly with interface prototypes created by designers in Flash Catalyst CS5. For Flex and ActionScript 3 coders for whom programming is a livelihood, a professional IDE like Flash Builder is a must.
[David Karlins is the author of the upcoming book Adobe Creative Suite 5 Web Premium How-Tos: Essential Techniques [Peachpit, 2010]. He teaches graphic and interactive design at San Francisco State University Multimedia Studies Program, and 3rd Ward in Brooklyn. His free tutorials and videos are found at davidkarlins.com.]
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