Macromedia Flash 8 gives designers a platform to create cartoons, videos, and games that make Web sites dance and sing, and it does so with ease. This Flash upgrade facilitates an evolution in the animated Web experience, and it's a must-have for serious site developers. Flash authors should warm to the numerous work-flow and design-tool improvements, including new runtime blend modes, filters and effects, support for alpha-channel video, and a rebuilt video codec to shrink file size and playback time. Hobbyists wanting to put Flash content on their personal Web pages should opt for Flash Basic, although it lacks the more alluring new features offered by the more expensive Flash Professional 8. You can also buy Flash Professional 8 packaged with the Macromedia Studio 8 suite for about a thousand dollars or upgrade for less from a previous version of Studio.
Although it has a 190MB footprint, installation of Flash 8 (including the Flash Player) required only a few painless minutes in our tests. Once installed, the Flash 8 interface retains the intuitive look and feel of previous releases, including a timeline across the top, a viewing stage in the middle, tool icons along the left side, with various menus along the bottom and the right edge. New to Flash 8 are separate Undo functions for objects and documents, as well as the ability to customize the work space by rearranging and naming panels. Flash 8 includes a better-organized preferences dialog, more storage space on the desktop for objects not currently in use, and better-organized libraries. And like Dreamweaver 8, you can collapse the menus to save screen real estate.
Unlike Flash MX 2004's myriad of mysterious ways to import video, version 8 reduces the process to an elegant dialog and a helpful wizard. Flash 8 offers Script Assist, a visual interface to help newbies without much coding experience get up to speed on ActionScript. Flash 8 also provides tabbed file browsing in its Mac edition.
Flash 8 Professional introduces a host of new animation features that make this a vital upgrade for Web animators itching for new toys. Want to make a car fly in front of a city for your own Blade Runner knockoff? Support for 8-bit alpha-channel video within Flash 8 allows you to superimpose objects over existing content. Flash 8 also expands the boundaries of runtime animation; it caches vectors as bitmaps to reduce rendering time but retains vector data. You can add shadows, blurs, color adjustments, glows, and beveling at runtime. There's more control over strokes and gradient fills, vital to making objects look three-dimensional. The new Object Drawing mode lets you group and overlap objects, as allowed by vector graphics apps such as Adobe Illustrator. And the ability to copy filters from Fireworks and Adobe Photoshop is handy. Plus, you can make animation using transparencies without having to cut out objects on the page.
The new FlashType text-rendering engine delivers better antialiasing for more elegant text, similar to that of Adobe ClearType; fonts are smooth even at small sizes and are easier to adjust. The addition of a graphlike "easing" tool lets you control the animation speed, the rotation, and the scale of objects--essential for making motion look more natural. Embedded cue points let you trigger specific behaviors, such as playing back video, adding captions, and breaking up movies into scenes, so that viewers can navigate through your content. Another sorely needed improvement to Flash 8 Professional is a standalone encoder for batch operations, helpful for design teams.
To better compete in the streaming-video arena, Macromedia renovated the Flash Player from the ground up, using On2 Technologies' VP6 audio and video compression codec. We experienced faster and smoother animation than with Flash MX 2004; our Flash 8 animations were on a par with or better than what QuickTime, RealPlayer, and Windows Media Player deliver. The improved optimization of Shockwave Flash (SWF) files gives the Flash 8 Player an advantage over such rivals. To view Flash 8 files, end users will have to upgrade their browser's Flash player with a free download.
Macromedia is also aware of the emerging PDA and mobile phone market. Mobile-content developers will enjoy the Pro version's support for mobile devices, including previews that represent the interfaces of handhelds and smart phones. These mobile features, as well as alpha-channel video, easing controls, 25 new blend modes, and filters are available in the Flash Pro version only.
Macromedia Flash 8 includes an extensive help file plus access to an excellent online support center. The reorganized help section allows searches by phrase, as well as and/or terms, with results ranked by popularity rather than alphabetically. The online support center includes numerous well-written FAQs, tutorials, and forums where you can chat with other users for free. Macromedia includes animated tutorials in the Developer Center on its Web site.
Unfortunately, live telephone support can get pricey in a hurry. Though Macromedia lets you call tech support for four "getting started" incidents (a call and follow-up calls for the same issue) within 90 days of purchase, afterward you're left with a price list that would faze Donald Trump. A post-90-day single incident will set you back $99; extended support plans start at $449 per year.