Macromedia's new $499 Flash MX 2004 Flash animation designer requires less programming, boasts a much improved help system, and offers new usability features such as an improved video-import wizard with editing capabilities, a spelling checker, and a find-and-replace function. Though beginners might not find it as easy to use as Adobe's cheaper LiveMotion, MX 2004 is a uniquely powerful program. It's a must-have upgrade for current users, thanks to its new support for Cascading Style Sheets, an improved (and ECMAScript 3.0-compatible) ActionScript 2 programming language, and a new API that allows third-party plug-ins. A professional version that offers more data-handling features and components is also available--for $200 more.
Though we worked with a Windows beta version of Flash MX 2004, Macromedia assured us that the shipping version will retain its precursor's approximately 110MB installation footprint. Installing the program from CD takes about two minutes, but Macromedia has implemented a new product-activation scheme, similar to the one found in Windows XP. We're not big fans of this form of copy protection, because activation schemes could eventually be used by less scrupulous companies to collect personal data or worse. But Macromedia assures customers that it's only comparing serial numbers to see if a copy is pirated. You can activate automatically over the Internet or use the company's 24-hour activation hotline and avoid giving any personal information.
Flash MX's interface remains largely the same, but its help function has been improved greatly, and Behaviors save programming time.
The face of Flash remains the same powerful but rather complex one found in the last version. In this version, however, the Answers panel has been renamed Help and reworked to match Windows' help function more closely. We found the help content far more useful and informative than the previous version's. The Help menu has also been rearranged a bit, but by and large, the interface modifications are slight.
The real changes in Flash MX 2004 lie under the hood. Some tasks that used to require programming in the Actions panel have now been automated. Timeline Effects eliminate some of the dirty work involved in writing blurs and the like, while Behaviors relieve some of the drudgery of programming interactive controls. There are also new premade components and support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which should allow you to blend Flash and HTML more smoothly.