Macromedia Flash 5.0 expands the already impressive possibilities of what you can do with streaming Web media. Coders will appreciate the new rudimentary HTML rendering, built-in XML parser, and advanced scripting engine. Animators and graphic designers will be pleased by the inclusion of new tools, beefier import options, and integration with other Macromedia products. The new interface can be overwhelming, but the powerful new features compensate nicely in this worthwhile upgrade. Macromedia Flash 5.0 expands the already impressive possibilities of what you can do with streaming Web media. Coders will appreciate the new rudimentary HTML rendering, built-in XML parser, and advanced scripting engine. Animators and graphic designers will be pleased by the inclusion of new tools, beefier import options, and integration with other Macromedia products. The new interface can be overwhelming, but the powerful new features compensate nicely in this worthwhile upgrade.
A New Interface
The new Flash 5.0 interface is the result of an organized attempt on Macromedia's part to improve its product integration and ease the tasks of users who regularly jump between Flash and other Macromedia tools.
Flash 4.0 featured a number of inspectors for manipulating objects, scenes, and transforms. Flash 5.0 revisits and expands the inspectors concept with a sweeping set of panels. It took us a while to get used to the panels, which replace just about every single dialog box in Flash and can quickly clutter a workspace. Macromedia cleverly included a feature called Panel Sets that allows you to save different interface configurations, depending on your current task.
Share and Share Alike
Workgroups received special attention in Flash 5.0's features, which include a set of new workflow optimization tools. Artists, animators, and programmers can now work concurrently on projects by using Shared Libraries and external script files. The new Movie Explorer, which sorts and displays movies as hierarchical documents, will assist developers who have to work together on large projects.
The Smart Clips feature offers some of the advantages of Macromedia Generator, allowing advanced scripters to prepare components such as list boxes and menus and then to pass along these components as standalone behaviors to other users for customization and reuse. SmartClips will likely speed up Flash development within businesses as well as facilitate idea sharing within the advanced Flash community.
With Flash 5.0, Macromedia also introduces the Macromedia Dashboard. An in-product resource panel, the Dashboard links to outside Flash resources and works as a sort of information assistant for the Flash user. You can set the Dashboard to automatically renew itself from Macromedia's servers each time you launch Flash 5.0, guaranteeing fresh and relevant content.
ActionScript Now Complete
The ActionScript interface can operate in either Normal Mode or Expert Mode. Normal Mode is similar to Flash 4.0 in that new actions are inserted using a drop-down menu, and the options for editing each action are presented as a form. While Expert Mode still lets you pull actions from a drop-down list or the new dictionary pane, it also lets you edit the code directly. You can also cut code from a text editor and paste it into Flash (and vice versa) or save your code as a separate text file and use the new Include action to grab the external code when you export.
Sound and Vision
For animators, new custom keyboard shortcut sets, an improved Timeline, and expanded optimization selection and editing options should all make a positive difference. Some users may find the updated Timeline particularly alien because it borrows more from Director than from past incarnations of Flash, but there are a few legacy preferences that restore behavior like that of Flash 4.0.
Flash 5.0 supports direct import and editing of native Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia FreeHand files. A Bezier Pen, Sub-Selection tools, and draggable motion guides have been added to allow illustrators more flexibility within the Flash environment. The improvements help round out the Flash illustrative options, but overall, the available tools for animators aren't radically different from those in Flash 4.0. Along with direct MP3 import, version 5.0 adds scripted volume, panning, and even dynamic audio event creation.
On Board With XML
XML support is another significant new feature because it opens up a myriad of possibilities for interacting with back-end systems, databases, and all sorts of data-crunching activities. Flash Player 5.0 sports a persistent data socket feature that enables chat, multiuser gaming, and many more features that weren't practical in previous versions, which were limited to HTTP requests only.
Flash Player Compatibility
Although the Flash 5.0 authoring application is more or less bug-free, we encountered some problems with the Flash 5.0 Player. Once a user upgrades to the latest plug-in, even the smallest bug or compatibility issue can hobble existing sites built with Flash 4.0 or below. WDDG, a New York-based design firm, maintains a list of identified player issues.
A Step in the Right Direction
All in all, Flash 5.0 is an exciting product. The new features make it a must-have for any developer who wants to create rich but lightweight Web media. The new Flash 5.0 Player plug-in will take time to be fully implemented across the Web, which means if you present all Flash 5.0 has to offer right off the bat, it might be a while before your audience sees your content displayed correctly. But even if you choose to author Flash 4.0- (or even 2.0- or 3.0-) compatible content in Flash 5.0, the interface and workgroup improvements will be well worth the upgrade.