In vector terms, this simple rectangle can be described with just four numbers, the yellow ones.

by Joe Gillespie — Aug 1, 1999

Sometimes you will hear the phrase 'resolution independent', and as this month's review is about Macromedia Flash 4, I will explain what this means.

The first time I encountered this concept was back in the mid '80s when Adobe PostScript was first introduced. Rather than describe an image in terms of absolute pixels, PostScript describes it in terms of vectors. Any rectangle can be drawn by plotting its top left and bottom right co-ordinates. A circle can be drawn just knowing its center point co-ordinates and its radius. Irregular shapes can be broken down into a series of curves each requiring only a few Bezier co-ordinates. As you are describing the shape of an object, not its absolute size, it can be scaled from a postage stamp to a billboard by simple multiplication.

Flash also uses vectors, and any object created in Flash can be scaled to any size you like. Using the Control key on the Mac or right mouse button on a PC, you can zoom into and out from a Flash image and it is redrawn perfectly at the new size. Unfortunately, this is not true for bitmap images. As you zoom into those, the pixels get bigger and the definition diminishes.

72 PPI is a borderline situation. At lower resolutions, the pixels can be seen at normal viewing distances. As resolution increases above 72 PPI, individual pixels appear to blend into one another and image detail improves.

In the end, it comes down to economics - how much people are prepared to pay for something only slightly better. A 144 PPI screen would provide a smoother image and crisper type but would require four times the computer memory and processing speed for marginally better results - a good example of the law of diminishing returns.

With my eyes not what they used to be, I find that the real benefit of having a higher resolution screen is simply the increase in working area.

Anybody seriously involved in Web design will know all about Macromedia Flash. Flash is the only serious contender in the Web vector graphics race at the minute.

Vector graphics are much more bandwidth-friendly than their bitmap counterparts, but are more suited to some styles of graphics than others. In traditional graphics terms, vector graphics are more akin to drawings made with a drawing pen, rule, set-square and French-curves whereas, a bitmap graphic is closer to a painting or photograph. It is difficult, if not impossible to produce realistic or photographic images with a vector graphics program and attempting to do so can result in very large file sizes and slow screen redraws.

Although it is feasible, Flash is not intended for static Web page graphics like GIFs or JPEGs. In fact, Flash files are referred to as 'movies' which more accurately describes their dynamic content.

Flash Version 4 has a host of welcome new features including support for streamed MP3 audio, QuickTime 4 support, editable text fields and additional 'actions' to improve interactivity.

MP3 compression provides 'near CD' music quality at reasonable internet bandwidth rates. Think of it as the JPEG of the audio world. Flash lets you export both streamed audio, like background music or narration or event-based sound effects such as button clicks or alert sounds. If you have struggled with embedded sounds in Web pages and the plethora of plug-ins and scripting requirements, Flash is a refreshing change as it handles it all with ease.

The ability to include editable text boxes on a 'Flashed' Web page means that you can now use Flash in all kinds of data entry situations - password protection, surveys, registration forms, etc. And of course, the text entered can be sent back to the server just like HTML form elements except that you can do a whole lot more with a Flash form - both creatively and functionally.

Flash's 'actions' provide a degree of programming without the need for writing any code. These open up many new possibilities for games, questionnaires and information collection and while not as sophisticated as stable mate Macromedia Director's Lingo scripting language, don't need Director's long learning curve. Actions can handle numerous interactive situations from rollovers to complex 'if ... then' structures.

There are other improvements to the interface that make it easier to handle larger projects. Current Flash users will be very happy to see these included but newcomers may find them confusing and daunting. As a Director user for many year, I find the Flash interface much less intuitive and the manual is usually lying open on my desk when I'm using it. Like Director, the drawing tools provided are very basic and to get the most out of Flash, it is better to create the graphics in FreeHand or Illustrator and import them.

Macromedia claim that there are over 100 Million Flash users out there. A recent survey by an independent research company showed that 76.8% of Web users can experience Flash content without having to download and install a player.

A very real advantage of using Flash is that it gives a consistent look to a Web page regardless of the browser or computer platform. It lets you use any typeface you choose, at any size, so even putting the fancy animation aspects to the side, you can produce good looking menu pages and interface elements with ease.

There is a tendency for people to overplay this new found animation 'toy' with trivial, and distracting movement on the screen. Flash 4 is an essential part of any Web designer's toolkit, but like any other novelty, it needs to be used with taste and discretion.

Macromedia Flash 4
Features red bar90%
Ease of Use yellow bar75%
Value for Money green bar85%
'Must Have' Factor blue bar95%
Manufacturer Macromedia
Price $299 for Windows or Mac.
Summary The standard tool for Web vector graphics.
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