Macromedia Flash MX by Mike Gilbert

by Joe Gillespie — May 1, 2002

At first glance, Flash MX looks very much like its predecessor, Flash 5, but as you dig down it becomes rapidly apparent that a great deal has altered. This is not just an overhaul but a major rebuild including functionality, programming and work method changes.

The user interface has been rationalised to improve usage of screen real estate with the ability to dock property panels and libraries into customisable, collapsible groups while a contextual Property Inspector has been added à la Dreamweaver/Director to integrate property controls into one window.

Timeline working methods such as frame selection have been altered, in some cases reverting to Flash 4 functionality, and items on the timeline can now be organized into folders. The Actions window has been radically redesigned and the Normal Mode scripting elements have been reorganised into different groups.

Many less obvious, creative capabilities are now available: video clips can be embedded in movies and streamed without a streaming server, although there is as yet no Video Object in ActionScript. External, non-embedded JPEGs and MP3 files can be loaded using 'loadmovie' and 'loadsound' at runtime. Objects can be snapped to pixels rather than simply to the grid making text and other display clearer and more controllable. Sounds can be handled accurately using duration and time played tests and sound completed actions allowing better synchronization with animation. Movieclips can now act as masks (on many designer's wish list for a long time).

There are massive changes under the hood with a significant expansion of ActionScript, new objects and methods. Button instances can now be named and their properties altered using ActionScript and movieclips can now have button functionality added with a swathe of new methods and events to control this new functionality. The old concept of the button and MC has been turned completely on its head by these modifications and workers will have to seriously rethink how they use these symbols.

Empty movieclips and text fields can now be created dynamically - shapes can, for example, now be drawn dynamically into a newly-created empty MC using the ActionScript Drawing Methods.

Extremely comprehensive text formatting capabilities are now available with the TextField and TextFormat objects. Text can now be displayed vertically at origination and scrolling text fields are easier to produce. Breaking apart text is now a two-step procedure in which words are broken first into characters - these can then be turned into graphics by further breaking apart or can be placed in separate layers for animation using the useful new 'Distribute to Layers' command in the Modify menu. Aligning text to pixels using 'Snap to Pixels' makes working with pixel fonts much simpler.

The way you look at Flash MX will depend upon your previous experience. Veteran Flash workers have a big acclimatisation exercise ahead followed by improved productivity and new development capabilities derived from the expanded ActionScript language, XML improvements, better sound control, embedded video and some added drawing tools.

People who started with 5, however, may be frustrated by the changes in selection technique on the timeline and the loss of the double-click to open the ActionScript window - that now selects all frames between start and end keyframes.

Beginners will find learning ActionScript in Normal Mode harder than previously because of the way the actions are grouped and hidden deeper in multiple menu levels - there are odd inconsistencies such as bundling the 'with' action inside the 'Variables' rather than the 'MovieClip Control' group, too.

Extra tutorial and reference material has been provided for learners and helpful descriptions of code items are displayed in the Actions panel.

More experienced programmers will love the new debugging tools, code hinting and indentation in Expert mode.

Flash is now a full-blown application development system suitable for complex gaming and database front-end applications. It remains to be seen how the implementation of digital video develops but that could also be radical.

Flash MX is a very different product from its predecessors and fully justifies the 30% price hike. Most workers will be pleased with the changes and get used to them rapidly - tough work for trainers, though! Oh, and you'd better buy a lot more memory - Flash MX eats it.

Mike Gilbert is a freelance Web design and multimedia trainer and teaches Macromedia Flash and Director at Diploma and Degree level in London, UK.

Macromedia Flash MX
Features red bar70%
Ease of Use yellow bar50%
Value for Money green bar80%
'Must Have' Factor blue bar80%
Manufacturer Macromedia
Price Full product $499, upgrades $199 - Mac OS 9.1 to 10.1.3, Windows 98 to XP
Summary Major revamp of ever-popular Web design tool.
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