Thursday, May 3, 2007

Flash CS3 (P)reviewed

Although this is the third iteration of Adobes Creative Suite, for many of us, this is the first true test of the acquisition of Macromedia by Adobe a year and half ago. And based on what we have had a chance to see, it appears the first thing on the agenda was integration. Read our first review here.
With the next version of Flash, the integration is especially evident with both PhotoShop and Illustrator importers. And when they decided to finally bridge that gap, the engineers at Adobe did it right with custom designed panels that give you full control over importing layers, assigning instance names and even allowing for individual compression controls. And as an extra degree of integration, you can also copy and paste right from Illustrator into Flash.
But the integration was not unilateral. Illustrator now has the ability to have symbol names, type (movie clip or graphic), registration points and even enabling it for 9-slice scaling. And all of these options import directly into Flash as if the symbol were created there. Continuing the integration with Illustrator and Flash, users who are used to drawing in Illustrator, the premiere choice for vector-based artwork, can now find the same level of control in Flash. With the newly upgraded pen tool, users now have tighter control over image manipulation on the stage. Even the shortcut key-commands are the same for this tool. And you can not mention integration without talking about the new look and feel for user interface across most of the new CS3 applications including Flash. Not only is the new look very clean, but it also is very functional with the new iconic mode, allowing for more screen real-estate and less clutter. And after integration, Adobe went right to streamlining a lot of different workflows starting with the Actions Panel. Collapsible code chunks is nothing new to other code editors, but in this case it is slightly different in that the Actions panel does not decide where to collapse your code, you do. You simply highlight the section you want to collapse, and click on one of the triangles at either end of the highlighted section. But that is not all you can do with selected code, you can also instantly comment it out as a line-by-line comment, or as a group comment. And removing comments are just as easy.

But that is not where the upgrades to the Actions panel end. When errors occurred in Flash, they would generally appear in the Output panel, and they still do, but now there is a Compile Errors panel that allows users to double click on the error and be taken right to that line of code. And Adobe has even upgraded the debugger to be more inline with the Flex debugger for even more debugging control. Next up is a feature mentioned back at Flash Forward in Austin. Taking the ease and flexibility of timeline based motion tweens and converting them to well structured XML data that can actually sit right within the rest of the code is much more powerful than it first appears. Because the animation is now part of an AS object, it has methods, events and properties of its own including the ability to set the number of loops and be notified when the animation is complete. This is something that is a bit more complicated with traditional tweens. And I thought I might have found something that Adobe had missed when I set the tween to a motion guide, but sure enough when I copied it as AS 3 and pasted it into the Actions panel, I noticed it picked up every position in the motion guide, so the animation still matched identically.

And in the continuing evolution from smart objects to components, I think this set is finally what we have been waiting for. Good functionality is not necessarily new to components, but how about easily being able to skin them? Well it doesn't get any easier than this. You simply double click the component on the stage, and you are presented with the different states of that component that you can quickly re-skin to look the way you want.

And I didn't forget about ActionScript 3 and the new virtual machine that puts to shame the performance of all previous Flash players, but I do not think that it is any surprise to anyone. What might be a surprise is an upgrade to the export abilities of Flash. Up until now, if you wanted to create an animation, and then export it to Quicktime, you had to have everything piece of animation on the main timeline, no sub-movie clip animations or animations controlled by code. But now, you can setup sub-animations and have animations controlled with ActionScript because the export acts more like a screen record than simply exporting the frames. You can even set it to export for a certain amount of time, or when it reaches the final frame.

Flash CS3 makes workspace customization easy. The new panel system lets you keep them open (in this case) or hide them to expand the workspace area.
A few more random things about the next version of Flash:

  • It boots up and compiles files much faster than previous versions. As an example, I took a large sized file, with well over 250 images in it and compiled it in Flash 8 and Flash CS3. Flash 8 took about 40 seconds, Flash CS3 took about 18 seconds.
  • The scroll wheel works on the stage and in the timeline. This may not seem like much, but when you have a ton of layers, and a large stage size it really makes a difference.
  • The object hierarchy has moved from above the timeline to beneathe it. Not really sure why, but it is pretty annoying at first if you're used to it being above.
  • Switching between different workspaces is pretty easy now with a workspace drop down right underneath the timeline.

This version of Flash not only marks a truly integrated application, but also a sign of things to come from Adobe.

(This review is based on a beta version of Flash CS3 so it may not represent the final product to ship later this year. That is why we call this a preview or a "first look". The version tested is however expected to be feature complete and this article explains what we see as the biggest enhancements.)

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