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Flash CS4: A cursory review

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Posted by Shawn on June 10, 2009
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I just got around to upgrading to the CS4 Production suite recently, which of course includes the latest in the flash series. It's actually the only application I've installed from CS4 so far, I'm waiting till I get a new computer to bother with installing everything else. CS3 will do for now. I really wasn't planning on upgrading at all until CS5 or later, but CS4 gives me two very desirable features that I'll get into later.

First up, the interface and layout. It's.. well.. more rigid. Whereas CS3 had curves and padding, this one is more about straight lines and making use of space. It took a few moments to get the panels arranged the way I liked, and then I noticed it- the properties panel has changed drastically. Introduced in Flash MX/6, the properties panel has been one of my favorite additions to the interface and now they've gone and tampered with it. All it really comes down to is that the properties panel is now meant to be docked vertically, not horizontally. That's great, but I don't use a widescreen monitor. So now that I'm forced to dock it with my library and other panels on the right side, it increases the overall dock width and gives me less viewable stage width. More importantly though I'm accustomed to looking down at the bottom panel to see the properties, and now it's not there. The properties panel used to serve as a 'snapshot' (in my opinion) for the current active object on the screen. Additional info for that object was hidden away in the tabs, like filters for example. Now, all of this information is present at once, via little drop down menus. The stacking of these menus (even collapsed) takes up a lot of space, hence the change to a vertical panel. The problem is that it's filled with information I don't need or care about. When I glance at a movieclip I usually just need to know its instance name and/or screen position, not its filters, blend mode, color effects, or "3d position" (that's a new one).

My other main gripe with the new layout is that the open filename tabs are attached to the stage now, not the top of the screen. In another attempt to mess with my preferred layout, CS4 puts the timeline at the bottom of the screen. I can put it back up top the way I like it, but since the filenames are included with the stage they now get sandwiched in the upper middle of the screen. Now when I go to quickly select another tab's file I find myself entering the timeline's motion editor instead of a new file (another new thing, I'm getting there I promise).

Strike three for the layout is the new Actionscript editor window. Not the actions panel, it's the same, I'm talking about the way in which the layout changes when you edit an .as file. The timeline no longer collapses, giving me less vertical space. And now that the properties panel makes my right docking area fatter, I have less horizontal space as well. It's like trying to write code through a tiny window. I had been considering an external actionscript editor for a while now, and this finally got me to do it. So I guess it's good, in a way. I ended up downloading FlashDevelop, which is a fantastic program. It's lightweight and includes enhanced functionality, advanced code hinting, and a huge viewing area for writing.

Layout issues aside, I'm pretty cool with the rest of the program and new features, even if I wont be using all of them. One that stands out in particular is the new tween model. Using the new tweens is much more intuitive. You no longer have to declare an explicit ending keyframe for a tween. You just select a layer, extend the frames, and insert motion. From there you can pick any frame in the tween and edit the shape as you please (position, alpha, filters, etc) and it takes care of the rest. If you edit x/y position a green line will show up that indicates the path from point a to b, you can edit and bend that line like you would with any other vector line. This is nice and eliminates a lot of need for the old motion guides, though I'm still not sure how to perform advanced edits on the actual tween line (drawing it into different shape altogether). The answer probably lies within the motion editor window that I mentioned earlier. For any given tween you can break the properties down into incredible detail and edit them individually. This offers control over your animations in a near obsessive-compulsive fashion.

CS4 comes with more new tools than usual, the most hyped one being the 'bones' tool. With the bones tool you can build underlying armatures that connect together different symbols, or even just graphical shapes. With the bones in place you can modify objects in an entirely new way and achieve animations that wouldn't have been possible without painstaking effort. The system isn't perfect though, and your bones might not always function the way you like. To combat this they included the 'bind' tool, which lets you pick a specific bone and edit the actual points that it attaches itself to. I'm not that much of an animator so I don't think I'll be using the bones tool very often, but for those that need it they have an entire new world to play with. Though at this point I start to wonder if we're trying to compensate too much for lack of actual animation skill. Oh well, I can't really complain.

My favorite new tool is actually the 3d rotate/translate tool. Mostly because it takes a much sought after effect and makes it very easy to achieve. In the past, when you wanted to give the illusion of 3d to a graphic you had to manually tween it the right way. You could also distort it, which offers perspective, but that was only available to raw vector shapes. Now with the new 3d tools you can rotate and move a graphic in an accurate 3d space. It makes the illusion of 3d easy to create and edit, and I look forward to finding uses for it.

The other new tool is the 'deco' tool, which I think is a bit unnecessary, but I'm sure someone will get some use out of it. The deco tool is sort of like a custom brush/pattern creator. You can use the presets or assign your own movieclip for it to use. I'm sure it can create some interesting effects but I feel like the people looking to make intricate patterns can already easily do so through something like photoshop. Maybe I just haven't given it enough time yet.

So now we finally get to the two features that I actually upgraded the program for, and both are actionscript related. First, we can now create bitmapdata objects that span up to ~4000px tall and wide, instead of the previous ~2800 limit. The limit can actually be extended in either the horizontal or vertical plane, as long as the total pixel amount doesn't exceed ~16,000,000. I've heard of problems using the draw method when extending past ~4000 though, so I'm not sure about that. What it really comes down to is that my next game contains room segments represented as bitmapdata, so with CS4 I can essentially create bigger rooms without the need to try and break them up into tiles, which saves a LOT of hassle.

The other new and more notable AS3 addition has been the Vector class. A vector is basically a type-explicit array. When you create a vector you specify what data type it will contain. This is no problem for me because I've never mixed data types in an array, it feels dirty. The real advantage is execution speed, because now the flash player must no longer verify the data types contained within when you iterate the contents of a vector; it already knows.

Lastly, a couple other improvements that I like: when creating library symbols, you can directly specify what folder to put them in, or create a new one on the spot. Makes organizing large game assets easier. And when you come across a compiler error, the window gives you the option to go straight to the source, which speeds up having to hunt through line numbers.

Well, that concludes my review of Adobe Flash CS4. I consider it 'cursory' because I've only been using the program for a few days, and I'm sure there's plenty that I've missed. Not only that but there are probably ways to fix or lessen some of the issues I've mentioned and I just don't know about it yet. The benefits definitely outweigh the problems as far as I'm concerned. I'm interested to hear what anyone else thinks about what I've mentioned so far, or anything else relating to CS4 for that matter.

Posted to: Flash/Actionscript, Reviews

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