Product Review: Flash 4 sparkles with enhanced features

Since it first hit the market in 1996, Macromedia Flash has fast become the de facto standard for adding dazzling effects to Web sites. With the release of Flash 4, Macromedia has made a fantastic product even better.

Flash allows Web designers to create 2D graphics and animations by using familiar drawing tools. Designers can build their own graphics from scratch or choose from a collection of premade objects. New improvements to this version help designers work more quickly and without programming. By incorporating Flash into a Web or Internet-commerce site, companies can easily differentiate themselves from their competitors and keep customers coming back.

Flash 4 has been updated with a handful of new features, including enhanced interactivity through ActionScript; support for MP3 compressed audio and QuickTime 4; and an improved interface. I was pleased with all of these upgrades; however, not all of the new features are covered in the documentation, which will make it difficult for a new user to get up to speed quickly. Anyone unfamiliar with creating animated content should plan to spend time getting used to Flash 4 in order to fully unleash its power.

Flash now supports streaming MP3 compressed audio and QuickTime 4 -- a major enhancement that is particularly helpful in creating interactive video streams. Macromedia did a fine job of taking advantage of the new features provided by QuickTime. I particularly liked the ability to layer vector objects over my QuickTime movies and add alpha transparencies.

I found that working with QuickTime movies was a process of trial and error. Macromedia is doing a better job with its printed manual, but I was hard-pressed to find details about animating multiple QuickTime movies. Macromedia's Web site, however, provides plenty of resources that pick up where the documentation leaves off.

Flash 4 lets you convert WAV and Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) audio files into MP3 compressed audio. This high-fidelity file format offers a 10-to-1 ratio that makes it possible to include voice-overs within Flash files without generating huge file sizes.

The old version of Flash gave developers the ability to add interactivity to a site by assigning actions to objects. For example, you could have a specific event occur when the mouse was placed over an object. Flash 4 offers an ActionScript feature that greatly enhances the interactive capabilities. With ActionScript, developers can present even more information at the site without programming.

The new Publish command, which replaces the Aftershock utility, lets you output your projects into multiple file types, including animated GIF files. Because Flash movies are for the most part vector-based, the file format is very small and streams quickly -- even over low-bandwidth connections. However, with this new version, you will need to update your browser's plug-in or ActiveX control to the Version 4 plug-in to take advantage of the new features. Still, Flash 4 lets you save content to older versions as long as you're not implementing any features specific to Version 4.

Among several new usability enhancements is a much-improved tabbed Object Inspector, which now offers tabs for viewing frame, scene, and transform information. Accessing the Object Inspector is quicker than going to the menu to select these tasks, which expedites the development process.

Macromedia also provides a new and much improved collection of lessons and samples, which are available from the help menu. There are more samples in Version 4, and each is helpful in showing how various features work.

If you've worked with Flash or Macromedia Director, you'll get the hang of this new version in no time. However, if you are brand-new to developing multimedia-based content that uses a time-line metaphor, you should plan to spend some time getting used to the new concepts. In the long run, you will be amazed at what you can do. More importantly, those visiting your site are more likely to return. Given the reasonable upgrade price, I highly recommend this product.

(Senior Analyst Jeff Senna (jeff_senna@infoworld.com) evaluates Internet-based technologies and particularly enjoys covering multimedia topics.)The bottom line: excellentMacromedia Flash 4Summary: This outstanding release offers MP3 and QuickTime support, enhanced usability, and scripting functions.

Business Case: Web developers who need a way to build impressive Web sites or Internet-commerce storefronts without incurring high development costs should look no further.

Pros

+ QuickTime support

+ Interactivity

+ Scripting

+ Improved toolset

Cons

- None significant

Platforms: Windows 95/98, Windows NT Server or Workstation, MacOS 7.5 or later

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