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Adobe Flash Professional CS3 review

By Jem Matzan

Flash is one of the most important media formats in the history of personal computing. It will never be accused of being technologically advanced, resource-efficient, and optimally compatible across multiple versions and platforms, but undeniably Flash is the de facto animation standard on the Web. Tools to create Flash programs and animations have varied in depth of features and quality of operation, but nothing has ever been able to compete with the original Macromedia Flash development environment. Now in the hands of Adobe after its acquisition of Macromedia almost two years ago, Flash is finally alive and fully operating under a new corporate banner. Unlike previous releases, Flash Professional CS3 offers a number of must-have improvements, but it also has a larger number of marginal or meaningless enhancements, and the elimination of Flash's 2D counterpart, FreeHand, is a huge negative point for veteran Flash developers and artists.

Flash overview

Originally released by Macromedia, Inc. in 1996 as a Web animation creation tool and delivery system, Flash has grown into a huge part of the Web development, design, and user experiences. The proprietary but free to download and mostly cross-platform Flash Player is both a standalone offline application and a Web browser plugin that plays Flash files. The Flash file format encompasses vector and raster animation data; and logic in the form of a JavaScript-like, ECMAScript-based programming language called ActionScript. Flash Professional is a graphical integrated development environment (IDE) designed as both a drawing and animation program, and an ActionScript programming tool.

Flash Professional was originally intended to be a standalone program for creating programs and animations for the Flash Player, but was eventually made to work interoperably with Macromedia's other products -- the Dreamweaver HTML IDE, the Fireworks Web graphics creation program, and the FreeHand vector drawing tool. In their later incarnations, each program was capable of creating entire Web sites based on content you created -- be they drawings, animations, applications, storyboards, or hand-coded HTML. Macromedia experimented with bundling the four products in duo packages, eventually including them all in the Macromedia Studio suite.

In December 2005, Macromedia was bought out by Adobe Systems, Inc., and both companies' products were merged into a variety of slightly different application suites. Adobe killed off FreeHand in favor of its own Illustrator vector drawing program, but smartly kept Fireworks for creating Web graphics and entire graphics-oriented Web sites.

Versions and packages

The previous two releases of Flash have been split into Basic and Professional editions. The Professional edition was, of course, more expensive and offered a handful of expanded features. With Flash CS3, both branches converge into a single product again. Instead of fragmenting Flash, Adobe has decided to provide different suite packages that meet different needs.

You can buy Flash CS3 as a standalone product, as an upgrade, or as part of the following Creative Suite 3 packages:

  • Design Premium
  • Design Standard
  • Web Premium
  • Web Standard
  • Production Premium
  • Master Collection

Upgrade eligibility

If you already have a legal license for a qualifying upgrade product, you can upgrade to Flash CS3 or any of the Creative Suite 3 packages that include Flash at a substantial discount. You must own one of the following Flash products to upgrade:

  • Macromedia Flash MX
  • Macromedia Flash MX 2004 Basic or Professional
  • Macromedia Flash 8 Basic or Professional

Versions of Flash prior to these are not eligible. If you have an MX, MX 2004, or version 8 edition of Dreamweaver, Fireworks, or Macromedia Studio, you will be able to upgrade to a suite at the same discounted rate.

What's new in CS3

Most of the enhancements and new features in Flash Professional CS3 have to do with integration with the rest of the CS3 canon, primarily Photoshop and Illustrator. For those of you who hated Adobe products and loved Macromedia's workflow, this is very bad news. Fortunately, there are some other bright spots in the list of enhancements that have nothing to do with interface meddling. The highlights of Flash Professional CS3's new features are:

Adobe Flash Professional CS3
Flash CS3: improved functionality, reduced interface
  • Ability to import Photoshop (PSD) and Illustrator (AI) graphic files.
  • Animation conversion to ActionScript.
  • The Flash interface has been Adobe-ized.
  • ActionScript 3.0 support.
  • A movie debugger has been added.
  • Mobile device profile settings are available through the new Adobe Device Central CS3.
  • Enhanced vector drawing tools.
  • New, graphically modifiable user interface components.
  • Improved QuickTime export functionality.

Putting it to the test

The last version of Flash I used before this review was MX 2004, and I was not terribly impressed with what I considered to be a completely worthless upgrade to the already-as-good-as-it-gets Flash MX. Not only was the product split into two different versions (the more expensive of which was nowhere near worth the higher price), but it cost a lot of money for the upgrade while offering nothing important to Flash MX users. The situation with Flash CS3 is a little better than that, but still might not offer a compelling reason for many designers and developers to upgrade. MX 2004 was what I call a "revenue release," made more because Macromedia needed to make some money than to satisfy the evolving needs of its user base. Flash 8 was kind of a dud, too, though it did have a few interesting enhancements. Flash CS3 is the first properly integrated, sufficiently upgraded, fully Vista-compatible version of Flash Professional. It represents the first major step forward for the product since Studio MX.

The first thing you'll notice about Flash Professional CS3 is the difference in its interface. It's definitely more Adobe-like, but I don't really consider that a positive quality. I liked Macromedia Studio MX's interface -- I thought it was perfect just the way it was. In CS3, the drawing toolbar has been shifted from two columns to one, and all of its icons are now gray instead of colored, which makes them more difficult to distinguish among and find intuitively. There is an adjustment button at the top of the tool pane that will switch it back to the traditional 2-column layout, but it doesn't bring the color back.

The Actions, Project, Behaviors, Components, and Components Inspector panes are also missing from the default layout, which reduces the Flash interface down to drawing and animation tool panes exclusively. In other words, Adobe made Flash look more like Photoshop. I suppose this is good for Photoshop users who want to get into Flash, but it's very bad for Flash users who are used to the established and at least partially intuitive Macromedia workflow. Fortunately you can fix this to a large degree by adding the familiar panes through the Window menu -- a feature Flash has had for several years -- but you cannot get it to look exactly like previous Flash releases. Overall, I find the Flash Professional interface changes to be unnecessary and bothersome; I much prefer working in Flash MX 2004.

In addition to the traditional star, rectangle, and oval shape tools, there are now primitive shapes as well. These are more freeform than the standard rectangle and oval shapes, allowing you to start with a circle or rectangle and custom-modify its shape handlers to create a unique figure. Adobe's also messed with the functionality of the pen tool, supposedly making it more like the pen in Illustrator, but I didn't see much of a difference during testing.

Adobe Device Central CS3
Device Central CS3: the best part about the new Flash upgrade

ActionScript 3.0 isn't new with Flash Professional CS3 -- it's actually more than a year old as of this writing, but Flash Professional CS3 is the first version of the Flash IDE that supports it. ActionScript 3.0 represents a gigantic overhaul of the language, and an analysis of its changes would merit an article of its own. If you really need to know more right now, the Wikipedia article on ActionScript provides the details. What you need to know about Flash Professional CS3 is that it can work with Flash programs and animations in both the 2.0 and 3.0 versions of ActionScript, so there are no forced upgrades to newer versions of the Flash Player unless you specifically choose the newer standard.

Remember all of those cool tutorials that Macromedia used to have built into the Help section of Flash? Well, they're gone in CS3. Fortunately they have been replaced with a huge collection of short training videos available for free on the Web. These are not just for Flash Professional -- they're for the whole CS3 suite, but are listed by which program they primarily apply to. I watched several of them, and in general I think they are good, but I'm not sure that I personally can learn more from watching a video than I can by following written instruction steps for using specific features in Flash. I think the old text-based tutorials should have been left in, and I'd also like it if the training videos were a little more prominently displayed in the Help menu -- I really had to look around to find them.

The crown jewel of Flash Professional CS3 is Device Central. This is actually a separate program that handles Flash settings profiles for a wide variety of publishing platforms. If all you are doing is creating Flash programs and animations for Flash Player 9 on Windows desktop computers, you will probably never need to use Device Central. If, however, you are creating Flash media for handheld devices with varying Flash Player version support and screen sizes, Device Central is a dream come true. Basically it offers dozens of predefined device profiles that you can use to configure your Flash project to ensure that it will play on the target platforms. If you have a unique device, or if the device you're publishing to is not listed, you can easily create your own custom profiles.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

Overall I think Flash Professional CS3 is a worthwhile upgrade to all previous releases, particularly if you are planning to switch to Windows Vista in the near future -- previous Flash releases may not work well or at all with Vista. Adobe has found interesting ways to add necessary new features to what was an industry-leading product to begin with, even if it did screw up the user interface and kill off FreeHand in the process. Flash Professional CS3 standalone may not be worth the trouble unless all you really need to do is Flash animations and your existing Flash creation tools are not meeting all of your needs. I consider Device Central CS3 a necessity for Flash developers; it's practically a dream come true for mobile device programmers.

One thing that bothers me about Flash Professional CS3 is that MX 2004 and MX were tightly integrated with the FreeHand vector drawing tool. Though I don't want to turn this review into a FreeHand lament, I will say that I would have liked to see more of FreeHand's unique features ported to Flash or Illustrator. In my previous analysis of Studio MX 2004 (it's no longer online -- don't bother looking for it), I wondered why Flash and Freehand couldn't be combined. Essentially they are both vector drawing programs -- it's just that one does animation and scripting, and the other does 2D drawings and storyboarding. In fact, you used to be able to buy Flash and FreeHand together as a discounted package before Macromedia Studio became an integrated suite. Flash has indeed lost something because of the slaughter of FreeHand, and Illustrator doesn't quite make up for it.

Here's what I'd like to see in the next Flash Professional release:

  • Less product activation and registration hassle. No user wants to go through product activation schemes, especially when they are limited to a certain number of reinstallations before they expire. Should this happen and you have to call Adobe's support line to get a new activation code, the customer support representatives are apparently trained to treat customers antagonistically. You're given the third degree about activating the product more than the allotted number of times. The solution here is twofold: less product activation, and better customer service. Also, cut the product registration nag screen out entirely -- it's annoying and impossible to get rid of until users relent and give out their personal information (or fake information, which is what I usually do -- I don't want more spam, particularly from Adobe and its "partners"). For the amount of money people pay to use Flash Professional, they should be entitled to less hassle in these areas. Oddly, if you use a "pirated" version of Flash Professional, you can avoid all of these annoyances.
  • Better cross-platform support. The world is not Microsoft and Apple. If you're not going to create a native Linux version of Flash Professional, and you waffle on the idea of providing an updated Linux Flash Player binary, how do you expect to expand your customer base? The result may very well end up being the creation of an open animation standard that quickly supplants Flash. To avoid the kind of disaster this would cause for Adobe, I strongly suggest opening the Flash file format standard so that it can be more widely and correctly adopted in Web browsers, and a Linux and/or BSD version of the Flash Professional IDE. At the very least, Adobe needs to work with a company like CodeWeavers to improve Wine support for its Windows products. Linux and BSD may be the only place for Adobe to run if Apple designs its own Flash alternative, and Microsoft succeeds with its Expression Studio suite. You cannot build your business on third-party desktop application software and be friends with Apple and Microsoft -- they will use nasty, underhanded, unethical tactics to crush your superior products, just like one or both of them did with Be, Lotus, Novell, Caldera, and Sun Microsystems, to name a few.
  • Interface compatibility modes. One of the smartest things that Corel ever did with WordPerfect was introduce interface presets. Since the program's interface is highly configurable, Corel was able to provide some preset customizations that would make WordPerfect look as much like previous editions and competing products as possible. Flash Professional could definitely benefit from a similar set of interface compatibility modes, primarily with previous editions of itself.
  • Lower the price. Flash Professional is way too expensive. This product reached its peak with Studio MX, so I realize that Adobe is facing an increasingly difficult challenge in coming up with new reasons to convince people to buy upgrades, and must therefore pad its margins by selling at higher prices, but it's getting a bit ridiculous. $700 for Flash Professional? That's insane, especially considering the fact that most of the people who create art and publish for the Web do so outside of a professional atmosphere. Design shops that rely on Flash Professional could be hard-pressed to come up with reasons why it is financially viable to spend $200 per seat for upgrades, especially considering the interface changes, which will harm productivity. As long as prices remain prohibitively high, so-called "piracy" will remain a significant and incurable threat among non-professionals.
  • 64-bit support. I predict the "all the world is x86" attitude is going to destroy more than one software company before the decade is over. We are already on the last generation of 32-bit operating systems as of this writing, but there are still application software companies out there that balk at the idea of providing 64-bit binaries. Adobe is one of them. If Adobe waits much longer to refactor and recompile for a 64-bit environment, it's going to get burned.
  • Bring back FreeHand. I've been trying to adjust to using Illustrator as a 2D graphic design tool, but it's not an easy process. FreeHand used to be perfect as a graphics creation tool for Flash animations -- you'd make your still vector images in FreeHand, and import them into Flash. Pardon me for saying so, but in this role Illustrator is complete garbage. Do us a big favor and open source the recently deceased FreeHand so existing Flash users can reclaim their familiar workflow.
Purpose Vector animation and Web applet development
Manufacturer Adobe Systems, Inc.
Supported platforms Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or later, Windows Vista Home Premium or better, Mac OS X v.10.4.8 or later.
License Proprietary, heavily restrictive. Requires Internet-activated, limited-use product activation and user registration.
Market Web designers, developers, animators, and advertisers.
Price (retail) U.S. $700 for the full version, $200 for the upgrade. Also available as part of Adobe Creative Suite 3.
Previous version Macromedia Flash 8
Product Web site Click here