Introduction Product

Flash can be frightening to master because of its complex interface and the multiple steps required to get started with animation. Thankfully, Flash CS4 isn't like some other updates of professional Adobe software, which sometimes add few important features at a steep price. This upgrade is worthwhile, especially for those learning Flash animation for the first time.

Flash CS4 offers a fundamentally different approach to animation with object-based tweening, making it easier to get started. For instance, just draw and select a shape, create a tween, and you're ready to move the shape around in the timespan that appears, instantly creating an animation. There are no more in-between steps to take, as Flash CS4 fills in the gaps you previously had to do yourself.

In addition, the work space is more elegant and options expand to work with the latest video formats and Web applications. And as with each new release, Adobe added design tools that enable creative professionals to create complicated-looking animation more quickly.

Setup and interface
As with other professional Adobe Creative Suite applications, the interface can be be incomprehensible to beginners. However, Flash CS4 offers many welcome improvements to its look and feel. Tweaks to the Timeline, Properties Inspector, and Toolbar emphasize the central location of the Stage. A helpful Search field, tabs to keep track of multiple projects in progress, and pull-down menus to toggle among work space layouts are found throughout Creative Suite 4. Panels are simpler to resize, open, and close. Searching within the Library in Flash will suggest items as you type, which can save a vast amount of time. Designers should like hot-text editing, also found in Photoshop and After Effects, as well as a new color-management panel.

Adobe has reinvented the building blocks of Flash animation so you can get started in two steps. No longer must you create a symbol, then manually apply and adjust keyframes and tweens; Adobe defines selected items as a symbol for you. It should be easier to control and tweak animation now that it applies to an object rather than to a Timeline keyframe. Right-click on an object, select Create Motion Tween, and the time span is created automatically. You can create cartoons as if you were drawing designs in Illustrator. The new animation model also simplifies drastic edits when you're already deep into a project; especially if you wish to extend the length of a movie.

Another benefit to Flash CS4 is its new Motion Editor, which provides granular controls for fine-tuning animation with Bezier curves. The Classic Tween option is available, should you prefer the old animation model. Coders can dig into ActionScript without changing their work flow.

New 3D tools make it simpler to add visual depth, although professionals can find deeper 3D options from other vendors. Design tools introduced to Flash CS4 include 3D Translation and 3D Rotation, Bones, and Deco. 3D Translation and Rotation help you manipulate objects in near-3D space with the same ease of resizing an image in Photoshop.

With Bones, you can create inverse kinematics animation, ideal, for example, for rotating the arm of a crane or Rube Goldberg contraption to set off a reaction among related mechanical parts. This also can be extremely useful for animating characters. Bones is trickier to learn than we'd like, but it's still a shortcut compared with how you'd have to labor to achieve similar effects without it.

The Deco tool helps you create repetitive patterns, such as blinking stars in the sky, geometric wallpaper patterns, or intricate designs of vines, without using ActionScript. We didn't find this as cool in practice as it was in early demonstrations, but it's still fun. A library of motion presets also can get you started on more sophisticated animation that could be tricky to build from scratch.

Content is supposed to render more quickly than in CS3, and our tests seemed to prove this. Finally, Flash CS4 renders animation on the stage, as it would appear during preview, another huge time-saver. You can see an object in its previous positions as you drag it around the stage. Flash Player 10 also seemed faster.

The new XFL file format is supposed to help print designers or motion artists using InDesign or AfterEffects to dip their toes in Flash, as exported XFL content can be used in any of these programs. With this XML-based format, you can extract assets from work done in Flash. We're glad that Adobe aims to phase in XFL gradually, rather than forcing saved content by default in this convention.

The Adobe Media Encoder enables Flash developers to create H.264 content for Web videos that stream quickly even on a narrow pipeline. Dropping video within Flash content is possible with several steps. Also, you can save an MPEG-4 rather than an FLV file, encoded as H.264, without re-encoding the video. The capability to author Adobe AIR content lets you create Web-based applications, including those with transparent backgrounds, on your desktop.

Service and support
Support for installation issues and other speed bumps lasts for 90 days. Adobe's comprehensive, self-serve technical support options include embedded and online lookups, tutorials, and videos. The new Adobe Support Portal requires an Adobe log-in and password. Beginners would be wise to get up to speed with the interactive tutorials and maybe even third-party books and Web sites. Web-based forums with other users, as well as the Community Support, is in in beta testing and may be the best bargain for getting hands-on advice.

Don't bother trying to seek extra help without a registered serial number; the days of "borrowing" copies of heavy-duty Adobe software from friends are long gone. Help with a live Adobe representative continues to be expensive. Each year we find the pricing options harder to find on Adobe's Web site. The Bronze level of support, for five prepurchased incidents is $175. Unlimited Silver support costs $1,200, nearly three times the cost of Flash itself.

Flash CS4 is far more attractive than CS3, namely for its less taxing approach to animation. New users to Flash should skip CS3 altogether and get started with CS4. That said, newcomers still might need to pay for a how-to book or a class to learn the application in depth.

The price hasn't changed since Flash CS3: $699 for the full version or $199 to upgrade. We still wish it weren't so costly, but we recommend that longtime users upgrade. Even if you have few complaints about older versions of Flash, eventually you'll have to learn the CS4 animation model.

Adobe Flash CS4 10.0 Professional Include
 - Adobe AIR
 - Adobe Bridge CS4
 - Adobe Device Central CS4
 - Adobe Drive CS4
 - Adobe Extension Manager CS4
 - Adobe Media Encoder CS4
 - Adobe Media Player

System requirements
  • Microsoft® Windows® XP with Service Pack 2 (Service Pack 3 recommended) or Windows Vista® Home Premium, Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise with Service Pack 1 (certified for 32-bit Windows XP and Windows Vista)
  • 1GHz or faster processor
  • 3.5GB of available hard-disk space for installation; additional free space required during installation (cannot install on flash-based storage devices)
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 1,024×768 display (1,280×800 recommended) with 16-bit video card
  • DVD-ROM drive
  • Broadband Internet connection required for online services
  • QuickTime 7.1.2 software required for multimedia features
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