Flash Professional CS5 Review

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Flash Professional CS5 is in an odd position nowadays. As part of the expanding Flash Platform, it now shares Flash authoring with Flash Catalyst CS5 and Flash Builder 4 as well as the third-party products on the market. Flash content is deployable with PDF now as well as Flash Player and Adobe AIR, online and offline. And other Adobe products like InDesign CS5 can publish Flash content as part of a larger push toward digital publishing.

However, Flash Professional CS5 does have a place thanks to its unique combination of drawing, animation and ActionScript. No other Adobe product has quite the same balance between creativity and application development, and while I think its specific market is shrinking (developers can move toward Flash Builder 4, creatives can move toward InDesign and Flash Catalyst CS5) it also provides a place for designers who can do both code and creative.

Typesetting is still a chore

I have never enjoyed working with type in Flash the way I have in InDesign or even Photoshop and Illustrator. Macromedia‘s old user interface just has never been very type-friendly. Flash Professional CS5 has a new type engine that supports the Text Layout Framework now built into Flash Player 10, and it’s a big improvement. Many typographic controls are now supported including leading, kerning, discretionary hyphenation and digit case and width. Paragraph-level controls such as columns, margins, indention and vertical justification are also included.

The new type controls are a vast improvement but compared to InDesign and Photoshop, Flash Professional CS5 has a long way to go in terms of actual usability. Even though using them are frowned upon, I sometimes need to use horizontal and vertical scaling—but neither are included in Flash Professional CS5. The Size and Leading items in the Properties panel have no up/down arrows beside them, which are often useful. You still have to select the setting and type it in. Photoshop’s “scrubby sliders” are still the best way to quickly modify settings in any Adobe application, and those were borrowed from Adobe’s video applications. But I am grateful for many improvements to typography in Flash, especially columns, and consider it a major improvement.

Two improvements to two tools new to CS4

The Deco brush tool and Bones inverse kinematics (IK) system were both new to Flash Professional CS4, and in CS5 they have been improved:

  • The Deco brush tool has many more drawing effects that create particle systems, grids, decorations, fire, lightning and other effects. The Symmetry Brush might be the most interesting: it creates multiple symbols rotated around a center point. This can be useful in some projects. Several of the other brushes are actually fairly weak: the Flame Brush just produces a mash-up of vector shapes colored like fire, and the Building Brush creates basic clip art of buildings. You should play with the new drawing effects and see if any can add something to your own projects.
  • Flash Professional CS5 introduces Spring for Bones, which adds resistance to bones as others move around it. This results in more natural poses and animations, and even though there’s only two settings for it—Strength and Damping—they really shore up the naturalness of IK animations in Flash. IK animations in Flash Professional CS4 could sometimes look unnatural because bones didn’t really have resistance. The Spring settings changes that.

There’s also two nice improvements to video in Flash Professional CS5. Cue points, which can be inserted at points within a video to trigger ActionScript or other interactivity, can now be defined in the Properties panel. Developers who take advantage of this can change the way users experience their Flash video content. The other great improvement is playable video on the stage—until now, you had to test your movies to see the video play. This was a very annoying aspect of working with video in Flash and I am very happy to see it resolved!

ActionScript improvements for the beginner

ActionScript 3 can be tricky, especially if you are used to earlier version of ActionScript. Flash Professional CS5 introduced the Code Snippets panel, containing sample code for a variety of common functions, and custom class code hinting and completion in the ActionScript editor. Both of these are actually fairly useful for the expert coder as well as the beginner, but it’s novices who will benefit the most. In particular, the snippets in the Code Snippets panel are annotated with comments that explain how the snippet works, and in better detail than what you find in the reference docs. If you want to learn ActionScript 3, a combination of books like the Classroom in a Book series and these snippets would be a good training resource.

Publish your Flash content anywhere…almost

Adobe has done a great job in the past year of spreading Flash publishing capabilities across its products. Acrobat 9 and Reader can play Flash content in a PDF. Flash Platform applications can publish to Adobe AIR, which runs on computer desktops. Adobe Device Central, which is a fairly mature application now, makes it easy to design Flash for mobile devices, and the Open Screen Project is spurring device manufacturers to support Flash. The OSP encompasses BlackBerry, Android devices and several other mobile devices on the market, and if it works Flash will be available across the mobile market as well as the desktop market, where it currently enjoys almost total market penetration.

However, as I’m sure everyone reading this knows, Flash can’t publish on the iPhone, iPad or any Apple mobile product. The technology is there with Flash Professional CS5 and the new Packager for iPhone, which compiles Flash and ActionScript code into native iPhone code, but just before CS5 was announced Apple changed the iPhone developer agreement and banned all apps built with cross-compilers like the Packager. Adobe opted to leave the Packager in Flash Professional CS5 but will not develop it further, guessing that Apple will never let Flash users produce content for their devices.

I never did actually build an application and test it with the Packager for iPhone, and I doubt I ever will—which is a great shame, because I was really looking for to using it. But without Apple’s blessing, applications built with Flash technology can go no further than the testing environment.

Conclusion

Flash Professional CS5 would have been a spectacular upgrade if the Packager for iPhone could actually publish to the iPhone. Without it, the application has a few major improvements but most new features are updates to existing features and I see much more development being applied to Flash Builder and the new Flash Catalyst. The addition of the Text Layout Framework is an important step toward supporting better typography in Flash, and designers who are serious about Flash and type will consider that reason enough to spend $199 on the upgrade.

If you consider yourself a creative or a coder but not both, this may be the time to think hard about switching to Flash Catalyst CS5 or Flash Builder 4. Flash Professional CS5 is still a phenomenal application that created an entire industry, and the upgrade makes sense for many Flash designers and developers, but the fragmentation of the mobile market and the expanding Flash Platform has made the future of Flash unpredictable.

Flash Professional CS5
Adobe Systems
US$699/$199 upgrade
Rating: 8/10