Macromedia Studio MX

The awkwardly named product suite favored for interactive and Web design receives a number of improvements, including better CSS support. But is the sum of Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, and FreeHand better than its parts?

Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way: The name Macromedia Studio MX 2004 is a mouthful. I had my doubts when Macromedia launched the Studio MX moniker more than a year ago, deciding to append all its major application names with MX and launch Studio MX as its product suite. Well, now Macromedia is facing the music of such flagrant product naming schemes. The company tacked on 2004 as the differentiator from previous versions. Sadly enough, the trend shows no signs of going away, with Adobe announcing a similar marketing tactic with its introduction of Adobe CS (Creative Suite). I still don’t understand what’s wrong with version numbers.

Once you get over the name itself, you wonder what this new installment of the Macromedia power suite really has to offer. The suite consists of Dreamweaver MX 2004, Fireworks MX 2004, Flash MX 2004 or Flash MX 2004 Professional, as well as FreeHand MX, which has not been upgraded to a 2004 edition. You can buy either the standard Studio MX 2004 or a version that includes Flash MX 2004 Professional (see what I mean about those names?). Note that both come in a single box with a single CD. You can also buy the individual applications separately.

Read on as I detail some of the more compelling features found in the suite as well as some of its downfalls.

Dreaming with Style
If you’re the creative type who designs Web sites or Web-based applications, chances are you use or consider using Dreamweaver. Since Macromedia’s solid release of Dreamweaver 4, many designers and developers gravitated towards the software as their Web layout/coding tool of choice. Dreamweaver MX, released last June, built on the success of the previous version and combined many of the features found in two other developer-friendly applications: Ultra Dev, for building dynamic Web-based applications using server-side technologies such as PHP, JSP, ASP; and HomeSite, a robust code-based editor. Now with the release of Dreamweaver MX 2004, Macromedia offers up new Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) features, cross-browser checking and a handful of other improvements.

Whether you are designing with Web standards in mind or just want to employ a better method of quickly changing the overall design of a site, then you probably know the importance of CSS. Macromedia acknowledges that designing a site fully with CSS is not only a best practice for keeping your pages lean and clean but helpful with staying within Section 508-compliance, a federal law that requires Web sites to be accessible to people with disabilities.

 Code hints introduced in MX to help auto-complete HTML tags and attributes now support CSS properties (see Figure 1). The Relevant CSS tab found in the Tag Inspector allows you to see exactly which CSS properties are being applied to a selected element (see Figure 2). This is a helpful tool as you begin to use contextual rules (aka descendants) in your style sheets. Macromedia decided to license the Opera HTML-rendering engine just as they did with Contribute 2 to provide more faithful layout rendering than before, although this does seem to come with a performance price at times.  

Figure 1: Code hints now support CSS properties which makes the feature even more helpful for users who need some hand-holding

Figure 2: The Relevant CSS panel provides quick access to which style rules are being applied to a selected element.Aside from improved CSS handling, I found the new dynamic cross-browser checking to be one of the other top features worth the price of admission. The feature allows you to define a set of popular browsers (Internet Explorer, Netscape, Mozilla, Opera, and Safari) and their minimum versions on both Mac and PC for Dreamweaver to take into account (see Figure 3). If any of your pages use code not supported by a particular browser, Dreamweaver informs you of the problem in a subtle yet effective manner (see Figure 4). You then can decide to adjust your code or set Dreamweaver to ignore the problem. This is a godsend for anyone struggling to keep his or her sites as platform and browser-agnostic as humanly possible.

Figure 3: The settings for the cross-browser validation offer up a comprehensive list of popular browsers and current versions from which to choose

Figure 4: When the cross-browser checking finds problems with your code, you get a warning indicator in the browser check button as well as red squiggles below the code in question.There are several other changes found in Dreamweaver MX 2004. The Find and Replace panel has been touched up to accommodate larger chunks of text and the overall user interface has been revamped yet again in an attempt to make it easier to find commands and give you the optimal working space. Curiously, the Timeline feature offered in previous versions has been dropped. Macromedia found few users were using Timelines so they decided to cease its development in favor of concentrating on new features. So if you are one of those who rely on this feature, you will have to look towards the many number of Dreamweaver Extensions available to hopefully accomplish your tasks. Regrettably, I experienced a fair share of bugs first hand that make it difficult to use the product as intended (as many bugs do) and discovered that many others are experiencing serious performance issues even though Macromedia states an enhanced performance in key areas. Macromedia is aware of many of the bugs I experienced and I can only imagine they are working quickly on an update to address these issues since it’s really the only thing standing in the way of this being an otherwise solid offering. You can monitor known isssues here.

Not Another Flash in the Pan?
Along with Dreamweaver MX, the heavy hitter in the 2004 suite is Flash MX, now in two flavors: standard and professional. That’s right, there’s now a Macromedia Flash MX Professional 2004, which I think, qualifies it for one of the longest software product names ever. Both versions include easy-to-use Timeline Effects, a new version of ActionScript (2.0), and support for CSS (via ActionScript). The Professional edition of Flash MX also provides the support for creating forms and slides, plus more developer-directed features such as a project panel, data-centric enhancements, and improved video encoding and playback.

Skimming over these features, you may notice that the emphasis in this version isn’t on interactivity and animation. Flash MX 2004 and especially Flash MX Professional seems to be migrating toward the hardcore developers of the world. I’m not talking about the JavaScript coders who could easily pick up ActionScript and run with it, but Java coders who understand Java classes, method calls, and object handling. Macromedia is attempting to win over this user base in hopes of Flash becoming the ultimate platform for creating Web-based applications — be it rich-media or not. Nevertheless, I wonder at what expense this all comes to Flash’s existing user base of visually oriented designers. How much will this shift in direction alienate the designers who are trying to create a compelling interaction or interface for their sites? I suppose the desire to expand its audience is what prompted Macromedia to segment the product into two flavors, but even the standard version strays a bit too much toward the technical in my opinion.

For those looking to continue to work with Flash MX in the conventional way, you’ll be happy to find some rather nice features to ease the creation of your Flash files and speed up your development time. Most noteworthy is the addition of Timeline Effects, which are Flash-based assistants, that aide in the creation of sophisticated effects such as artwork breaking apart and adding drop shadows (see Figure 5).

 Figure 5: Timeline Effects automatically create effects that would require several steps manually. Unfortunately, you must enter or dial in the values instead of intuitively dragging and clicking between the start and end keyframes.

You can now import PDF and Illustrator 10 files directly into Flash. Many Flash producers have been asking for native support for aliased text — it’s here in this version (see Figure 6). Borrowing from Dreamweaver’s notion of Behaviors, Flash MX now includes a Behaviors panel that houses organized sets of commands that present simple dialog boxes for you to insert the necessary information and have Flash write the ActionScript behind the scenes for you (see Figure 7).

 

 

Figure 6: It’s now possible to set native text in Flash to render aliased (no smoothing) which is often needed for type at small sizes.

 

 

Figure 7: Behaviors in Flash MX present simple dialogs such as this one to help write the ActionScript for you.

On the downside, I’m a bit disappointed that Flash has yet to see major improvements in keyframe sequence creation, symbol management, and native raster effects. Although Timeline Effects are meant to help with keyframe sequence creations, they leave a lot to be desired, especially in contrast to the elegant way in which Adobe LiveMotion 2.0 accomplishes the same tasks. Sadly, Adobe seems to be putting that application out to pasture to die a slow death. Meanwhile Macromedia shows no signs of altering its convoluted course. I find it takes four to five steps to make a simple motion ‘tween in Flash, compared to one step in LiveMotion.

If you use Flash MX today to make a living, then any major upgrade is essential to you. That being said, this version of Flash has put me off more than any other, largely due to its technical nature. Those out there dabbling with Flash MX or striving to learn it now have even more to learn. Perhaps you’ll want to stick with your current version until you have it sorted out. As for the Web-based application developers out there who are taking a curious peek at what Flash MX Professional has to offer, I urge you to consider what Macromedia is attempting to do, download the 30-day trial, and if it works for your requirements, start using it. After all, according to Macromedia, some version of Flash is installed on 98 percent of all desktop computers, with 516 million users across a variety of platforms.

 Live Fireworks
The other two products found in the suite are Fireworks MX 2004 and FreeHand MX. FreeHand being the most recently updated MX product to find its way into the suite, received nothing more than a minor update and no new features. For further details on FreeHand MX, you can read my previous review.
However, Fireworks MX does get the 2004 treatment and is afforded a fair number of new features and improvements. The vector-side of Fireworks now has Auto Shapes, making it easy to edit the look of a common shape, such as a star or arrow, while the bitmap-side includes red-eye removal, color-replacement tools, and non-destructive live effects (see Figure 8), so you can edit filters and settings at any time. Macromedia Fireworks MX also boasts an 85 percent gain in performance on some operations.

 

 

Figure 8: Live Effects in Fireworks MX 2004 gives you non-destructive effects that you can apply and then tweak later on.The new features found in Fireworks MX gives its big brother, FreeHand MX, a run for its money. The Auto Shapes feature makes customizing a shape less of a chore by providing strategic handles for you to drag and get immediate feedback. For instance, add an Auto Shape arrow and you have several handles that control the arrowhead’s shape, size, and the tail’s thickness and angle (see Figure 9). Auto Shapes can be found in the Vector area of the toolbar and tucked away in the Shapes tab of the Assets panel that create tabs, perspective grids, cubes, and cylinders.  

 

Figure 9: Auto Shapes, found in Fireworks MX, are a novel approach to alleviate the tedium of trying to customize basic shapes.Selective JPEG compression is now available for any layer mask, text, and buttons. Making bitmap text as legible as possible for the Web has always been a challenge, as I’ve discussed in an earlier column. Fireworks MX makes it much easier by allowing you to take advantage of the anti-aliasing technology native to your operating system (Quartz for Mac and ClearType for Windows) or select from an abundance of custom anti-aliasing settings (see Figure 10).

 

Figure 10: You can now rely on your modern operating system’s anti-aliasing technology or choose from a myriad of custom levels.

All these additions go a long way to making Fireworks MX 2004 come off as a mature and a solid offering. It’s probably the best part of the suite even though it doesn’t get the recognition it sometimes should. If you aren’t using the Photoshop/ImageReady combination to produce and optimize your Web graphics, then you should certainly factor the improvements found in Fireworks MX, in your upgrade decision. Fireworks MX will serve you well with all your Web graphic needs.

Are you MX-perienced?
Although all the MX 2004 applications received a number of specific features and improvements, the unified MX 2004 experience brings new overarching features to the suite. First, you’ll probably notice another new user interface theme spread amongst the suite that translates into refined buttons, panels, and even more colorful icons that attempt to live in harmony with both OS X and Windows XP interfaces. If you’re running the suite on Windows, you get the added benefit of multiple open documents appearing as tabs in both Dreamweaver and Fireworks. When I asked why this isn’t offered on the Mac, a representative stated that OS X doesn’t allow for a multiple-tabbed window. This is a peculiar statement since many modern browsers for the Mac (Safari, Mozilla, Camino) offer tabbed-browsing in one window.

Mac users, by the way, will need to have made the jump to OS X before running Studio MX 2004. All the applications except FreeHand MX require OS X 10.2.6. On the bright side, you can finally share files between your long-file naming Windows co-workers.

The new versions also tout deeper interoperability between the applications. Both Fireworks MX and Flash MX Professional include the Check In/Check Out features found in Dreamweaver MX. Dreamweaver MX now shows parameters of an imported Flash file in the contextual Tag Inspector. What’s more, Flash MX can read in your Dreamweaver MX site definitions. So there is something to be said about using all the products from the same company, just as there is something to be said about using the same brand of shampoo and conditioner, if you buy into that sort of thing.

 One other interesting new addition to the mix is product activation. In an attempt to thwart software piracy, Macromedia has started to introduce product activation into their software. The process is painless so there’s no need to worry unless you get your software through unscrupulous channels. When installing, the software essentially imprints itself to your system. Similar to how digital rights management software does for music, such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store. If you decide not to activate your product after installing, the software functions in trial mode for 30 days. If you wish to install the software on another system, you will first have to transfer your license, an option found in the Help menu of every MX application. It’s a well thought-out setup that’s virtually painless and a long time coming. I’m sure some will take issue with this new method of installing and activating software, but if it helps to cut down on piracy and pay the people who make the software, then I’m all for it. Incidentally, other vendors, such as Quark for QuarkXPress 6 and Adobe for Photoshop CS on Windows, are also introducing activation schemes.   

Parting Thoughts
Is this rendition of Macromedia MX a must-buy? It’s difficult to say. I’d like to see some of the bugs weeded out of Dreamweaver first before I start recommending it whole-heartedly. Also, the Web-application developer-heavy direction Flash MX is taking will make it less attractive to the designer folks out there, in my opinion. That means Fireworks and FreeHand are key deciding factors if upgrading to the entire suite is worth your while. Therefore, I can only recommend doing so to those for whom the new features are compelling enough.

 Those longtime users of Dreamweaver who find the CSS improvements and cross-browser validation essential additions and are willing to trade it for some minor bugs and possible performance issues should certainly go for it. And the advanced Flash users and highly technical application developers out there who are familiar with visual IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) and who are willing to break new ground in what’s possible with rich applications and Flash should buy it. Otherwise, I find the new Studio MX 2004 a mixed bag that should be carefully considered before upgrading. Fortunately, Macromedia provides trial downloads of all the software included in the suite. Let’s hope Macromedia does something about the name and the downsides I mention in the subsequent product release.

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