Adobe Flash CS4

There are some things in life that you look forward to with trepidation, and if you’re a regular Flash user, the CS4 version is certainly one of those.

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Adobe Flash CS4
  • Adobe Flash CS4
  • Adobe Flash CS4
  • Adobe Flash CS4


  • 3D capabilities offer a world of new possibilities; tools such as Airbrush are highly useful; Library now searchable


  • Installation has its glitches; the program runs the risk of becoming bloated with features of dubious value

Bottom Line

This is a major development in Flash’s evolution. There are some great new features and kinks have been worked out. However, it’s frustrating that Adobe has felt the need to try to make Flash feel more consistent with the other Creative Studio applications.

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There are some things in life that you look forward to with trepidation, and if you’re a regular Flash user, the CS4 version is certainly one of those. It’s a huge release, and there are features aplenty. But we wonder how many of these new tools will become firm favourites, and how many will languish unused — or worse still, turn out to be inferior to what they replaced.

We installed Flash as part of the Master Collection on two separate Vista machines. On the first machine, a relatively new model with an Intel Core 2 Quad chip, something pretty serious went wrong and although we did eventually get it installed, this was only after a great deal of pain and a clean-up script from Adobe. Happily, the process was much smoother on the second machine, but we would advise users to close all programs, set a restore point and disable antivirus software or anything else that might interfere before attempting to install the software.

Running Flash CS4 for the first time, the most obvious change is the new interface styling, which looks rather like the control panel that Grand Moff Tarkin used to destroy Alderaan. The changes in the interface are in fact somewhat representative of the changes in the software as a whole. These seem to fall into two camps: those that are genuinely useful and those that seem to be aimed at making Flash fit better into the Adobe suite as a whole.

For many, the highlight of this release will be 3D: the new 3D capabilities are worth the upgrade price on their own. Sure, this is the tool that will launch a thousand new spinning logo intros, but it’s quite effective, and at least it doesn’t have a cheesy flame effect thrown in.

The 3D tools are intuitive and since the 3D properties are accessible and editable in ActionScript, we look forward to seeing some creative uses of this feature.

Then there’s the addition of inverse kinematics (IK) (see main screenshot, above right): in our opinion this is one of the ‘hero’ features of this release. It allows you to connect MovieClips together using invisible bones and set up parent and child relationships between them. Potential uses range from animating simple machinery to creating walk cycles. Add to this the ability for bones to be manipulated via ActionScript and you have a very powerful feature indeed. What we didn’t expect to see was the ability to apply bones straight to flat artwork, and have them move that around too, although we’re not sure what you’d use that for.

At first glance the new object-based animation is impressive: simply move an object on the stage and you can create a tween complete with motion path. You can adjust the path and move the tween around as an object on the timeline. Unfortunately, after working with it for a while, it became clear that this system has plenty of foibles. Fine control of the animation is a frustratingly fiddly experience using the new motion editor (which feels like it’s been lifted from After Effects), so you might find yourself using ‘classic’ tweens, which are thankfully still supported.

In theory this new approach does allow you a degree of finesse that the old system didn’t, allowing you to create animations that would have previously only been possible by nesting an animation inside another. Whether this flexibility is worth the hassle is debatable.

As well as these big features are a number of other changes. Some of these are welcome improvements, while others are less so.

The Library is now searchable, which will be a boon for large-scale users. Multiple library item properties can also now be set at the same time so, for example, you can set the bitrate of multiple sound clips at once — we imagine that this will be quite a timesaver for many users.

Of all the new features, possibly our favourite is the Airbrush tool, which can be set to fire MovieClips. This is one of those features that you’ll wonder how you ever coped without.

In another useful touch, Flash CS4 has a variety of fairly convincing stock sound effects, which can be opened directly from Soundbooth for editing.

If only all the new features were as well thought out as these. Unfortunately, the release also includes tools such as the Deco tool, which might be one of the worst features we’ve ever seen in a piece of professional software. Frankly, unless Adobe is planning to refocus Flash sales on the wrapping-paper market, we hope this gets lost in the next release.

Similarly baffling is the Kuler Extension, a colour picker whose palettes are driven by Adobe’s groovy social colour-scheme portal. Its value to web designers is debatable.

Of course, if you don’t have a use for the Deco tool you can ignore it. Other changes are more intrusive – the Properties palette has been changed to be vertical rather than horizontal, wasting screen real estate.

It’s clear that this is a major development in Flash’s evolution. There are some great new features, and kinks have been worked out, but it’s frustrating that Adobe has felt the need to try and make Flash feel more consistent with the other Creative Studio applications.

For those of us who remember Flash before it changed hands, these changes are perhaps a step too far: when Adobe bought Flash, it became the curator of an Internet institution – sure, it had a few quirks, but these were more than made up for by its ease of use, which had won it a massive worldwide following. Maybe Adobe should make some of its other tools more like Flash, rather than the other way around.

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