Overview

With not a great deal of time elapsed between the release of the last major upgrade to it’s Creative Suite of applications and this new version (CS5.5), there will be more than a few CS users out there wondering to themselves, ‘why are Adobe asking me to pay for this again, when I bought the newest version only last year?’ It’s a good question too, but with a little bit of time to use the tools, and think about the reasons, it’s actually starting to make sense to me.

Initially, I thought it was all a bit much. Asking users to pay again seems terribly unfair at first, but when I take pause to think about it, a few things come to mind:
  • If device manufacturers are going to release paid revisions of mobile devices every 12 months or less, it follows that the tools needed to make content for them might need to be updated too. Adobe is just adjusting for this as a future trend, and they’re probably on the money.

  • It might actually work out cheaper to take up the new subscription payment model, and could be attractive to business. For example, if you only need the products every so often (like when releasing an issue of a publication or similar), or if you do the kind of work that requires the latest features (like a mobile developer) and you’d always want to have the latest version at all times. Also, depending on where you live, there could be  tax benefits in relation to ongoing subscription fees as opposed to the purchase of products outright.

All in all, whilst I think it is probably a fraction too soon since the last paid release, I think Adobe are hoping their customers can tolerate a little adjustment so that they can be more responsive to developments in the future. Read on for some more specifics about the new features in Flash CS5.5.



'M' is for Mobile


Flash has got a bunch of new features, although to look at it, nothing really major sticks out of the interface for me. Whilst there are a few things that you will notice, it is obvious that the focus has been on workflows, and specifically, workflows for mobile development across a range of screen sizes. This is consistent with the strategic nature of the release cycle Adobe are committing to, which is a reassuring indication of a clear vision for the future of the suite.

Here’s a rundown of some of the new features.


Code Snippets Panel updated


There are 20 or so new snippets in the Code Snippets panel, and some new little UI enhancements (like being able to check out the code, and read a little bit of info about the snippet on a popup window). I have no comment on this either way really - I just don't really use this panel or the snippets it contains, but if you like it, it just got a little bit better!






Symbol Sharing


Flash CS5.5 supports a new way of sharing symbols between FLA files, meaning that common assets for projects can be managed centrally. This is especially interesting when using the ‘Flash Project’ template in the 'New Document' dialog. The Project Panel automates the creation of a file called 'AuthortimeSharedAssets.fla', which is automatically populated with shared assets for the project when they are marked as shared via the Library. This is one of the features that seems to have some serious benefits for multi-screen mobile development, because it means that you can have separate FLA files for each target resolution, without having to maintain common assets separately.


Auto Save


Auto save is a nice new feature. The Document settings pane now gives you the ability to set a frequency for auto-saving your document, should Flash, you know, crash for no reason WHICH NEVER HAPPENS...

I'm kidding, I'm kidding. It happens all the time. So now there is a feature to make sure you don't lose too much work. I reckon MS Word had this feature in 1997, so whilst it isn't necessarily ground-breaking, I shouldn't complain too much. It is very useful, and will help recover valuable work should the worst occur.


Convert Symbol to bitmap on stage


Yet another feature that seems to be targeted towards mobile development. If you have ever tried it out, the export from Flash to something like an iPad app is pretty good these days, but one thing I noticed was that it didn't treat my vectors in such a friendly way. They were a bit jaggy, and the animations a bit clunky. Hence, it makes sense that one way to optimise content for mobile deployment would be to make use of bitmaps as much as possible. Flash CS5.5 provides two new ways to do this. The first is to select your shapes or artwork, and then select Modify -> Convert to Bitmap. The shapes are then converted to a bitmap and added to the Library immediately.

The other way to achieve this same result, and the method that is probably the most attractive as it allows the vector based content to remain in the authoring environment, is to use the new 'Render Settings' feature in the properties panel. Here, it is possible to instruct Flash to convert the symbol to a bitmap at compile time, rather than at runtime (as 'cache as bitmap' would do) or permanently on the stage. Cool.

Just below the Render Settings selection is another new feature - the ability to set object visibility in the authoring environment. This saves the tedious task of settings things to be invisible in the first few lines of a constructor (or similar), and is logically and practically better than using a symbol's alpha property make it initially invisible.










Publish Settings dialog redesigned


The whole Publish Settings dialog has been redesigned. The changes are mostly cosmetic here, adding some better UX and layout for the controls, which makes it less confusing. But there are some small treasures here too - my favourite being that Flash now stores the publish paths relative to the FLA file, rather than embedding absolute paths. This has been bothering me for about 7 years now, so finally, thank you!


Document Settings


Another feature that will be really handy for mobile developers, and people wishing to easily publish to devices of different screen sizes is a checkbox added to the Document Settings panel called 'Scale content with stage'. As the name suggests, checking this option will instruct Flash to scale content when you alter the stage size in the Document Settings. Not a massive thing, but a really useful time saver, and a good example of a feature that I reckon has been requested by the user base many times over the years. This shows me that Adobe is listening to it's customers, and with all those evangelists blogging and flying all over the world all the time, it's little wonder. I'm only a little bit jealous... only a little bit...




Incremental Compilation


I was working on a large project for a client these last few months that had a fairly big video component in it. Because of the deployment conditions, the video asset needed to be directly included in the FLA as a symbol. I thought the incremental compilation would mean that Flash wouldn't rebuild this asset into the SWF every time I published it, but unfortunately it did! You see, the incremental compilation only seems to work with fonts and sounds, not videos. So, this potentially excellent feature has all the best of intentions, and heaps of upside if you don't want it to put videos into the publish cache, but unfortunately not for me in this instance. Not to worry though, I reckon we'll see this feature improve over time to eventually make the compilation process as slick as possible. It is already getting better, and the more I work with xCode, the more I see some aspects of the publish workflow in Flash resembling that of the more robust development tool.




Text Layout Framework

There have been some updates to the advanced Text Layout Framework in this release also, concerned mainly with file size and performance (but lets not forget that nifty ruler with tab markers and everything!). I can't speak for the performance side of things as I've not used TLF for any large project (I still greatly prefer to use TextField as I am familiar with it's quirks, and like its compact size and speed). My simple example below illustrates though that file size is not really TLF's strong point.





Above, you can see a very simple TLF text field on the stage. This Flash file contains nothing except this read-only text field. When published the SWF weighs in at a hefty 23KB and it also generates a file called textLayout.swz, which is an additional 186KB. Of course, these days 210KB over an internet connection isn't really an issue, and for mobile or desktop applications this file size is not really an issue at all. However it is a very noticeable difference when the same file published with the field converted to a 'Classic Text' field comes in at only 1KB!


Cut and Copy Layers

Another new feature in this version of Flash is the ability to cut, copy and paste whole layers. I think this is more of a convenient way of doing something that was already possible - in past versions, when you copied frames that spanned across multiple layers, the layers were preserved along with the frames when pasted. So, I don’t really see this as a new feature, just a refined way of doing something that was already a possiblity.





AIR 2.6


Flash Pro CS5.5 ships with the ability to target AIR 2.5 and 2.6 right from the publish settings panel. AIR 2.6 is similar to 2.5, but is mainly about bringing the features developed in AIR 2.5 for Android into scope for use on iOS devices too (after Apple lifted the development restriction which disallowed the old iOS packager). Since release, Adobe has also completed AIR 2.7 which claims additional performance enhancements on these devices, and hopefully future revisions of AIR tools continue to be tightly integrated with Flash Pro.



Other Tools


There are of course many other tools in the Creative Suite package that are necessary companions to Flash if you're interested in either serious coding, or design work. My main two tools outside of Flash are definitely Flash Builder and Photoshop and both have received minor updates in this version. Less so Photoshop actually, as it's main update seems to be the exposure of several new API hooks for use by external applications. I'm sure this is something to look out for in the near future. Flash Builder has received some updates too - nothing mind blowing for my workflow (primarily Action Script Projects and Flash Professional Projects). When working on a Flash Professional project in Flash Builder you'll notice some tighter integration - FB is able to gather more information from your FLA file than before, and generally configure the project a little more automatically. I really use it for the code completion though, which is light years ahead of the code completion added to the Actions panel in the last version of Flash Pro. I was a little unimpressed with that aspect of Flash Pro last time, but I've come around to thinking that FB is the most appropriate place for advanced development tools, and the Flash Pro IDE is a great place to develop visual content and get assets organised. That's just my workflow and preference, and you may well have your own, but either way I'm finding the tools in this area of the Creative Suite have come along an incredible amount in the last few years, and I'm generally a very happy developer when I'm using them.


Summary


As I said earlier, for some people there may be no reason to buy this upgrade, especially users who are focussed on print and design work, as updates in those applications will probably not be something you cannot work around. For developers, it is looking very worthwhile, and there is now some welcome flexibility in how you can access the software.


Pricing


Master Collection (MAC download version)
$294.00 per month
$3,949.00 outright

Web Premium (MAC download version)
$207 per month to subscribe
$2,732.00 outright

Design Premium (MAC download version)
$219 per month to subscribe
$2,887.00 outright

* Prices in Australian dollars, obtained via Adobe's Online Australian store 10/8/2011