Of all the applications that I use on a daily basis, Flash is the one that has recieved the most in this release. I remember when I reviewed Flash CS3, I dug around in various forums and lists to see what people were saying about it’s new features. There seemed to be a lot of animators and non-developer types bemoaning the fact that most of CS3’s enhancements were aimed at developers - no changes to drawing tools or animation workflows were to be seen, whilst developers got a whole new language to work with!

So then, if CS3 was the developer’s version of Flash, then CS4 is very much the animator’s version. Flash CS4 sees the inclusion of Inverse Kinematics (IK) Tools, 3D transformations, an updated (and so much better) tweening model and the Motion Editor. Developers get a hit too though - there is a new Flash Player (10) with some beefed up hardware acceleration and support for the Pixel Bender Toolkit.

The first thing you will notice with Flash CS4, like all the other CS4 apps, is the redesigned interface. Flash is looking good and is sporting a distinctly more Adobe-like feel but still retains much of it’s rustic charm, right down to docking panels that do crazy, crazy things. I have found the interface in Flash fairly infuriating in the past, and I’m not sure that has changed with this release. The docking panels just sometimes don’t do what you want (does anyone else feel my pain with the Actions panel that just won’t expand once it has been contracted?) and the actions window within Flash is constantly losing focus when you switch to another app and back. So often I switch to another application and come back to Flash thinking that the Actions panel would be in focus where I left it, only to end up pasting a bunch of text on to the stage. Argh.

Speaking of the Actions panel, this is one area of the application that has received barely any attention at all. I’d like to see code completion of the quality seen in Flash Develop and other 3rd party development environments but it is clear for this release that attention has been focussed elsewhere, so we’ll have to wait for that one.

Is that all of the negatives I have though? Well, yes really. If you excuse one more little negative regarding Flash CS4’s more CPU intensive operation (to facilitate some of the new features, it has become necessary to have an instance of the Flash Player running in the background at all times) I think that Flash users will be very pleased by what they see in this release.

Here is a brief run down of some of my favourite new features.

Inverse Kinematics - Bone Tool
This is probably the coolest and most immediate new feature. It certainly had a few people gasping when I saw it back at WebDU 2008. This new tool  makes it possible to assign bones to objects on the stage and manipulate them either at authortime or at runtime. In fact, the demo you are seeing below contains NO CODE and was constructed in under a minute! Imagine what you could do in two minutes! Three!

3D Transformations - 3D Rotation Tool, 3D Translation Tool
These two new tools facilitate rotation and translation in 3D space for 2D ‘postcards’. So it isn’t full-blown 3D we’re talking about here, but it’s cool nonetheless. Of course, you can tween the 3D properties of symbols too, either on the stage or using a tween library (like Tweener, or the new one from Grant Skinner, GTween). We can look forward to seeing (and being asked to build) plenty more tilt-o-matic graphic design portfolios from now on.

Object Based Tweening
This is a great new feature that delivers one of my all time most wished for things in Flash - being able to translate an entire tween to another location, and not have to do it keyframe by keyframe. This new Tweening model affords me my wish, and it also provides another useful feature in the motion path - the path of the tween represented as an everyday line that you can edit to finely tune the path of your motion. No more guide layers! Well, no, you can still make guide layers but the workflow to say, animate an object on a curved path, has now become a whole lot better.

The new tweening workflow takes a little adjusting to. Keyframes still exist but there is now the concept of a ‘property’ keframe (not sure about the parlance there, but that will do) which isn’t like another full keyframe but represents changes in only a few properties, not the whole object. This means that between two keyframes, you could change position, and between another two, rotation, all the while keeping the entire sequence as one solid entity that can be moved around, rotated and scaled. That sounds confusing. It just needs to be played with. It’s cool. Trust me.

Motion Editor
The motion editor is a new panel that gives animators more control over the motion of their symbols, using controls very similar to what is seen in After Effects. Basically, a curve that can be adjusted to control the easing of each tween. It isn’t as intuitive as what you’d find in After Effects (if you have ever found anything in After Effects - I swear I lost my keys in there once) but it is great to know that Flash, long seen as a ‘web’ platform (although widely used to create animation), is getting tooled up for some more refined, serious animation work.