Studio MX 2004 Professional
What else could Macromedia possibly add to future versions?
By Mike Riley
It's been a couple years since Macromedia released the original Studio MX suite (see the online review at http://www.aspnetpro.com/productreviews/2002/10/asp200210mr_p/asp200210mr_p.asp). In Studio MX 2004, the feature enhancements justify the upgrade cost, but it's going to be a challenge for Macromedia to sustain its release frequency and price in the future and still command the charge it has in the past.
Rather than rehash old feature discussions that each tool in the suite provides, this review will focus primarily on what's changed between MX and MX 2004 versions. Let's take a look.
Dreamweaver MX 2004
Macromedia certainly knows a thing or two about user interfaces, and they have obviously applied their experience within the Dreamweaver development environment (see Figure 1). The way everything is laid out just feels right. It flows. Info panes are streamlined with a perfect balance between the necessary details and staying out of the way. The Design pane to code editing synchronization is also much better, though there were times I wanted to briefly decouple the behavior so I could review code that referenced a control or function elsewhere on the page. Because the synchronization aspect is an all-or-nothing option, there was no way that I could use a control key sequence to deactivate and reactivate the setting. But this is simply nit-picking at an otherwise outstanding interface implementation.
Figure 1. The interface of the Studio MX 2004 flagship application, Dreamweaver MX 2004, has been streamlined for optimal designer throughput.
Other improvements include the ability to cut and paste Microsoft Word and Excel tables into the Dreamweaver palette and have the table design automatically translated to Web-friendly HTML, while maintaining complex table attributes. And speaking of tables, Dreamweaver now supports real-time table editing - no more guessing the percent or pixel widths for that perfect fit. This is the way HTML table editing should have been from the beginning. Unicode is also fully supported, along with a neat cross-browser compatibility checker that ensures universal access to your hard work. CSS editing has also been greatly improved, helping even the most timid designers explore and leverage the advantages cascading style sheets have to offer.
Macromedia has also made life easier for ASP.NET developers by providing form control property editors. That said, I personally still prefer using Visual Studio .NET 2003 for my more advanced ASP.NET development. Page designers, however, will appreciate the organization that these new editors provide. In addition to C# and VB .NET code support, Dreamweaver supports PHP (and PHP server behaviors), JSP, CFM, VBScript, and WML, and ships with a number of page designer templates that can make any Web design newbie look like a seasoned professional.
Flash MX 2004
Studio MX 2004 ships with two flavors of Flash - Standard or Professional. Although the Standard edition will keep most interactive Web designers happy, Flash application developers will need the forms and database connectivity tools in the Professional edition to elevate Flash beyond a home page introduction or product demo. I can understand Macromedia's marketing reasons behind the two versions, rich database-driven Flash applications are still a very rare sight on the Web today; however, it would seem to benefit Macromedia's "Flash Everywhere" objective to simply bundle these database tools into a single product for maximum developer exposure. Even if designers complain that they might never use such tools, the comfort and convenience of knowing they were available for use might prompt more consideration for such data-driven Flash presentations. Regardless of the reasons, beyond the forms editing, database tools, and Microsoft SourceSafe version control support, there's not much else to the Professional version. One key feature I had hoped would be bundled with the Professional version to justify its added expense was the inclusion of the high-end version of Sorenson Squeeze for video compression. Unfortunately, this expensive add-on will keep a lid on embedded Flash video for all but the most wealthy Web design shops.
Two of the new stand-out features are timeline effects and behaviors, which provided no-nonsense, no-code necessary helpers that make everything from fade ins/out, fly-ins, action assignments (such as clicking on an image that triggers another Flash animation or a link to another Web page) a breeze to use (see Figure 2). Behaviors reminded me of Microsoft PowerPoint animation actions; pop the control onto the design surface, assign it a behavior and it just works; you don't have to learn Flash's ActionScript language.
Figure 2. Flash MX 2004 adds the ability to generate transitions and actions known as behaviors without the necessity of writing a single line of ActionScript code.
Small fonts now anti-alias well enough to be read easily within an embedded scene, although there's still no standard "Print" method from a Flash presentation, making this a proprietary implementation for any site wishing to make this feature available to their users. Along those same lines, the HTTPS security mechanism, although greatly improved, is still not as simple or trustworthy as relying on a secure session within a Web browser.
Fireworks MX 2004
Fireworks MX 2004 gets a number of useful improvements, from round trip server-side image refresh support for Cold Fusion, PHP and ASP pages, image tools such as red-eye removal, motion blurs, contour gradients, and interesting border generation effects (see Figure 3). These features were once the domain of high-end image processing packages or add-ins. The interface has also been refreshed to match the MX 2004 UI look and feel.
Figure 3. New features in Fireworks MX 2004 provide high-end image transformation tools.
In my original Studio MX review, I mentioned that Freehand was the only application that was not MX-enabled. That hasn't changed. Although Freehand is now finally up to MX UI standards, its palettes still look out of place compared to the much improved MX 2004 UI. Still, it's encouraging to see that Macromedia still feels Freehand MX has a home in the Studio MX 2004 lineup, if only to provide a vector-based drawing tool for Flash import (see Figure 4). The MX release also adds three dimensional extrusion, gradient fills, and calligraphic stroke tools to its feature set. Beyond these minor additions, however, it's essentially the same program as before.
Figure 4. The user interface of Macromedia's vector program Freehand MX 2004 has finally been revamped to match the rest of the MX line.
Price: US$999, US$299 for upgrade