The Well of Lost Features
There is very often a wealth of undocumented features in a program, and it's even more common to leave valuable features collecting dust because you didn't take the time to learn about them. Here, I'll point out some of these features and show you how they can improve your day.
Always Start with the Preferences
Every program out there has a Preferences dialog box, but many choose to ignore it, thinking it's only for obscure choices like the one in Internet Explorer that allows you to configure File Helpers (just try explaining MIME types to your mother sometime). But in Flash, the Preferences dialog box gives you the choice to set up all kinds of useful things that may make working in Flash a bit more fun.
The Preferences panel offers five tabs: General, Editing, Clipboard, Warnings, and ActionScript.
The first thing you see under the General tab is a field to choose the amount of undo levels for Flash. Amazingly, the default is 1000. What this means is that every time you do something in Flash, it has to keep track of that action in order to undo it, so Flash is constantly storing up all this useless information. Beyond your first 1000 actions, it also has to dump the one on the bottom of the list to make room for the new one. If you're not really going to undo 1000 times, why make your computer suffer by having to remember it all? Change that number to something like 200. It's still an ample amount of undo levels, but Flash won't suck up so much memory keeping track of it all, and you just might find that it runs better overall.
Also under the General tab is an option called Highlight color. By default, the Use this Color option is selected and a color is already chosen. This means that whenever you select something on the Stage, the little bounding box around it will be the same shade of blue. Choosing the Use Layer Color option will set that bounding box to the color specified by the little square icon in each layer of the Timeline. Take a look (see Figure 4).
Figure 4 Look at all the pretty colors.
Now you can easily see which object or which set of objects is on which layer. The General tab should look like the one shown in Figure 5 when you're done.
Figure 5 The General tab of the Preferences dialog box.
Now skip over to the ActionScript tab of the Preferences dialog box. Here, you can change the indent spacing when you code, which is no big deal; but you can also turn off code hints and really test your skills as an ActionScript master of the universe. Under the Text section, you can change the font that gets used in the Actions panel as well as the font size. Some people are very anal about which fonts and font types get used for code, but I personally love to use Wingdings. Figure 6 shows you a sample.
Figure 6 Woohoo! Now that's some readable code!
All kidding aside, you can also change the syntax coloring here, which could greatly help you spot certain types of code in a rush. If keywords are bright orange and the background is, say, neon green, you'll easily be able to spot "_this" in your code.
Check Out Those Crazy Menus
There are tons of menu options these days. Some of them are new, some are in a different place than they used to be, and some reveal the best new features in Flash MX 2004. In the following sections, I list some of the options that are either too new to be noticed or too old to be remembered. First up is the File menu (see Figure 7).
Figure 7 The File menu in all its glory.
Remember the last time you used a Shared Library and then tried to open the document from which the Library came? Because the Library stays open in MX and there is no way to close it, you are pretty much stuck with restarting Flash. But in Flash MX 2004, there is a very handy Close All option under the File menu. As you may be able to guess, it closes all open documents, but it offers the added benefit of closing all open libraries. Problem solved.
Flash Pro users can now open files from Web servers as well. Choose File > Open From Site and "check out" the file, making it temporarily unavailable to other users. This works in conjunction with Dreamweaver MX 2004's check in/check out functionality and is a nice integration feature.
The Save As Template option may not be new or exciting, but it is useful, and a lot of people just ignore it most of the time. If you're building a site, this can be a great feature. You can simply save a template using all the appropriate Publish settings and not have to think about it anymore. This is also good for those corporate presentations that you always have to create for the CEO's board meetings. When you start handing your work in early, he'll notice.
The Print Margins option enables you to define the way Flash content will be printed. This may not seem like a big deal, but you set your document to print as storyboards, which can be extremely useful when presenting mockups to clients.
Edit Sites brings up a dialog box that shares site definitions with Dreamweaver so you can view and edit FTP information without switching applications.
Not much is new here, but there is a lovely little option called Find and Replace that you may find familiar. Of course, this one allows you to find colors, text, video clips, sounds, bitmaps, and several other types of Flash assets and replace any one of them. Check it out (see Figure 8).
Figure 8 Find and Replace your least favorite boss-chosen colors!
The Edit Grid option means that you can customize the grid you can turn on via the Show Grid option. This presents a light-colored grid on the Stage that you can use to line up objects and lay out an interface. Obviously, you can also use it to lay out a grid.
Edit Guides enables you to change the color of the guides you use in every other situation. Simple enough.
Here you can set the Document Properties, which you can also do from the Properties inspector. The reason it's worth mentioning is that you can change the default dimensions, background color, and frame rate for your Flash documents, so through the course of one project you can avoid having to redefine these settings with every new document. Although it may not be useful for every project, it will certainly be useful for some.
The Check Spelling menu option means you can, well, check spelling. This is new to Flash MX 2004. Finally, you can stop copying and pasting text into Word just to check for typos.
And On the Eighth Day, There Were Panel Options
All these panels just wouldn't seem right unless they had some of their own options. Almost every panel in Flash has a little icon in the top-right corner that reveals options for that particular panel, and many of these options are quite useful. Here's the list.
You can change the entire look of the Timeline through this panel's menu options by simply clicking a couple of times.
Choose Small and Short to reveal at least 40 more frames and a few layers. Scrolling through the Timeline has never been so easy. The options menu is accessed through the funny looking double-H icon, pictured here (see Figure 9):
Figure 9 Small, short, tinted...it's a regular options-fest.
Here you can set up the Actions panel to display line numbers, making it easier to find code, and you can also take advantage of the new Word Wrap option so those mile-long lines of code will display in whatever space you've allotted for the Script pane.
You can also set the Auto Format options here, slightly customizing the look of code as you create it. Check-marking a couple of options can make a world of difference. Take a look (see Figure 10).
Figure 10 Show me spaces, Mr. Actions panel.
This one should be painfully obvious, but I thought I'd mention it just in case. You have this new menu in Flash called Commands, and the History panel is where you create them. Basically, you perform several steps in Flash, open up the History panel options menu (or click the little disk icon in the bottom corner), and choose the Save As Command. Give it a name and then check the Commands menu. When you choose your new command, everything you just did can be repeated automatically, saving you huge amounts of time. Yes, this looks just like a macro. And it pretty much is just like a macro.
There is one thing to note, though. Currently, the History panel does not record frame selection, so if your series of steps involves selecting multiple frames, you just have to remember what you did.
The options menu here doesn't offer much, but it does allow you to reload the list of components. So if you've just created one and saved it into the components directory of your install folder, you do not have to restart Flash to access it via the Components panel. The same is true for the Behaviors panel.
The best thing you can do with the Color Swatches panel is to create custom color palettes and export them. If you're finally done with the painstaking process of choosing colors for a project, export them using the options menu here, and save them for every Flash piece you create. To get them into new Flash documents, just choose Replace Colors and locate your saved color set.
The Final Touches
To tie all this up into a nice pretty red bow, here is a list of miscellaneous tips and tricks to get things running more smoothly in Flash MX 2004:
In the Help panel is a little button for content updates. Go ahead, click it. If an update is available, it will download and install automatically.
Create a set of custom keyboard shortcuts. If Macromedia's default set doesn't agree with you, a custom set can get you thinking logically about how you want them to work.
New to Flash MX 2004 is the ability to create custom tools using JSFL (a feature too hefty to discuss in this article). Flash ships with one extra tool called the PolyStar (accessed by clicking the arrow icon next to the Rectangle tool in the Toolbar). You can add tools to any other tool menu and rearrange them as well. Learn JSFL, write some tools, and have some fun. Soon, I expect that many new tools will be available through the Macromedia Flash Exchange. Just drop these into the Tools folder of your install directory, restart Flash, and add the new tool to the Toolbar.
The Start screen, new to Flash MX 2004 (as well as other MX 2004 products), offers a link in the bottom-right corner directly to the Flash section of Macromedia's Web site. From there, you can access DevNet for tutorials, buy the software, learn about third-party products, and even read reviews and news.
If possible, use a higher monitor resolution. I've got mine set to 1280 x 1024 (and I often think that's not enough), but it's good enough most of the time to keep me happy.
As you can see, getting Flash to perform for you is not hard. It's really just a matter of taking some time to get to know it a little better and tell it what to do. It will behave most of the time if you treat it well. Don't be afraid to get in there and play around.
To learn more about Flash MX 2004 or Flash MX Professional 2004, and perhaps pick up a copy for yourself, check out http://macromedia.com/software/flash/.