Macromedia Studio MX 2004

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Macromedia is in an enviable position when it comes to the Web. With Dreamweaver it owns the flagship authoring package for producing page-based sites built on either static HTML or on the dynamic server-side technologies ASP, ASP.NET, JSP, PHP and ColdFusion. And for those designers and developers wanting to provide their users with a richer web experience, most obviously in terms of multimedia and interactivity, Macromedia also provides the dominant solution in the form of Flash.

For many years Macromedia developed Dreamweaver and Flash independently, but with last year's MX Studio it brought the two together alongside its two main graphical applications, the bitmap-based Fireworks and the vector-based FreeHand, and threw in the local Developer Edition of its ColdFusion MX server for good measure. Of course though, there's far more to producing a successful suite than just putting your apps in the same box.

To begin with, it's important that all the applications work in a similar way. This was where the MX release really stood out as it introduced an efficient docker panel-based system across the board in which most work is handled via a central Properties panel. Thankfully this release (reviewed as a late press beta) sees a consolidation of the MX advances rather than another overhaul. Each application - apart from FreeHand MX which works to its own product cycle and hasn't been updated - sees its own minor tweaks but all share the new Aqua-inspired colour scheme and also the new Start screen which appears whenever no window is open to provide quick access to recently opened files, possible document formats, samples and web support.

The main Studio MX 2004 apps share a similar look-and-feel and a new Start Screen.

It's also crucial that the applications work well together. As it's producing the final pages that end users will see in their browser, Dreamweaver is central here, supporting and previewing embedded Flash and Freehand-generated SWFs movies and Fireworks-generated GIFs and JPEGs and allowing you to load the originating FLA or PNG file for editing with a single-click. In Studio MX 2004 this integration has been further deepened with features such as Dreamweaver MX 2004's ability to directly control the next generation of "Flashlet" mini-applications via its Tag Inspector while Flash MX 2004's support for CSS means that the embedded SWF can even share the same styling as its containing page.

Dreamweaver and Flash are the flagship applications and you wouldn't consider buying the Studio suite if you weren't a heavy user of one or the other. However, despite Macromedia's best efforts, they still inhabit slightly parallel worlds and few users will be truly expert in both and some will choose to only install one of the two. As such, although they don't command the same headlines, the two graphical applications, Fireworks MX 2004 and FreeHand MX, are just as important components of the Studio suite.

Fireworks' role in the Studio suite is central as its combination of vector, bitmap and, where necessary, HTML handling has always been tailor-made for the production of web-friendly JPEGs and GIFs. And while the latest version doesn't break new ground, it does reinforce its position. The inclusion of the vector-based and clearly semi-detached Freehand MX is slightly stranger and at first sight seems to be something of a hangover from Macromedia's background in print design. It's hard to complain about the bundling of such a capable performer however, especially after its recent A-Listed revamp (issue ). And Macromedia has been increasingly successful in finding FreeHand a plausible web role as a supporting application for Flash producing storyboards, print layouts and advanced designs.

FreeHand MX hasn't been updated but still makes a good partner for Flash.

There's still some way to go before Macromedia can claim full integration for Studio - the online help is dealt with differently in different applications for example, and the drawing tools in Flash, FreeHand and Fireworks have little in common. Other irritations include the new activation scheme, though at least individual users are allowed to install on two systems for non-synchronous use, an overall price increase and a comparatively steep upgrade price for existing MX users.

Even so, Macromedia Studio MX 2004 remains a bargain. For around double the price of Dreamweaver or Flash as a standalone you get both flagships plus their two natural partners. Crucially, as the individual reviews make clear, each of the applications stands out in its own field. Together, they combine to provide a platform that enables the professional designer or developer to do just about whatever they could want to do on the Web. No wonder Macromedia sells as many copies of Studio as of the standalone applications combined.

See separate reviews for Dreamweaver, Flash, Flash Pro, Fireworks and FreeHand.

requirements Pentium III 600MHz, 256Mb of RAM, 800Mb of hard disk space, Windows 98SE, 2000 or XP, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

System requirements: Pentium II 300MHz, Windows 98SE, Me, NT4 (SP6), 2000 or XP, 128MB of RAM, 510MB of hard disk space, 1024x768 monitor, CD-ROM

October 2003

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