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Verdict: Major upgrade to the popular utility makes it a serious all-round challenger to Macromedia Flash - and even more of a bargain.

Macromedia's Flash format is the technology of choice for design-intensive Web sites but Macromedia Flash the application is less popular. Just trying to create an animated banner with it reduces many first-time users to nervous wrecks. That's where the first version of SWiSH came in, providing a beautifully simple alternative for producing eye-catching, text-only banners. The free upgrade to 1.5 added bitmap and sound control, but this latest version 2 is far more ambitious. It aims to be a real competitor to the full Flash program, easier to get to grips with and even better value.

The ambition is clear as soon as you've overcome the bizarre registration/copy protection scheme and loaded the program. Where SWiSH 1.x smacked of shareware with its two floating windows, SWiSH 2 gets the full-screen treatment. The central Layout window is where you create your drawing and it's surrounded by an Outline palette down the left where you can select scenes and objects, a Timeline across the top where you manage animation and a tabbed docker down the right where you can access multiple tabbed panels for controlling objects, interactivity and export. There's also new support for right-click context menus and you can customise toolbars and menus and set up keyboard shortcuts.

The SWiSH interface has been completely revamped and modernised.

Inevitably some of the simplicity has gone - hopefully 1.5 will live on to provide a first step on the Flash ladder - but SWiSH is now a full-blown modern application with power to match. To begin with, where SWiSH 1.0 only let you manage text now there are tools for adding lines, rectangles, ellipses and freehand and Bezier-based shapes - though the lack of polygon and brush tools is disappointing. Once added, you can format your objects with flat colours, linear or radiant gradients and clipped or tiled bitmaps - there's even a dedicated Fill Transform tool for interactively managing these more advanced options. You can also control your objects by reordering, resizing, rotating, reshaping and grouping them.

Surprisingly there's no text tool as such, but instead you use the new Insert menu's Insert Text command to add your text and then set point size, font and so on with a dedicated panel in the right-hand docker window. The same procedure is used to manage files imported with the Insert Content command which now offers support for JPG, GIF and PNG bitmap formats, WMF, EMF and SWF vector formats and WAV and MP3 audio.

A completely new option available from the Insert menu is the Insert Button command. This automatically adds a bevelled button shape to your drawing complete with four image states - Up, Over, Down and Hit. Each of these states is directly selectable from the Outline panel and can be edited to set up rollover effects. Rather than being limited to SWiSH's default button, you'll usually design your own and then use the Convert> to Button command.

Rollover buttons can be created by selecting and editing image states in the Outline panel.

The Convert command is also the best way to create what SWiSH calls a "sprite", but which Flash users will know as symbols. Once you've converted an object or group to a named sprite you can right-click on it and use the Make Instance to create a linked copy. This helps editing efficiency as you can edit the master sprite and all instances will update automatically. More importantly only the link information needs to be stored on each frame so the final movie is much more efficient too. You can also use SWiSH's Colour panel to independently change an instance's colour and transparency, adding creative variety as well as efficiency.

The real beauty of sprites though is that each can have its own independent timeline and animation - a movie within the movie. This is crucial, for example, if you want to create animated buttons that spring to life as the user moves their mouse over them. To do this in SWiSH all you have to do is drill-down through the hierarchical Outline window to the button's Over state and convert this to a sprite. To be able to achieve the same effect with Flash itself you would need to be an expert confident with the idea of creating and nesting a movie clip within your frame-based button symbol.

Sprites are essential for creating advanced animations but how do you bring an object to life in the first place? This is where SWiSH's effects-based approach really comes into own. Essentially all you have to do is select an object or group and choose from the range of effects available from the dropdown list next to the Timeline. Common staples include the ability to automatically slide objects in to or out from the scene, to set up fade-ins and fade-outs and to apply vector blurs.

More powerful and eye-catching sequences are available through SWiSH's "complex effects" which can now be applied either to individual objects, to the individual words or letters in a line of text, or to groups of objects. The complex effects include 2D options such as Squeeze, which stretches or compresses components over time, and pseudo-3D options such as Explode, which blows up grouped components and sends them spinning to the ground as if a bomb has gone off next to them. Two completely new options are the Snake effect which lets you create looping 2D and 3D orbits and the rather more mundane Repeat Frames effect which lets you pick out a sequence of frames and repeat them a set number of times.

Animation sequences are set up by applying and editing pre-supplied effects.

In each case the level of control over the effect is comprehensive. For most effects you'll find a range of presets provided as a starting point. The new Snake option, for example, offers 19 variations ranging from rocking in place to a mad roller coaster ride each of which can be previewed onscreen before you commit yourself. You can also minutely fine-tune each effect so that the Explode effect, for example, lets you set the strength of the bomb, its placement, and even the strength and direction of gravity!

As well as setting those parameters that are unique to each effect, the newly tabbed Effect Settings dialog also lets you manage settings common to all effects. The Motion tab lets you set the position, scale, rotation, transparency and colour of the object at the end of the effect, for example, while the Cascade tab lets you manage the order in which grouped components are animated and the Easing tab lets you control the rate of change over your effect. Once you've got the animation just the way you want it, you can save it as a preset for future use.

This level of precise control over effects is impressive but it can become intimidating - and at times SWiSH 2 can seem almost as daunting as Flash. SWiSH recognises the danger and does what it can to make life easier and more interactive. Using the new Motion Path tool you can simply select an object, and drag it to create a motion path with SWiSH adding frames to the object's Move effect as necessary. If you decide that you want the effect to be quicker or slower you can simply drag to extend or shorten the effect in the Timeline (this is true for all effects). Once you've set up a motion path you can also interactively scale and rotate the object on its final keyframe and these changes are automatically incorporated into the effect. You can even drag on an object to which you've applied another effect to combine the best of SWiSH's effect-based approach with Flash's interactive tweening system.

The combination of creativity and control means that you can create very advanced animation effects, such as 3D orbits resizing and moving across screen, that would take days to set up in Flash - and which would then offer little to no editability. Making the creation process even easier in SWiSH is the new Interactive Playback toolbar which lets you play back the current movie, scene or effect. Incredibly this preview is live so that you can reposition, resize and reformat objects using the Shape, Transform and Colour panels, and even reposition and retime effects on the Timeline, without having to stop and start again.

As well as enhancing its animation capabilities, SWiSH 2 takes the opportunity to improve the interactivity it offers. Version 1 already let you add the most common actions for fetching Web pages and managing the loading and playback of movies and sounds. Now there are new actions for sending email and for sending Javascript commands to the host browser. Much the most important new action is the TellTarget command that lets you control the timeline in individual sprites just as you can for the main movie.

Using actions you can make your movie interactive.

Once you're happy with all aspects of your project, you're ready to output it using the new Export panel. This now offers AVI video support complete with control over movie size and codec though, as this throws away the benefits of interactivity and vector efficiency, you're much better off outputting your movie to Flash SWF format. The control over this has improved greatly with the ability to manage preloading and font handling across the movie as a whole with over-rides possible at scene and even object level. Even better, font and shape definitions are re-used more efficiently so you should find that your SWFs are even smaller than they were before.

SWiSH 2 is such a major all-round upgrade that the program really does begin to challenge Flash itself - however there are some limitations that it's important to understand. To begin with SWiSH isn't the right choice if you want to produce frame-by-frame cartoon animations like those produced by Toon Boom Studio (see review page ). It also has some rough edges and isn't as rock-solid as Flash and doesn't offer some of Flash's more advanced features such as shape tweening, sound editing and the bandwidth profiler. Much the biggest difference is the program's lack of advanced ActionScript programmability. If you're wanting to produce an industrial-strength, all-singing all-dancing, e-commerce site then Flash is still your only option.

Of course that won't worry the developers behind SWiSH as only a tiny fraction of the Flash user-base is pushing boundaries in this way - and in any case these power users will want to add SWiSH to their armoury to get at the program's amazing effects. Instead SWiSH 2's main target is the huge army of Web designers who understand the benefits of Flash but have previously been put off by its complexity and price. For these users, SWiSH 2 offers all the Flash power they are likely to need in a more accessible package - and at a price you just can't argue with.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

October 2001

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