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Flash Player 8: Using Bitmap Caching in Flash

Developers and designers use Flash to do a lot more than just animation

As most of you know, Flash began as a tool for creating vector animations on the web. Flash Player was designed specifically as a lightweight animation viewer to display moving vector objects, which are, in their simplest form, mathematical equations that describe complex shapes made up of points, lines, curves, and fills.

 However, today, developers and designers use Flash to do a lot more than just animation; today, we use Flash for everything from interactive banner ads to games and large applications with complex user interfaces. We are now pushing Flash to its limits, and our frame rates are starting to suffer as we develop content that is more application-centric.

Previous versions of Flash Player showed some obvious performance limitations. The vector renderer inside the player generally coughed and spluttered when it attempted to play Flash applications with a lot of objects on the Stage. This is because the player was not optimized to deal with large amounts of static content. By design, on each frame, Flash Player 7 and previous versions had to update and redraw all the vector objects on the Stage, even if they had not changed. This was an intensive and unnecessary process.

Flash Player 8 addresses these visual performance issues with various improvements and optimizations to the renderer. There are also various new performance-enhancing authoring features in Flash Professional 8, which developers can use to take advantage of these significant changes.

This article will show you how to effectively use these new performance-related features to increase the frame rates of your Flash applications. An intermediate to advanced familiarity with ActionScript and Flash Player functionality is required.

Bitmap Caching
One of the most significant additions to Flash Player 8 has to be bitmap caching. This feature gives developers that are experiencing poor frame rates the power to greatly increase the speed at which large amounts of objects are updated and drawn onto the Stage by the renderer. The renderer is a very important part of Flash Player; it is responsible for everything that you see when you view a Flash application, as it draws all the vector and bitmap data onto the Stage. On each frame, the renderer has to update the Stage and the various objects it contains to reflect any changes that have occurred since the last frame. This process can become quite intensive when the application updates a large amount of information on any given frame. Using this feature gives the developer some control over the amount of work that the renderer has to perform in each frame ­ the less work you give the renderer, the faster and smoother your Flash application will run.

How Bitmap Caching Works
When you turn on bitmap caching for any given movie clip, the player converts the contents of the movie clip into a bitmap, which it generates and then stores in memory alongside the original vector data equivalent. The renderer then displays this bitmap in the place of the vector data by copying the image from memory onto the Stage.

This process essentially makes the renderer's life easier, because it doesn't have to update the movie clip each frame. Instead the process only has to draw the bitmap it generated once, and from then on it simply copies the bitmap from memory onto the Stage. If you change the movie clip or its contents, Flash regenerates the bitmap. There is little or no visual difference when a movie clip has bitmap caching turned on. You may notice a very slight difference because the vector data is snapped to the nearest whole pixel when the bitmap is generated. Bitmap caching also works perfectly well with nested movie clips (movie clips inside movie clips).

To put it in simple terms, by turning on bitmap caching for a movie clip, you are essentially telling Flash Player, "Hey Renderer, I'll make your life a little easier. Freeze this movie clip and display it as a bitmap instead, because this movie clip or its contents are not going to change very often, if at all. They are static."

Turning Bitmap Caching On and Off
Bitmap caching comes in the form of an additional movie clip property that can be switched on or off at author-time using the Property inspector and at runtime using ActionScript, on a per movie clip basis.

Using the Authoring Environment
You can turn bitmap caching on or off for any movie clip in the authoring environment using the Property inspector. Selecting this option disables bitmap caching for all movie clips by default.

To turn bitmap caching on select the desired movie clip instance on Stage by clicking on it. Then, open the Property Inspector from the Window menu. Select Window > Properties > Properties, or use the keyboard shortcut Control + F3.

In the lower right corner of the Property inspector underneath the Blend field, select the Use Runtime Bitmap Caching option for the selected movie clip by clicking the checkbox. Bitmap caching is deselected or turned off by default for all movie clips.

Using ActionScript
You can also turn bitmap caching on and off at runtime using ActionScript. Every movie clip object now has a new ActionScript property called cacheAsBitmap. To turn bitmap caching on for a movie clip, you simply need to set the value of its cacheAsBitmap property to true using the following code:

someMovieClip.cacheAsBitmap=true; //Turn Bitmap Caching ON

Similarly, to turn bitmap caching off for a movie clip using ActionScript, you simply need to set the value of its cacheAsBitmap property to false as follows:

someMovieClip.cacheAsBitmap=false; //Turn Bitmap Caching OFF

You can also determine if a movie clip has bitmap caching turned on by retrieving the value of the cacheAsBitmap property:

isCached=someMovieClip.cacheAsBitmap;

When to Use Bitmap Caching
If used correctly, bitmap caching can dramatically reduce the amount of updating instructions that the renderer has to process in every frame, and your applications should, in practice, run a lot quicker and smoother. However, in certain circumstances bitmap caching could have a detrimental effect on the performance of your Flash application, therefore you should choose the movie clips you cache wisely.

Bitmap caching works best for movie clips whose visual appearance doesn't change often or not at all. This is because when a cached movie clip or its contents change, Flash regenerates the bitmap with new data for the area or region of vector data that changed and updates the bitmap held in memory. The renderer then displays the new bitmap.

Bitmap caching also works well for movie clips that contain complex vector data (for example, shapes with lots of curves or gradient fills), as it is quicker for the renderer to copy a bitmap from memory onto the Stage than to draw all those vectors to the Stage.

Every time you rotate, scale, or change the alpha of a cached movie clip, the whole bitmap has to be regenerated. So, turning on bitmap caching for a movie clip that is constantly rotating, changing in size, or contains an animation doesn't make much sense because in every frame the renderer has to update the bitmap to reflect the new appearance of the movie clip as well as redraw it to the Stage, which adds overhead.

On the other hand, bitmap caching works well for both static movie clips and movie clips that move, as long as they don't change visually. It is perfectly fine to move a cached movie clip around the Stage, either with ActionScript or with Timeline animation, because moving it around won't change its visual appearance. The cached bitmap doesn't have to be updated, and the renderer will merely draw the bitmap at its new position.

More Stories By Guy Watson

Guy Watson (aka FlashGuru) has been a well-recognized figure in the Flash community for around four years, supporting the community with tutorials and source files, moderating the large Flash community forums, and running his own Flash resource Web site - FlashGuru's MX 101. Guy was one of the two developers that created the award-winning zoom interface for Relevare and now works for Endemol UK, the creative force behind reality television, producing programs such as Big Brother and The Salon. Guy now spends most of his time developing Flash games and applications for high-profile clients such as Channel 5 Television, Ladbrookes, and UK Style.

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SYS-CON Belgium News Desk 01/18/06 07:20:50 PM EST

As most of you know, Flash began as a tool for creating vector animations on the web. Flash Player was designed specifically as a lightweight animation viewer to display moving vector objects, which are, in their simplest form, mathematical equations that describe complex shapes made up of points, lines, curves, and fills.

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