Microsoft Expression review

You may have noticed that Microsoft has a new operating system on the way, Windows Vista. Central to its interface is the Windows Presentation Foundation and the WinFX API, now renamed .NET Framework 3. The new suite of design applications is designed to integrate with Vista development tools by exporting in the new XAML (eXtensible Application Markup Language) interface format, ready to plug into Visual Studio.

Microsoft Expression review

Expression Graphic Designer

Vector and bitmap graphics are central to any design suite, and Microsoft has ambitiously chosen to tackle both in the same product. However, it’s taken a shortcut by buying up the long-standing Expression package from Hong Kong developer Creature House. The downside is that while this is a powerful package for an apparent first release, the interface is both fussy and dated and that’s carried through here. Unless some radical changes are made, the working environment won’t be that of a supposedly next-generation application.

Underneath the interface, though, there’s huge potential. Key to this is the use of skeletal strokes. Each one is essentially a path, along which other vector elements or bitmaps are repeated or stretched. The results can look like anything from pen strokes or airbrushes, through to photo-realistic ropes or columns of marching ants. Plenty of preset strokes are provided, and it’s simple to create your own. Also, because of their vector underpinning, each stroke’s path, width and formatting remain fully editable.

Alongside this system, Microsoft has extended the power of Expression in several ways. The addition of Live Effects is especially powerful, making it possible to apply a range of filter effects to both bitmap and vector-based objects. Options include core colour corrections, such as varying hue, saturation and brightness, along with more artistic filters. Like the skeletal strokes, each live effect can be fine-tuned retrospectively.

Most impressive is the work Microsoft has put into developing Expression’s bitmap capabilities. Now you can add a bitmap-based pixel layer as easily as you can a vector layer, with the toolset on offer changing accordingly. The range of pixel-based brushes is extensive, and you’re also able to edit and create your own using a component system. You can add 3D depth effects too, and control whether underlying paint is picked up by your brush strokes. Bitmap rushes can also apply basic retouching effects such as cloning, blurring, sharpening and red-eye removal. It’s all powerful and creative stuff, but Photoshop certainly isn’t under any threat.

Although serious photo editing is out of the picture, Expression Graphic Designer is an excellent graphical partner to other applications. You’ll be able to copy and paste vector and bitmap graphics into Office applications complete with full alpha channel transparency support – particularly useful for creating eye-catching PowerPoint presentations. This is buggy in current builds, but it holds huge promise. With its Pixel Preview and HTML Export, it’s also possible to create rollovers for use in Visual Studio, FrontPage and Web Designer. And with XAML support, you’re able to design graphics that you can then bring alive in Expression Interactive Designer.

It’s this level of integration, as well as the combined vector and pixel-based power, that leaves Expression Graphic Designer looking like a highly creative all-rounder. We just hope the interface can be tweaked slightly to reveal a little more of that.

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