Microsoft Expression Studio review

£395
Price when reviewed

For years now, there’s been talk of Microsoft’s determination to move into the design software territory normally associated with Adobe. Now, with the launch of the Expression Studio suite, the talk is over.

The components

Central to the Expression Studio is Expression Blend – a groundbreaking application that uses Microsoft’s new XAML markup language to handle vectors, bitmaps, 3D, audio, video, user interface elements, databinding, animation and interactivity. By doing so, it allows programmers to work hand-in-hand with designers throughout the development process, boosting efficiency and enabling a new level of application design.

Expression Blend’s underlying technology and architecture are amazing but, for existing Flash-based designers, this first release has two major downsides. First, the bundling of Visual Studio 2005 Standard to handle all logic coding and the need to get to grips with either C# or VB.NET is intimidating. Second, Blend’s browser-hosted XBAP (XAML browser application) apps are inherently tied to Windows. As such, Microsoft’s direct challenge to Adobe Flash will have to wait for Blend 2.

While Expression Blend stands out, sadly the same can’t be said of its supporting applications included in the Expression Studio. Expression Design is intended to be the creative core of the Studio and, in previous beta releases, it was just that, mixing advanced vector, bitmap and web capabilities. However, this first release sees most of that power stripped out, presumably to allow Design to focus on its role of supporting Blend.

Expression Media is even more disappointing. Microsoft clearly felt the Studio needed an Adobe Bridge-style media asset-management application, but the program it bought in is embarrassingly underpowered. The standalone Expression Media Encoder is more impressive, but its main selling point of outputting Silverlight-ready media is ahead of its time until the player becomes established.

Expression Studio includes another existing program that’s far more powerful. Expression Web, Microsoft’s web page authoring package, successfully lays the ghost of FrontPage to rest by concentrating on XHTML and CSS standards compliance.

The competition

Expression Studio is a mixed bag. Crucially, however, with Expression Blend and Expression Web, Microsoft has a platform on which future versions of the Studio can build. Central here is the imminent arrival of Silverlight. By extending the use of XAML beyond pre-compiled desktop applications and out into just-in-time (JIT) compiled web applets and web page components, the scope and value of Expression Studio will extend and really take the challenge to Adobe’s Flash.

Just as importantly, Silverlight should bring Expression Web fully into the Expression fold and help integrate it with both Blend and Design by adding XAML-based authoring to its feature set. Silverlight capabilities could also give Expression Web an important edge in its battle with Dreamweaver. Put everything together and Expression Studio 2 will certainly be interesting. However, most will want to wait to see how Silverlight performs, and how Adobe responds before they consider jumping ship.

The pricing

The standalone version of Expression Blend, including the bundled standard version of Visual Studio 2005, costs £331. However, for £395, Expression Studio throws in Expression Design and adds Expression Media/Encoder and Expression Web. As usual, UK rip-off pricing applies but, whichever way you cut it, Expression Studio is a bargain.

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