Microsoft Expression Blend 2

The heart of Expression Studio

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Microsoft Expression Blend 2
  • Microsoft Expression Blend 2
  • Microsoft Expression Blend 2
  • Microsoft Expression Blend 2

Pros

  • Support for Silverlight 1.0, storyboard and animation enhancements, split view and XAML editor improvements, font embedding, Visual Studio integration

Cons

  • Silverlight 1.0 projects can’t access a lot of the new features, Windows only, new .NET 3D objects not fully implemented

Bottom Line

Blend 2 has a number of limitations, including on what assets can be outputted when developing for the Web with Silverlight. However, it also has some neat features such as its integration with Visual Studio.

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Microsoft's Blend is the heart of Expression Studio, the company's suite of tools that allow designers to create rich Internet applications and user interfaces with Microsoft.NET technologies. These technologies — Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML) and Silverlight — are all part of the same code base that underpins Windows Vista.

Blend is evidence that WPF is an effective tool for developing applications on Windows, as it itself was created using the language. However, as WPF is not supported on Mac OS X, neither is Blend. So right from the off, Microsoft has a difficulty in attracting Mac-based creatives to the application suite.

To remedy this, when you buy Blend as part of the Expression Studio Professional Subscription, you'll receive a full copy of Parallels desktop for Mac in the box, along with Office, Windows XP and Vista.

With Blend 2, you either develop for WPF-based desktop applications (or controls for those applications) or Silverlight 1.0 Web content. There are some restrictions on what can be output in each format, which in turn decides which assets and menu choices are available.

The basic premise of Blend is that you design applications and interfaces visually, drawing shapes, paths, and controls on the central artboard, and then modifying their appearance and behaviour using the properties panel and interaction panel respectively. You can import images, video, and sound (or assets from Expression Design and Encoder), then create storyboards that animate the visual or audio elements of your design.

Taking things further, you can set trigger events to run those storyboards when users interact with your application. As one of the new features in version 2, Blend can now embed fonts in a project, to make sure that the font that you select for your application is the font that users will see when they run your application. If the user doesn't have your chosen font, a default system font will appear.

When you work on the artboard, you're actually writing XAML code that describes the page and its elements. A key enhancement in Blend 2 is the ability to view an open document in Design view and XAML view simultaneously. This split view is useful, not only for quick tweaks to the page layout, but also for learning to use XAML.

In Design view, you have a further choice of whether to use the Design workspace or the Animation workspace, depending on which part of the workflow you're concentrating on. Each is customisable and fully scalable. Choosing the Animation workspace expands the Objects and Timeline panel and shifts the focus to the Interaction panel. Blend uses keyframe-based animation and, like Flash, uses interpolation to create a smooth visual transition.

To build animation into a Blend project, you create a storyboard, within which you set keyframes on a timeline to mark property changes. Version 2 has new ways to adjust the behaviour of storyboards, such as changing the repeat behaviour or reversing them.

It also introduces a Storyboard picker, which lets you choose which animation cycle you want to work on. You can also use the new key spline graphical editor to modify the easing behaviour between existing keyframes. Blend 2 has new tools for animating individual vertices (points and tangents) on a line. You can also convert between line and bezier segments, and add vertices to an existing animated path. All these enhancements add up to more elegant animated content.

Any WPF projects created in Blend 2 can be saved as a reusable asset called a Resource — this could be a gradient or other property setting that could be applied to another object, or an image that could be used as a visual brush resource. This means that you can reuse and apply consistent graphic elements throughout your project; unfortunately this facility is not supported in Silverlight 1.0 projects.

Blend ships with an asset library of all the controls and media containers that you can use on the artboard (the most commonly used controls appear in the Toolbox), but there are far more controls and control styles available in a WPF project than one based on Silverlight 1.0. This will expand when the next version of Blend supports Silverlight 2.0, but it's worth remembering if you want to use a specific effect or element.

Any media files that you have added to your project will also be listed in the Asset Library for easy access. These can be added by drag-and-drop from the desktop to the artboard or Project panel — a welcome new feature in Blend 2.

In WPF applications — but again not in Silverlight 1.0 — you can also import and change 3D objects using the .OBJ format. It was already possible to add lights and change camera position and surface materials, but Blend 2 also supports a new range of 3D objects, because of enhancements to the .NET 3.5 framework.

However, these are not included in the Asset Library, and must be added to the project directly into the XAML code or by using Visual Studio 2008.

Microsoft is aiming Blend 2 at designers, but there is still a strong focus on the programmer's role. You can work with code-behind files or custom control files in Blend to add a range of interactive options to WPF projects via the storyboard route, but to add this kind of control in Silverlight 1.0, you need to edit the supporting JavaScript files that Blend creates as part of the output files.

There's an built-in JavaScript editor for this, or you can use Visual Studio 2008, which offers enhanced integration with Blend 2. This includes synchronised file changes — when you modify a Silverlight site project in Expression Blend 2 and Visual Studio at the same time, any changes that you make in Visual Studio are immediately applied in Expression Blend.

This obviously has advantages for a designer and programmer partnership, but it does highlight that Blend is not yet a pure design solution.

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