Microsoft Expression Studio

Microsoft Expression Studio
  • Expert Rating

    3.50 / 5

Pros

  • With all the tools bundled together, it's an affordable piece of software; Expression Web because it represents such a positive step forward from FrontPage; Expression Media's functions are exposed through APIs, which you can see in action through a number of included sample scripts written in Visual Basic; multilayer Photoshop images can be browsed as thumbnails but can also be browsed layer by layer when you view them directly in Media; you can try before you buy!

Cons

  • CMYK support is completely absent from Microsoft Expression Design; Expression Web is geared a little more toward professional Web developers than novices; there is no Preview tab in Expression Web

Bottom Line

One feature of the entire Microsoft Expression Studio bundle that could prove attractive to a lot of Windows users is its price. Getting all these tools for the price is pretty hard to beat, and if you need at least two of them, it's a fair bargain. If history is any guide, though, Microsoft will have a finger in the wind for how the suite can be made more of a suite, and make the next version of Expression Studio a truly remarkable piece of work.

Would you buy this?

Microsoft Expression Design

Microsoft Expression Design is, loosely speaking, Microsoft's version of the Adobe Illustrator vector-graphics drawing application. Or, in Microsoft's words, Expression Design is "a tool for creative professionals and developers who want to build high-impact graphics for rich application user interfaces, the Web, or any other medium".

As you'd expect from such a description, Microsoft Expression Design sports a range of vector-drawing tools that stack up decently well against Adobe Illustrator -- but Illustrator has been playing this game for a couple of decades now and has enough adherents (and enough polish) that people are not simply going to switch on a whim. We suspect, though, that the program is not so much meant to unseat Adobe's hold on the vector-drawing application market as allow people without Illustrator or anything like it to purchase Expression Studio and have something of Illustrator's ilk immediately available.

Microsoft Expression Design offers a palette of fairly typical vector-drawing tools, such as primitives, polygons and splines, all of which behave about as you'd expect and have malleable attributes such as stroke style (plain line, dotted line, inkbrush stroke, etc) and opacity. When you insert text, you can manipulate it as a text object until you say otherwise -- you can change fonts or spacing freely, and you're not stuck with treating it as a bunch of inert vector shapes.

Expression Design objects can also be collated into Photoshop-like layer groups, each with their own distinct compositing style. Bitmaps can be handled as bit maps or traced to vector images, although we found that auto-tracing really only works well for simple black-and-white line art. In short, a lot of what the program includes is fairly standard issue for this type of work and pretty well put together.

One thing about Microsoft Expression Design (and Blend) that separates it from most other Microsoft programs we've worked with is the interface -- it doesn't look anything like Expression Web, for instance. Instead of the colour schemes we're all used to (think of Office and Visual Studio), Design is black-on-grey, with an option for a light-grey-on-grey look. This change is probably intentional: Design and Blend are new products to Microsoft's stable, not revamps of existing ones and their new look is an indicator of that.

Another thing about Microsoft Expression Design we noticed right away is how certain controls -- such as the spacing for fonts -- are implemented using a sort of hybrid interface widget we've never seen before. Click on the control itself and you can type in a value; click to one side of the control and a drop-down menu with various options appears; click and drag on the control and it turns into a kind of slider, with changes registering in real time. It's an interesting system, but it takes some getting used to.

Now on to what's explicitly missing from Microsoft Expression Design. For one, CMYK support is completely absent from Design. It's not even possible to export a document in that colour space, never mind work on it that way. This makes Microsoft Expression Design in effect useless for colour-separated print work (although it would work fine with office colour printers). Our guess is that Microsoft is simply not trying to challenge Adobe in that territory with this particular program -- at least, not right away.

Another hefty strike against Microsoft Expression Design is its lack of native support for either Adobe Illustrator documents or for the SVG vector-image open standard. Snubbing SVG appears to have been a conscious choice on Microsoft's part and reflects the Expression suite's close tie-in with .Net technology. If better support for these formats comes along it'll probably be in the form of an aftermarket plug-in, as with Office 2007's PDF support.

Expression Design also isn't available as a standalone product, only as part of the Microsoft Expression Studio suite. But since the entire Studio is around the same price as Illustrator CS3 alone, it could be a tempting choice for people who aren't already committed to Adobe's product.

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