Microsoft stakes out mid-range graphics territory

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Toronto Computes, September, 1999

Microsoft PhotoDraw 2000
approx $250
requires: Pentium 90 or better, Windows 95/98/NT, 32 MB RAM, up to190 MB drive space

Think graphics software companies and you may think of Adobe?makers of high end favourites like PhotoShop and Illustrator, or of Ottawa-based Corel, with its popular CorelDraw suite.

While software-giant Microsoft controls big hunks of the operating system and Office suite markets, they haven?t been a force to reckon with in the graphics market?not until now, at least.

Microsoft?s new PhotoDraw 2000 may change all that, however. It leaves the professional market to companies like Adobe, Corel, and Macromedia while also avoiding the low end, where products are often bundled free with digital cameras and scanners.

Instead, PhotoDraw 2000 combines a lot of power with an easy-to-use interface, and aims for a hitherto mostly ignored middle market?non-graphics professionals, many of whom already use Microsoft Office, who need to sometimes produce high quality graphical output.

Crossing the boundaries between high-end and low-end, PhotoDraw also crosses the boundaries between bitmap photo editing (like Adobe Photoshop or Corel PhotoPaint) and vector draw programs (like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw). Like Deneba Canvas, PhotoDraw supports both bitmap and vector graphics commands in a single program. In fact, PhotoDraw users don?t have to know about these two basic sorts of graphics?they can simply get down to work. Similarly, users don?t need to know what sorts of file formats to use for different projects?the program offers options to ?Save to the Web? for example, which automatically converts files to the proper format.

Like Microsoft?s Publisher desktop publishing software, PhotoDraw tries to simplify the often complex task of creating or enhancing artwork. Selecting a toolbar item produces a bar full of icons of related tasks?this can make for a busy screen, but makes it much easier to make a selection without learning a lot of specialized graphics jargon. And like Publisher, it comes packed with templates, making it easy to customize someone else?s idea for your project?300 templates for business cards, letterhead, brochures, flyers, Web banners and buttons, and more.

The program excels at letting you reposition existing work?helping to alter your letterhead into your business card, return envelopes, and Web graphics. The CD is stocked up with 20,000 clipart?much of it easily customizable, 200 fonts, photos, and more. Of course, it also works fine with your own artwork, scanned photos, or what-have-you.

The program includes all the standard photo-enhancing effects?red-eye reduction, dust and scratch removal, contrast and brightness controls, and so forth. Drawing and painting tools can be used when starting from scratch, or on existing artwork. These include a wide variety of brushes, including some interesting photo brushes, letting you ?paint? with a small image.

Text can be easily manipulated including easy 3D effects. The program supports multiple undo and multiple layers?so text is always editable.

My favorite PhotoDraw feature is the collection of Designer Effects. This includes a diverse collection of ?painterly? effects that can be applied to an existing photo, with results that vary from the unviewable to tasteful to artistic to cliched. Most of these effects have been available (often as extra-cost plugins) for some time for high-end photo editing programs, but Microsoft includes too many to count together with an easy-to-use interface.

At the same time, this showed off the program?s limitations?there?s no way to preview the effects before applying them for example, and no settings?you can?t vary the intensity of the various effects.

I suppose this is intentional?if you want high-end control, get a high-end program. All in all, Microsoft is successful in producing a graphics program with lots of power, easily accessible by someone who isn?t a graphics pro.

A 30-day free trial version is available as a 31 MB download, or on CD. PhotoDraw 2000 is included, along with FrontPage 2000 in the ?Premium? version of Microsoft Office 2000.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan