It's amazing how much 'free' software is available on from the Internet. Right now, there are loads of beta versions, free, trial or demo versions of many graphics packages, all available to download. Often companies will release beta versions, that will stop working after a set date, to get as much feedback as possible from users, on a product before the it's finally released. Using a beta, trial, or demo version is an ideal way to get to know a program, and lets you try it fully before you buy.

One of the very latest graphics packages is Fractal Design's Expression, and I've been able to try it out for the last two months, by using the Expression beta version for Windows 95, which was available as a download from Fractal's web site.

It's a cross between Photoshop, Painter, CorelDraw and Freehand or Illustrator! The new idea with Expression is that it combines the kind of drawing tools (align, merge, weld, combine, etc.) and precision that are normally in CorelDraw/Freehand, with the kind of artistic or interactive brushes that you get in Painter or Photoshop.

You can freehand draw with say a thick crayon, then if you later wish to change this, you can select the object, and edit it to be drawn with say an airbrush, and it'll change there in front of you! You wouldn't have to re-draw it! You couldn't do this in Photoshop, as once you've used say the air brush, the item you've created will always be 'airbrushed' - with Expression you could change it to any kind of brush or pen at any time.

You can create the 'painterly' kind of images normally only associated with Photoshop or Painter, but you have the advantage that they're more editable, the file sizes are far smaller, and they're scaleable with no loss of quality! (This kind of package could really be a taste of the future, where the drawing packages and painting/photo packages could merge into one - and the difference between raster and vector formats becomes less clear).

As an example, say you created a 6inch by 6inch image in Photoshop, and used all kinds of airbrush, crayon etc., if you then needed this image to be 3 foot by 3 foot for a poster, you'd have to re-create it completely because if you simply enlarged it, the image would become too pixelated, and the file size would be HUGE too! With Expression, you could create all the 'airbrushed' or 'crayon effects' directly without having to use Photoshop, and the 6inch image could be scaled up to ANY size without any increase in file size OR quality! (It's all because Photoshop is raster image based, and Expression is vector based). This kind of package could really change the way people are currently using Photoshop & Illustrator together, it's a whole new way of doing things. (Quicker, smaller files, and one file will work in many output forms...)

Expression for Win95 is now commercially available, which means the beta is no longer available, but there is a Win95 demo version available to download. There will be a Mac version, and the Mac beta version should be available to download from Fractal Design fairly soon. For further information, and to get to the download pages try the following:

Fractal Design HomePage

Fractal Design Downloads

Next of the downloads in MacroMedia's XRes 2.0 SE available from Microsoft's Site Builder Network site. XRes's main claim to fame is it's increased speed on large file sizes, compared to Photoshop. For files up to 10Mb it runs at around the same or slightly slower speed as Photoshop, but once you get into the 20Mb+ file sizes the difference is very apparent. With XRes, it roughly takes no longer to apply filters and effects to say a 100Mb file, than it would to a 20Mb file. To compare the two, I applied a simple Gossip blur to a 60Mb image in both Photoshop and XRes, and XRes turned out to be around 4 times faster!

There are also 'painterly' brushes and texture effects available, but there's less prepress control than Photoshop, and no CMYK conversion - remember this is the SE or Special Edition, a 'watered down' version of the full XRes. It's definitely still worth having though, (it doesn't time out) and it compliments rather than rivals Photoshop - and it's ideal for web or desktop printer graphics, where prepress and printing press output are not needed. I've kept it here on my hard drive, especially to handle files that would be too unwieldy in Photoshop.

To access the XRes download page (and loads more freebies) try:

Microsoft Site Builder Network

What next? Well Microsoft have released the whole of their FrontPage97 web creator, as a time limited beta, it'll run out in 1997. As part of this (but to download separately) is the Image Composer, and as part of that is the 'Impressionist', a Photoshop compatible Plug-In.

Impressionist works with Image Composer, but can also be used directly in any package that can handle the Photoshop 'Plug-Ins' format. You can define different kinds of brushes, textures, papers and it'll render your image in that style: similar to Painter, but different enough for it not to just be a copy. You really have to see the Impressionist in action to get an idea of the usefulness of the effects it can create, and many of them are amazing. There are so many features and controls, it's looks more like a program in it's own right, rather than a PlugIn. Once you've set up an effect you like, you can save the settings, each with it's own category and title, then if you need to use it again, it's available directly from the usual menus.

The only downside is they both the Impressionist and Image Composer time out in 1997, but you can trick the Impressionist into working again by changing the date setting on your PC back to pre-1997! (you can't do this with the Image Composer - once it's ever been to 1997 it'll stop working, even if you go travel back in time!)

Microsoft FrontPage Home Page

Microsoft FrontPage 97 Beta Information<BR>

Microsoft Image Composer Web Page

A quick mention also of the Microsoft Publisher97 trail version, allowing you to check out the new features in this page layout / DTP package, and is available from Microsoft, start at:

If you'd like to try out QuarkXPress, Quark have a demo version for either PC or Mac, and is available to download from their web site. Link to the 'File Library' from the home page at:

As you can see there is a great choice of graphics software to try out, all available on the Internet, and I've been running up the phone bill (no free local calls here in the UK!) with all these downloads!

Please feel free to email me with any questions or comments about DTP or graphic design, and until next month happy DTP'ing. --Andy

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