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Software Reviews
15,670 Reviews

Microsoft Expression Studio - the definitive review

$599 inc VAT

Manufacturer: Microsoft

Our Rating: We rate this 3.5 out of 5

Microsoft's new Expression Studio suite brings together four programs that stake out some new territories for Microsoft and strengthen the company's presence in existing ones. They form a design suite for internet and desktop applications.

Microsoft Expression Blend

$499

Microsoft Expression Blend is a little hard to describe. It's a design tool for creating XAML application interfaces, mainly for programs that run on .Net 3.0 and the WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation). It's been superficially compared to Microsoft's take on Adobe Flash, but we're not sure that's a precise comparison.

Microsoft's stated goal with Microsoft Expression Blend is to allow users to create application front ends that are slick and powerful in a way that Microsoft's programming tools really haven't allowed until now, and in that respect Blend is probably the most genuinely adventurous of the Expression products.

If you're not a programmer, or not intending to write programs that use Microsoft's Silverlight/.Net/XAML/WPF axis of technologies, Microsoft Expression Blend is not likely to be of much use to you. If you are interested in building such things, though, it's certainly worth a look.

When you fire up Microsoft Expression Blend, you're greeted with a workspace that does seem to owe a couple of debts to Flash: Among the panels that are available are event timelines, for creating behaviours that can be hitched to actions such as clicking an object. You can easily switch between Blend's graphical design view and editing the underlying XAML code, if you want to dig into the guts of the project you're working on and make changes by hand.

Integrating existing .Net code into a Microsoft Expression Blend project isn't terribly tough, and Blend supports either C# or Visual Basic on a per-project basis. Blend also comes with a slew of vector design tools that hearken directly back to Design (and to other vector drawing programs before it), and it loads not only XAML objects but, interestingly enough, Wavefront 3-D objects and textures as well.

The projects you create in Microsoft Expression Blend can run as stand-alones or can be further expanded on in a programming environment such as Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 - especially useful if you're writing a lot of back-end code that needs to be debugged in detail, separately. Programmers who are already familiar with the .Net "code-behind" philosophy that separates the program logic from its visualisation should be able to pick up Blend pretty quickly.

If you're curious about what's possible with Microsoft Expression Blend more or less out of the box, check out the sample projects bundled with the program: a primitive animation studio, a 3D object demo, a "virtual photobook" (complete with turnable pages), a video shelf (like the photobook, but with video), and a playable grand piano. Obviously they're highly simplified examples, but can be taken apart as an example of how to build applications in Microsoft Expression Blend.

Again, it's hard to avoid comparisons with Adobe Flash: Microsoft Expression Blend-created applications can run in Web browsers as part of a site (for instance, as an interface for a site that is too complex for mere AJAX) or as standalone desktop applications. Still, we don't expect the full potential of Blend apps and the Silverlight platform to really become clear until people actually start building things with it. For our part, most of my programming experience with .Net is with applications for the web, but Blend is the kind of thing that could get me back into creating desktop apps.

Quick links:

Microsoft Expression Web

Microsoft Expression Design

Microsoft Expression Media

Microsoft Expression Blend

Microsoft Expression Studio Expert Verdict »

Windows XP Service Pack 2 or Windows Vista
1.0Ghz with MMX or equivalent
1GB RAM
1.5GB hard drive
Microsoft DirectX 9-capable or DirectX 9.0-capable video card with 256MB or more of memory (eg ATI Radeon X300 or NVIDIA GeForce 5600 or better)
1,024x768 monitor resolution with 24-bit colour
QuickTime 7.1.3
DVD-ROM drive (Mac OS X 10.4
PowerPC or Intel Core
512MB RAM
QuickTime 7.1.3
monitor set to Millions of Colors
20MB hard drive
DVD-ROM Drive)
  • Ease of Use: We give this item 7 of 10 for ease of use
  • Features: We give this item 8 of 10 for features
  • Value for Money: We give this item 8 of 10 for value for money
  • Overall: We give this item 7 of 10 overall

It's hard not to see Microsoft Expression Studio as less a true "suite" than a collection of products that have been co-branded after the fact - partly because Microsoft's other suite, Office, is so tightly knit in comparison. It's tough to see how the products in Expression Studio fit into a single integrated workflow or how they can all be used together, aside from creating XAML applications for websites. Expression Design's vector-drawing tools seem to be mainly for the sake of creating graphics for use in Expression Blend, for example, which could create applications embedded in a site using Expression Web. But there are still many pieces missing - where's Adobe Photoshop? Did Microsoft not include an image-editor simply because it felt that many people out there already had something that did the job? This sort of patchiness suggests Microsoft simply wanted to get something out there to start making it possible to build Silverlight/.Net/XAML/WPF applications. This is, again, in essence the same tactic the company used for Internet Explorer: get something, anything, out into the marketplace, and build it up over time. The individual pieces that do exist aren't bad. The Microsoft Expression Studio program we were most impressed by was Expression Web, if only because it represents such a positive step forward from FrontPage. Expression Blend is impressive in its own way, and we suspect it will be something that desktop programmers (as opposed to web designers) will glom onto first and try to do creative things with. Expression Media will probably find a niche, and while we suspect it's the kind of program that might be too easily eclipsed by something free or open-source, the support for raw camera files ought to lure in professionals who need that sort of thing, provided they don't already have an application to do it. We liked Expression Design, which, as capably assembled as it is, doesn't really stand much chance of wresting attention away from Adobe Illustrator right now. In fact, Adobe doesn't have much to worry about, period, from Expression Studio at this juncture. (Also note that only Expression Media is available for Mac OS X. A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company has no plans to deliver Mac versions of the other tools in the suite - which makes sense, given its focus on the Windows development platform.) 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.

  • Microsoft Expression Web

    Microsoft Expression Web

    Microsoft Expression Web is what Microsoft FrontPage should have been all along, and the only shame of it is that it took Microsoft this long to get it right.

  • Microsoft Expression Blend

    Microsoft Expression Blend

    Microsoft Expression Blend is a little hard to describe. It's a design tool for creating XAML application interfaces, mainly for programs that run on .Net 3.0 and the WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation). It's been superficially compared to Microsoft's take on Adobe Flash, but we're not sure that's a precise comparison.

  • Microsoft Expression Web

    Microsoft Expression Web

    Microsoft's Expression Web places CSS (cascading style sheets), XML, and other industry standards at the core of its site design and management strategy.

  • Microsoft Silverlight 3 review

    Microsoft Silverlight 3

    Microsoft Silverlight 3, Microsoft's much-enhanced rich internet application platform runs on Windows or Mac desktops, online or offline

  • Microsoft Expression Media

    Microsoft Expression Media

    Microsoft Expression Media (derived from the iView Media product acquired by Microsoft in July 2006 and available for the Mac as well) is the Expression suite's organisational tool for still images, video and audio.


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