Feature: Microsoft Acrylic has been released in first beta
Microsoft Acrylic Beta
Periodically Microsoft makes a head fake towards the paint market every 2-4 years. It started back in the late 1990's with ImageComposer and probably some of the best innovations in drawing with its vector shapes and truly impressive set of user customizable Adobe plugin filters – the Impressionist set. Then in 1999 PhotoDraw appeared followed by PictureIt. Only PictureIt has stuck in the market but at a steep discount of $30 to the prevailing $60-100 of competitively better products like Adobe Photoshop Elements, Corel PaintShopPro, and Ulead PhotoImpact.
The essential problem with all of the above programs is that Redmond tries to shortcut the basics. Each lacks one or more key portions of requisite brush, color adjustment, masking/selection, layering and touch-up features and functionality that the major paint programs provide in abundance. So users who want to push the envelope and create with full graphics richness have to look elsewhere.
Microsoft's new Acrylic Painter
But the beta of the new Acrylic paint program changes that. The screenshot below shows that
Quick Features Assessment
First and foremost, Acrylic is derived from Creature House's Expression so it has a deliberately designed mix of vector and bitmap painting capabilities. This was and still is a major innovation. To its credit, Microsoft is pushing these capabilities in Acrylic with more refined brush features and new vector layering capabilities. In contrast, Photoshop has slowly but surely added to clipping paths with more vector image smarts in the form of shapes, styles, and text on a curve capabilities. But in the latest CS2 version new vector features are minimal. So lets see how these differences play out.
In color configuration and adjustment – Photoshop is well ahead with more color modes and bit level support plus the new tone aware controls like Shadow/Highlight and Exposure. Acrylic does have an innovative Levels and Curves tool with color smarts. As well it has the usual bitmap tools such as masking, cloning, eyedropper, magic wand, lasso, fill, brush, and erasing.
Masking and selecting areas for touch up, cropping, and other adjustments is a bit more even with Acrylic showing knockout capability and roughly equivalent masking tools except for Photoshop's powerful Quick Mask mode and fine mask controls. On touch up tools though, Photoshop is way ahead with Healing Brush, Vanishing Point, Photo Merge among other tools. In contrast, because Acrylic straddles bitmap and vector drawing its bitmap touch up features are simple; but its vector curve manipulation features are first rate - surpassing Photoshop and emulating well many Adobe Illustrator capabilities.
Likewise in filters Photoshop's Filter Gallery and Smart Sharpen and Smoothing tools that are either edge or tone aware(and therefore very smart) are steps ahead of Acrylic cloned filters. Curiously, Adobe plugin support for the wealth of 3rd party filters is missing in Acrylic. But give credit where credit is due, Acrylic has brought a number of filters to both bitmap and vector graphics.
Acrylic Vector Shine
But when it comes to brushes and strokes, Acrylic gives Photoshop a real run for the money. Acrylic's Strokes Editor is more powerful than Photoshop's in creating new brush shapes and some brush effects. Photoshop though has some effects like Shape Dynamics and Color Dynamics where Acrylic is not close. However, in one swoop Acrylic gets close to Photoshop and therefore Corel Painter or Right Hemisphere in brush virtuosity.
But Acrylic has a vector layer with much more powerful and full range editing capabilities. This has allowed Acrylic to do vector-bitmap combinations that only Xara X1 and Corel Designer has attempted in any detail, especially Xara. Photoshop does have Smart Objects, similar in some respects to the non-destructive features of Acrylics Live Objects. But clearly the race is on to combine vector and bitmap graphics in novel ways – and Expression/Acrylic has a distinct lead here.
For example , immediately below this is the same Emboss Filter, but this time from the Open Source graphic software Gimp. Notice the difference. Gimp has a preview window, more control parameters and built-in Help button
Likewise in layering, Acrylic is taking a novel approach, especially with vector and bitmap layer interaction; but it
is also leaving users with little of the built-up richness of current bitmap to bitmap layer interactions.
Indeed the biggest difference between Acrylic and Photoshop is the Layer capabilities with a decided advantage to Photoshop. But as we have noted above, partly that is due to the fact that Acrylic brings some unique vector control capabilities to its layers.
But equally important, for the first time, Microsoft has a complete graphics program that does not flunk the "without-which-no-go" test. Picture-it and PhotoDraw users potentially have a Microsoft graphics upgrade path. In addition, vector graphics users will be pleased to see their capabilities enhanced while gaining some bitmap features that can only be found in programs like Xara X1 or Corel Designer.
Finally, take this exercise an an indicator of where Acrylic is going in terms of standards and innovation. Take a look for Postscript, animation, 3D surface mapping and web vector support. Acrylic has one out of four – PDF and Adobe Illustrator/Postscript vector support but no Flash SWF for animations, not OpenGL for 3D and surface mappings nor SVG/SMIL for Web vector and animation support. It is sort of symptomatic, even way late to the graphics game, Microsoft offers only grudging support to industry standards. In fact these are standards that it really wants to dictate itself. Will this be the undoing of Acrylic's very positive vector+bitmap capabilities ? If so the French have an appropriate saying - "c'est dommage" - it is a pity.
(c)Jacques Surveyer is a photographer; see his works at the PixofToronto.com