Faster, better integrated and Web-focused – this is the version of PhotoDraw that Microsoft should have launched in the first place.

The first version of PhotoDraw 2000 was a strange program, especially considering that Microsoft was its developer. PhotoDraw’s ability to combine the flexibility of vectors and the creativity of bitmaps was undeniably impressive, but something was missing. Usually you can take it for granted that any Microsoft program will stress usability, integration and productivity, but version 1 of PhotoDraw 2000 was grindingly slow, bizarrely idiosyncratic and – most damning of all – of little practical use. At least Microsoft recognised its own failure and with the quick release of version 2 is determined to rectify the mistakes and to bring PhotoDraw firmly into the Office fold.

First impressions are certainly positive. The new version includes an installer identical to that used in Office 2000 along with other common features such as menus that display the most recently used commands and consistent Help files. The program also feels far more responsive. Microsoft claims that on a system with at least 64 MB of RAM, version 2 will generally be about 25 percent faster than version 1. In fact the improvements have been targeted where they are most required so that the slowest tools, such as the photo-editing and paint brushes, have been made up to 70 percent faster. Most important of all, at least psychologically, is the removal of version 1’s constant and disconcerting double pass screen redraw. By its nature PhotoDraw remains processor-intensive, but the lack of horsepower is no longer a fatal drawback.

With its combined vector and bitmap approach, PhotoDraw prides itself on being able to work with source images from multiple sources and the number of formats it supports has been, rather ambitiously, extended to include market-leading Corel Draw 8 CDR and Photoshop 5 PSD files. More regularly useful will be the new AutoScan wizard that allows you to scan images with the appropriate image size and resolution, and improved digital camera support. PhotoDraw’s own dedicated content has also been extended and, with new support for the shared Office Clip Gallery, you now have access to over 20,000 bundled images.

Another area that has been seriously improved is the use of templates to help you get your projects off the ground. New templates include dedicated options for PowerPoint backgrounds and Web design elements, but the biggest change is the introduction of themed templates. These are divided into a range of categories such as Logos and Web Banners and within each category you are provided with thirteen design-based options, such as Artsy, Capsule, Citrus and Sumi. Each of these automatically picks up the look and feel of existing themes in FrontPage and PowerPoint enabling you to maintain a consistent house style across your work.

PhotoDraw 2000 version 2 now offers theme-based templates.

The new PhotoDraw also enables you to maintain design consistency as you work. The Fill visual menu now provides a new Colour Scheme option where you can choose any of the colour schemes available in any other of the 2000 apps. Sadly these aren’t intelligent as they are in Publisher so you can’t instantly update the overall look of a design just by changing your scheme. Instead of just applying a flat colour you can also take advantage of the Fill menu’s Theme Texture option to fill an object with a bitmap-based texture designed to complement the overall design. Using the Edge menu you can even apply around a hundred specially designed Theme Brushes as object outlines.

These same Theme Brushes are also now available as options from the Draw/Paint menu to effectively provide a new set of artistic tools. Using a Themed Brush with the Draw tool is particularly impressive as it enables you to interactively draw a photo-realistic border with, for example, the Radius theme’s interlocking chain-style option. What makes PhotoDraw unique, however, is that you can then retrospectively change your stroke’s width and transparency and even edit its nodes to completely change its shape. The new Photo Stamps tool is a disappointment in comparison. It works like an image hose by scattering variously sized and angled bitmap objects along the path that you draw. However only one image is used per stroke, the only control is whether the spray is linear or random, and the tool is purely bitmap-based so that there is no possibility of retrospective editing.

The new Theme Brush and Photo Stamp extend PhotoDraw’s impressive range of speciality brushes.

One of PhotoDraw’s biggest strengths is it stylizing capabilities and version 2 adds a number of arresting effects that can be instantly applied to graphic elements. The new Emboss and Embed effect creates a pseudo-3D raised appearance in which you can vary the lighting, depth and bevel. The Glow effect creates an effect as if a light is shining behind the object and in which you can vary the spread, shape, intensity, transparency, and inner and outer colors of the glow. The Highlight effect also draws attention to an object as if a light is shining on it from in front and allows you to choose the shape, colour and transparency of the effect.

Together with its range of fills and edges the number of formatting effects that PhotoDraw can apply to an object is virtually limitless. The danger is that you can lose track of just how you created a particular effect so PhotoDraw has imported the Office-standard Format Painter tool to allow you to pick up a custom look and quickly apply it to any other object. Even more useful is the ability to save looks as named styles so that you can apply them in future in other projects. This is particularly useful in the case of the new Emboss and Embed, Glow and Highlight effects for the creation of eye-catching but consistent Web buttons.

PhotoDraw is now taking its Web responsibilities very seriously indeed and offers a range of other Web-specific effects. Web backgrounds are now simple to create and add to a page thanks to the provision of over 500 tileable textures. Far more advanced is the ability to bring pages to life with Rollovers and Animated GIFs. In each case these are simplicity itself to apply as you only need to select from the range of preset effects based on the sample preview. To see the effect in action on your design you can now automatically preview your page within Explorer. In fact PhotoDraw also now lets you open and edit graphics directly from Internet Explorer and even save them back to the Web page assuming you have authorisation.

Animated GIFs can be created with a single click.

Once your design is complete you need to save it to PhotoDraw’s own integrated vector/bitmap MIX format, but to be able to use it elsewhere you’ll need to convert it to a third-party bitmap-based format. The option Microsoft pushes for this is its revamped Save for Use in wizard which walks you through the process depending on which program you want to use the image in. The dialog is designed to “protect” you from needing to know anything about the underlying formats, but the choice is actually straightforward: PNG for Word and PowerPoint, TIFF for Publisher and JPEG or GIF for FrontPage. A new Batch command also lets you save or convert multiple graphics in one process including optional resizing.

Where PhotoDraw 2000 version 2 is very different to its predecessor and much more in line with the other Office 2000 applications is its new support for output to HTML, including the ability to save directly to Microsoft Office Web servers. Both the new Save as Web Page and Send to FrontPage commands both work in a similar way outputting both the necessary GIF or JPEG images and the necessary HTML code to put them together including rollovers and imagemaps. In fact the process is rather more intelligent than this, with PhotoDraw automatically grouping images and slicing the page to create an HTML nested table and so simultaneously cutting download time and potentially opening up space for text and other elements.

PhotoDraw can now save designs as web pages based on nested tables and works hand in hand with FrontPage.

While the process is efficient in some ways, in others it is disappointing. Using the wizards you will eventually be presented with a choice between saving to GIF or JPEG format but the preview is tiny and there’s no customisable control over crucial factors like the total number of colours and dithering for GIF output. For a sliced image this control is even more important as you should be able to set optimised settings for different sections. Microsoft is undoubtedly right to concentrate on improving PhotoDraw’s Web capabilities as this is an area in which combined object and bitmap handling is ideal as Macromedia Fireworks shows. On the other hand Microsoft just doesn’t seem to have grasped the fact that producing Web graphics is as much about file size as final impact – if your image is too large no-one is going to wait around to see it at all.

Optimisation is an essential part of producing successful graphics for the Web but PhotoDraw just doesn’t offer the ultimate end user control necessary to make this possible. Sadly this lack of final control is typical of PhotoDraw generally. Being able to create an animated GIF with a single click is initially very impressive, for example, but for you to actually use the animation you’ll want to be able to fine-tune elements such as the number of frames and individual frame duration – control which PhotoDraw doesn’t allow. Ultimately, as with FrontPage and Publisher, Microsoft’s hand-holding approach gets you a long way quickly but eventually ends up holding you back. Beginners don’t remain beginners forever.

All told, PhotoDraw 2000 version 2 is undoubtedly a major leap forward that seriously begins to unlock the program’s huge potential. Microsoft has conquered the technological problems that held version 1 back and has begun to understand and target the program’s unique strengths. If it now delivered complete control over those capabilities into the hands of the end user then PhotoDraw really would be a program to reckon with. In the meantime, although PhotoDraw 2000 version 2 is now capable of producing good work, the likes of Corel Draw and Adobe Photoshop aren’t yet under threat.