Jun 14, 2005

Acrylic VS Photoshop – The Winner?

On Friday, June 10th, 2005, Microsoft unveiled a graphics application code named “Acrylic”. In their own words: About Acrylic “Acrylic” is the codename for an innovative illustration, painting and graphics tool that provides exciting creative capabilities for designers working in print, web, video, and interactive media. Industry pundits immediately labeled it as an Adobe rival (see CNET article). Some even went so far as to attribute Adobe’s stock decline on Friday to increasing competition by Microsoft (see this Bloomberg News item). PhotoshopNews felt compelled to look into Acrylic and see if indeed it might be considered a viable competitor to Photoshop.

The application codenamed Acrylic started off life as an application named Expression, the graphics application Microsoft acquired with its 2003 purchase of Hong Kong company Creature House Ltd. Expression was previously owned by MetaCreations, but was re-acquired by Creature House–composed of the team that originally developed the software and sold it to MetaCreations–back in 2000.

In it’s original incarnation, both a Macintosh and Windows version of Expression were available. No information is available, however, regarding a Mac version of Acrylic.

Expression was originally dubbed as a “Vector Paint” application. Indeed, as a vector paint application Acrylic has some very interesting capabilities.

Click on the image to see larger sized image in a new window.

In its vecter paint mode, Acrylic records brush strokes as vector paths and applies paint rendering to the paths. The paths are editable although it’s difficult to edit the applied paint rendering after the path is drawn. In this vector paint mode, extremely rich “natural media” brush strokes and paint rendering are possible. This mode is arguably the best and most interesting aspect of Acrylic.

It should be noted that the current beta is rather slow. Microsoft’s development team for Acrylic has noted this and has indicated that a more robust and optimized version is in the works.

However, vector painting is not what Photoshop is all about. So, I chose to concentrate on Acrylic’s pixel editing capabilities rather than on Acrylic’s vector painting capabilities.

Click on the image to see larger sized image in a new window.

As a pixel editing application, Acrylic offers a rather limited subset of functionality when compared to Photoshop.

The toolbar provides traditional selection creation tools, paint and airbrushes, a cloning brush, erasure and red-eye correction tools, a color sampler and gradient tool as well as hand and zoom tools.

There are a variety of common image corrections available as direct edit corrections (no adjustment layers, these corrections are applied directly to the pixel data).

The Levels and Curves correction actually has an interesting blend of both levels and curves with a histogram display all in one dialog. Something Photoshop users have been asking requesting for a while. Also notable is the ability to apply a Saturation curve. Basic tone and color corrections can be employed easily by anybody familiar with Photoshop. However, the adjustments are not fast to preview-there is a lag from the time you make an adjustment until the display is updated.

The Color Balance adjustment also offers color balance and white point corrections (in a limited way).

The Pixel Selection menu offers general selection functionality and allows for feathering and other modifications. There is also the ability to save and load selections-however, there is no channel palette or ability to display your saved selections. There is the ability to use a Quick Mask like function to paint in and out selections.

The quick mask functionality allows for painting in and out what will then be converted to a selection.

Click on the image to see larger sized image in a new window.
One rather dissappointing aspect of saved selections is it appears that one can not actually save a selection directly in Acrylic’s proprietary file format (.xpr) with the pixel/vector data. You must save it off as a separate file in an Acrylic Bitmap format (.xbm). This is a rather shockingly crude implementation of saved selections and channels. Photoshop users would find this very clunky and primitive.

The pixel editing mode provides for basic “filter” functionality. Presumably, basic Photoshop type plug-ins will be supported although that is not confirmed by any documentation at this point.

An Unsharp Mask filter (sans preview) preforms as expected.

Under the View menu, the typical expected capabilities are present. One notable capability is the ability to rotate the “canvas” without rotating the image pixels. So, if you wish you can place the canvas askew to make painting easier.

Many of the application palettes are actually more applicable to the vector paint mode. The pixel painting functions are considerably more primitive than Photoshop-even though the vector painting is more advanced.

While Acrylic does support the concept of Layers and even allows the ability to combine both pixel and vector layers in a single document, Acrylic’s layer functionality is extremely limited.

The Layer Properties allows you to apply filters to a layer. You can rename and change the visibility and editabilty of a layer, however, I found no ability to alter the opacity. There are no layer blending modes available. There are no layer masks-you must erase pixels to reveal underlaying layers.

The Layer Settings allows you to color code the layer and alter the default display quality but no other layer options common to Photoshop layers exist. While it is indeed accurate to say that Acrylic does “have layers”, the functionality and usability is severely limited. Any comparison to Photoshop’s layers simply isn’t valid.

Click on the image to see larger sized image in a new window.
While described as having “Color Management”, Acrylic’s color management capabilities are, at best, rudimentary. There is no ability (that I could find in the app or documentation) to support color transforms of any sort. You either work in monitor RGB or a specified RGB color space such as sRGB. While you can “preview” what the image would look like in CMYK, there is no ability to work in CMYK nor convert to CMYK.

The Document Setup allows basic size and resolution settings.

Acrylic’s native file format is a proprietary vector/bitmap hybred with a .xpr extension. For inter-application use you must export your image file to other supported formats. To maintain vector data you can export to an Illustrator format, EPS or PDF. For pixel data, Tiff, JPG, Photoshop (the only format that supports the limited layer capabilities of Acrylic), BMP, PNG and GIF are provided.

Click on the image to see larger sized image in a new window.

Upon export to a supported bitmap format, all vector data is rasterized to pixels. You can also control the final output size and resolution as shown below.

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Acrylic’s application preferences allows for controlling the application’s default behaviors. The application supports multiple undo.

Acrylic Evaluation Summary

At this point, I really must say that there is simply no way to characterize Acrylic as a Photoshop competitor. To do so would be unfair to both Photoshop and Acrylic–regardless of the pundits’ claims to the contrary. Acrylic’s pixel editing capabilities are simply too primitive and crude to draw a reasonable comparison. Acylic’s most interesting aspects are in its vector painting capabilities. Its drawing capabilities, however, are also too primitive to compare directly to Adobe Illustrator.

To speculate on Microsoft’s motives for releasing Acrylic as a public beta is pointless. Only Microsoft really knows why they chose this time to reveal the existence of Acrylic and how they intend to position Acrylic as a commercial software application some time down the road. If Microsoft thinks that Acrylic would compete with professional drawing and pixel editing applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, I would suggest they disabuse themselves of such delusions. At best, Acrylic’s pixel editing capabilities fall somewhere in the Photoshop 2.5-3.0 version capabilities-but even then, Photoshop had a superior functionality set, UI and usability. To compare it to Photoshop CS2 is somewhat amusing but ludicrous.

18 Responses to “Acrylic VS Photoshop – The Winner?”

  1. JeffH Says:


    Thanks for the frank and honest review. There has been a lot of buz in the press regarding Acrylic and what it is and isn’t, but this is the first real review I have seen. I downloaded the application yesterday with intentions of testing it, but after reading your review, I frankly do not see the point in installing it. I am quite happy with PS CS2 and do not see Acrylic as a viable alternative at this time. Your review was very informative regarding features and functionality.

    Jeff H.

  2. Andrew Rodney Says:

    Kind of ugly….

  3. Ivan Says:

    The biggest downside of Acrylic is the interface. Typically Microsoft lacks in this department. The interface is generica and lacks from differences within the interace which make things key to remembering and learning. However i am not sure this “beta” version is ready yet to compete with Photoshop, so im not sure how valid a review is other than for intelectual puropses. Whatever Acrylic turns out to be it will be good for Adobe, because competition is good.

  4. Laarree Says:

    FYI, Expression 3/Mac is still available as a free download from
    Microsoft’s website –apparently compatible with Panther (don’t
    know about Tiger). Here’s the link:

    Its vector painting features are fun to play with, and potentially
    useful to artists and illustrators.

  5. CD Says:

    I had started downloading this, then once I read this review and took a peek at the screenshots, I hit the cancel button very quickly. This program looks severly like a low-end paint program, and if that’s what it’s intended to be, then fine but I dont think it will hold a candle to PS.

  6. Plugs N' Pixels Says:

    Expression, upon which this new revision is based, is an excellent illustration app. See some artwork I did for the folks at at . You can still download the full Expression for free from Microsoft’s website.

    All this talk about comparing Acrylic with Photoshop is odd–I don’t think Microsoft is even positioning it as such. I can’t say for sure what they are planning on doing with it, but it is worth keeping an eye on.

  7. Plugs N' Pixels Says:

    I should add that the combination of vector and bitmap capabilities in one app is not new; Canvas has done this (in a single layout) for years ( But Acrylic is the winner for “vector painting”.

  8. Pete Walsh Says:

    I’ve used Expression for a few years now, it’s been a beautiful vector tool albeit with an unusual interface. It’ll be interesting to see what MS do with it – a shame in a way to loose another funky little product.

    Does anyone remember Wright Design? It had a real chance to be a strong competitor to Photoshop years ago (maybe 6 years) but faded away. Would’ve been a good thing for MS to buy back then, probably better than Expressions if competing against Photoshop is the plan – or maybe this product is more about opportunities in general post Adobe/Macromedia merge.

  9. BigT Says:

    Personally I think people are missing the boat on this (maybe even MS). Expression (er….Acrylic) is not meant to replace Photoshop…(nothing could dethrone shop, it’s been cult status for 10 years) it’s a breed all it’s own to allow artists to create *editable* pieces. If anything it’s a mix of Frustrator and Photoshop, not really intended to be or replace either.

    The bigger question is whether there are enough folks interested in teh unique technology to warrant it as a stand alone product.

    ….if that’s what MS has intended for it anyway…maybe they’re building the pieces of it into their next O/S and the preview is to get comments on the rendering engine that it uses for it’s effects….

  10. Mark Landman Says:

    This review is certainly correct in pointing out that Acrylic’s paint capabilities don’t come even close to PS at this point.

    But I believe this review misses the boat on Acrylic’s vector abilities.

    In a word they are much stronger than described, and compare well against Freehand and Illustrator. Acrylic’s vectors allow multiple transfer modes, variable transparency for both fill and line, variable “feathering” per object, “texturizing” per object with bitmap fills and perspective transforms of postcript fills. Add to this numerous “paint-like” abilities such as vector and bitmap skeletal strokes, fringe textures applied to feathered objects, “erasing” objects and you’ve definitely got some powerful graphics abilities.

    One major difference is the interface. It takes a while to figure out how to use the tools because they’re set up quite differently than the Illustrator or Freehand tools we’re used to, and this can be a frustrating process. When I first started using Expression 3, I did a lot of vectors in Freehand and imported them, after working a while with Expression, I found I didn’t need to bother with that process anymore.

    Having said all this, I have to admit I haven’t used Acrylic (I’m a Mac user), but I have worked with Expression 3, which is essentially Acylic with a little more bitmap power. Here’s a small example of my use of Expression 3:

    This is 99.9% vector based art! I love Photoshop, I’ve been using it since V1, but I do hope Microsoft releases Acrylic for the Mac, as I can’t think of any other combinaton of software that can do what Expression did.

  11. Jeff Schewe Says:

    Mark and others. . .

    This was NOT a review. . .it was an eval of Acrylic and how it relates to Photoshop. I wrote it because some media pundits were positioning Acrylic as though it was in competition with Photoshop-which it ain’t! (as I point out).

    I also agree that the vector painting is the thing that is interesting in Expression/Acrylic. In that regard, it is way cool and capable of things even Painter can’t do, let alone Photoshop.

    If Microsoft wishes to develop Acrylic’s strengths, and offer a Mac version, I’m all for it. The more unique tools available the better. But if MSFT has any designs on creating a “Photoshop Killer”, well, I would say Acrylic isn’t the vehicle. (not even close)

  12. DBlatner Says:

    Jeff, I completely agree with many of your comments, and I disagree with others. Isn’t it always the case? First of all, solely comparing Acrylic’s pixel features to Photoshop’s without taking into account the vector and hybrid painting abilities isn’t very fair. It’s like saying, “well, let’s just ignore 75% of the program for now.”

    That said, you’re right that there are currently some significant limitations, such as lack of masking or saving channels. You can do masking, but it’s kind of clunky (convert pixel layer to vector layer, draw object over image and set it to Eraser mode).

    But other pixel features are better than Photoshop. I have found the panorama image stitching to be better than Photoshop’s. I think the pixel paint tools are more sophisticated than Pshop’s in some ways (contrary to your notes), but only for natural-media painting (simulating oils, acrylics, wacky shapes, etc).

    Ultimately, Acrylic is going to make a great complement to Photoshop, not competition. The ability to create some cool vector/pixel/hybrid images, then export as PSD and open in Photoshop (with layers intact, though rasterized) is very compelling.

    David Blatner
    co-author “real world photoshop” and others

  13. Jeff Suntala Says:

    Why doesn’t anyone ever mention the b-spline vector drawing tools when writing about Expression/Acrylic? I find them INFINITELY easier to draw with than bezier curves. No more lumpy curves!

    This is a HUGE improvement over bezier. I do all of my vector drawing in Expression and then convert to Photoshop or Illustrator if need be. If Illustrator and Photoshop added this capability it would be worth an upgrade on that merit alone.

    It’s a big time saver.

    Jeff Suntala

  14. Carole McClendon Says:

    To: Jeff Schewe
    From: Carole McClendon

    Hello Jeff,

    Are you interested in writing a book on Acrylic? Angelo Micheletti suggested that I contact you.
    Please let me know, am very interested in speaking with you.

    Carole McClendon
    VP/Literary Agent
    Waterside Productions

  15. david mantripp Says:

    I agree with the sentiment that the real story in all this is the tragedy that Microsoft have picked up a quite wonderful square peg and are attempting to ram it, with customary grace, into a round hole. If they wanted to compete with Photoshop, surely they have enough resources to start from scratch ? But then again, when did they ever do that ?

    Perhaps what they should do is try to bring xRes back from the grave. There, but for Macromedia’s dreadful poduct management, was a real Photoshop rival.

  16. Mark Ashton Says:

    If you read what Microsoft is saying, they are very explicity in saying that Acrylic is NOT intended to directly compete with Photoshop. That’s a story for the mainstream techynology press…the same story they always revert to when they talk about Microsoft: MSFT enters new market with goal of obliterating the competition. That’s just silly.

    The MSFT people aren’t dumb. They clearly understand that design professionals use Photoshop and Illustrator and that isn’t going to change soon. They’re in the business of providing complementary tools that make it easier for designers and developers to build better applications for Windows.

  17. Jimmy Says:

    Clearly Photoshop’s pixel editing facilities are very much superior to those in Acrylic and it is equally clear that Acrylic cannot compete ….. at present.
    Remember when Microsoft Word was not a patch on Word Perfect or when Internet Explorer was not a patch on Netscape?
    Acrylic currently is free (as was IE) and Acrylic doesn’t have to be activated. ;)

    Watch this space.

  18. Daryl Says:

    If you want to understand why this product exists, google “XAML” or “Windows Presentation Foundation”. Microsoft is moving towards an entirely vector-based user interface with Windows Vista. The new version of Acryllic can output your vector artwork in XAML. Developers have been shouting for a tool like this.

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