For those of you who enjoy playing with betas of the latest Microsoft software (and I know that many of you do, according to the email I receive from readers), check out the new Microsoft Acrylic Technology Preview. Acrylic is the code-name for Microsoft's first full-blown illustration and graphics tool and is based on the Creature House Expression software and technology that the company acquired in 2003. The software is intended to be a professional design tool, and judging by this beta version, seems targeted at graphics designers who work with the Web and interactive media. Microsoft posted the beta in June, and it will be functional through October 2005. Support is available only through the Microsoft forums for the existing Expression software.

Acrylic developers haven't optimized the code yet, so the software isn't very fast, and you need a high-performance computer to use it comfortably. Pixel-based painting and editable vector graphics are best done on computers with fast processors and good video cards, which the target audience typically has available. I don't recommend attempting to run the application on the minimal supported configuration (733Mhz processor, 256MB of RAM, and 800x600 monitor resolution with 24-bit color).

Although the Acrylic beta provides minimal documentation (limited to the Help files in the application), the "Creature House Expression 3 Tour" ( http://www.microsoft.com/products/expression/previous/expression3_tour.aspx ) gives a brief description, with examples, of many of the features of the earlier Expression version of the software. The site will give the user a good idea of what the Acrylic beta can do.

Acrylic isn't a general-purpose graphic tool; it's an illustration and design product. You wouldn't, for example, use it to edit the digital images you take with your camera. But for creating images from scratch for use in documents, presentations, and Web pages, it works well. If you haven't used this type of image-creation software before, many of the concepts and functions of the Acrylic beta will be unfamiliar. And because the software isn't designed to teach you the concepts of graphics illustration and design, it isn't really appropriate for inexperienced users. However, if you're interested in this type of software and want to give it a test run, the 77MB download is available at http://www.microsoft.com/products/expression/default.aspx . You must be running Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2).