Microsoft Corp. has taken what was a so-so illustration package and made it a winner.

The improvements in PhotoDraw 2000 2.0 turned my head. I had given an earlier version a C-plus, but the new release merits an A-minus.

User feedback apparently convinced Microsoft that its newest addition to the Office suite needed work. The original PhotoDraw 2000 performed at a snail's pace and had some underdeveloped components.

PhotoDraw had been the weak link in Office's chain of applications, but no more. It is a hybrid between a vector illustrator and photo editor, and it still tries to be easy enough for most users. In essence, Microsoft has created a new breed of illustration tool.

Don't get me wrong: It won't replace high-end applications such as Adobe Photoshop or CorelDraw. But PhotoDraw does have similar graphics filters and can do comparable 3-D effects.

The new features, combined with improved speed, make PhotoDraw a far stronger tool, especially for Web graphics and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.

The long rendering delays have vanished. Version 1.0 often took several seconds to render an object nudged only a pixel. Now there's no pause during moving, scaling or most other operations. Applying filters requires a wait, but not nearly as long as with the previous version.

The older version had some clip art that never quite worked right. For example, fills would leak outside the lines. Version 2.0 fixes that to a degree, but Microsoft still needs to do some work. For example, a shape such as a peach with a leaf should depict peach-colored fruit and a green leaf. Instead, PhotoDraw fills the entire shape with only one color.

Another weakness is the dialog boxes for the wizards. They were and still are confusing. But Microsoft has integrated other Office applications well with PhotoDraw. You can use it to create PowerPoint slide backgrounds and other components right down to the bullets. If you've ever used PowerPoint to make backgrounds, you know how limiting it can be. PhotoDraw has good tools to customize PowerPoint presentations and make them more dynamic.

Web graphics creation is simple. PhotoDraw can make a Java-animated graphic glow or change color when the mouse cursor rolls over it.

Getting specialty graphics out of an application and into real-life use sometimes is more difficult than you'd expect. With PhotoDraw, you choose the "save for use in" option and state how the picture will be used.

For Web graphics, PhotoDraw shows a series of optimized renderings in several formats, along with approximate download times. That's handy.

PhotoDraw comes on three CD-ROMs, the first for the application itself, the second for PhotoDraw-specific graphics and templates, and the third for Office clip art. To tap into the full richness of the second CD, go to the "Insert" menu and select "PhotoDraw Content."

The tight integration with Office, speed and ease of use all make this $109 application worthwhile. Buyers of the earlier stand-alone version of PhotoDraw or Office 2000 that included Version 1.0 will receive a $20 rebate when they upgrade to Version 2.0.

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PHOTODRAW 2000 2.0

Microsoft Corp.

Redmond, Wash.

Telephone: 1-800-426-9400

Web address: www.microsoft.com/office/photodraw

Product: Multimedia database for graphics

Cost: $109 with $20 rebate for those upgrading

Grade: A -

PROS:

+ Great integration with Office

+ Very easy to use

CONS:

- Coloring in clip art uneven

- Some confusing wizard dialogue boxes

Real-life requirements: Windows 95 or higher. Pentium II or faster PC, 64 megabytes of RAM, 4-megabyte video card, 200 megabytes free storage, CD-ROM drive.