Initial Thoughts on Blend 3 MIX Preview

After trying out the new features in Blend 3 I’m definitely looking forward to the full release. It already seems to be more responsive than Blend 2 SP1 while navigating around files, templates, selected elements, etc, even at this pre-Beta stage. I was disappointed to see SketchFlow missing from the Preview, but look forward to it being included when it’s stable enough.

There are a bunch of nice UI tweaks:

  • Tool Panels now allow pinning (like in VS) to autohide. Data and Objects and Timeline are also now their own panels so they can move around freely. The left side tool strip now floats and docks too.
  • The Active Container is no longer a static setting. It’s still possible to set it to a fixed object, but now it must be done from the right click menu (Pin Active Container) instead of double clicking. I was annoyed by this at first and wondering why there was no yellow selection border, but then realized that Blend was inferring a container based on what I was doing. Double clicking to add an element now uses the current selection as the container to add to, or its parent if it doesn’t support children. A blue border takes the place of the yellow indicator in these cases.

Even better, when adding by dragging directly on the design surface, the container is inferred graphically and switches (with blue border) as you move the cursor around.

  • Like the active container setting, elements are similarly highlighted with a blue border as you mouse around with the selection arrow tool, making it easy to find elements. This includes elements that are buried in layers of panels, and selecting an element is as easy as clicking on it when it’s highlighted, virtually eliminating the need for using the right click “Set Current Selection” menu item (although it is still available). I haven’t had to use it yet once.
  • Design-time sizing is available on more root container than before, including both Control and Data Templates. Rather than being set on the template itself the size is set on the first element in the tree.

  • The old Gradient tool that was pretty much only useful for rotating gradients now allows direct setting of stops on the design surface. Each one is shown as a circle and can be dragged to a different spot or edited in place (with popup color picker) by double clicking. Alt-clicking adds new stops and dragging a stop out of the gradient area removes it. The Properties panel brush editor itself has also added the ability to set a gradient stop position as a numeric percentage (great for translating from Illustrator) and reverse the order of gradient stops.

  • Annotations allow for design notes to be added directly to the UI that only show up in Blend (think comments for designers). I tried adding some in a real WPF project and the attached properties they created didn’t seem to have any effect on VS or Blend 2. I haven’t figured out where the AnnotationManager class lives so I’m hesitant to leave notes on files that other people need to edit without Blend 3 but at least they didn’t cause any immediate backward compatibility issues on my own box.
  • New keyboard shortcuts abound. Look around the menus to find them – the help hasn’t been updated yet.

My favorite part of the new version is design time data – something I’ve been doing awkward workarounds for since I started using Blend. There are lots of options, but my favorite so far is the generated sample data source. I first tried importing an XML file, which gave me a full set of data and showed all the available fields, including nested collections. I then set up another data source from scratch, using only the Blend UI to define the data structure:

Anywhere there’s a “+” a simple, complex or collection property can be added. Simple properties can be set as String, Number, Image, or Boolean types, with further options for each. String properties can be set to things like Names, Dates or Phone numbers to provide realistic looking data. Images of chairs are provided out of the box but can be replaced by pointing to a folder of image files of your choice.

All of this results in a generated class that includes a bunch of dummy data and is declared as a resource in location of your choice. Any element from the data source can then be dragged onto the design surface to set up a binding or generate a bound control. I haven’t quite gotten the hang of predictably hooking up data by dragging but through a combination of dragging elements and using Blend’s data binding window (which consistently displayed my test data structure through the Data Context tab) I managed to quickly set up a complete multi-level master detail UI for the structure I set up without jumping into XAML at all. An option allows you to switch between using the data only at design time (d:DataContext) or at design and run-time (DataContext) – this should be good for initial testing of a UI.

Through a few hours of working on a live WPF project I haven’t had any problems using the new version and hopping back and forth to VS. I even tried opening in Blend 2, 3, and VS and making changed in all 3 with no problems. I haven’t done much more than start up a new Silverlight 3 project but that worked fine too and the Preview install doesn’t appear to have negatively impacted my existing Silverlight 2 dev environment.

Get the preview here

and if you’re using TFS look at http://code.msdn.microsoft.com/KB967483 for the hotfix needed to hook up the Preview’s source control integration.

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