The recent Adobe and Macromedia merger shouldn't obscure the fact that both firms recently updated the innovative software on which their reputations were founded.
Creative Suite 2 (pound;150 education price) from Adobe is a monster! There's little that this superb set of digital tools can't do. Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and GoLive are better integrated than ever, allowing users to move fluently between drawing, desktop publishing, web design and image editing. One great addition is Adobe Bridge, a visual file-browsing tool with scalable previews that greatly simplify file management and viewing.
Photoshop has some stunning new features, including the vanishing point perspective tool, a simplified red-eye procedure, and an image warp that warps and wraps objects any way you want.
The release of Studio 8 (pound;75 education price) repositions Macromedia in the digital workplace. Vector-based drawing application Freehand is no longer in the suite, though it is still available as a standalone. The new line-up sees Contribute and FlashPaper join DreamWeaver, Flash Professional and Fireworks in a package that is now focused on web creation and animation.
Macromedia's major asset is undoubtedly Flash - the Flash player is installed on more than 97 per cent of internet-connected PCs (September 2005, NPD Research) - and schools have not been slow to spot its potential.
Check out the animations page at www.southaxholme.doncaster.sch.uk for some expressive Flash movies.
Competition among mid-price imaging programs is fierce. This year it's the turn of Paint Shop Pro (pound;51) to raise the bar. Now under the Corel banner, the long-time teacher favourite has much to commend it. There's a slew of new tools, but what really impresses is the drastically restyled interface, an integrated learning centre and a set of automated tasks that simplify photo editing, though some - wrinkle remover, teeth whitener and suntan brush - verge on the bizarre.
Microsoft's Digital Image Suite (pound;50) remains good value for money.
It has a comprehensive set of editing tools, support for a wide range of file formats and much-improved archiving facilities. Images can be tagged with key words and star ratings, and - neat touch, this - mousing over a thumbnail and pausing will enlarge the image for detailed viewing.
Adobe has turned up trumps again with School Collection v3. For pound;30 (less for orders over 200) you get Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Album and Premiere LE - amazing value. Throw in schemes of work, templates and well-prepared lesson plans and it's unbeatable.
There's mid-price, there's cheap and there's free. If you're looking for budget software, take a look at the titles offered by SoftDeko. This re-publishing firm has some real bargains. Similarly, eKits has some great deals on DTP and image bank resources. Free? Well, pay a visit to Google.
Picasa, downloadable from its site, is a perfectly adequate imaging and cataloguing tool that doesn't cost a penny.
Serif will be previewing the latest version of its vector drawing program DrawPlus 8 (pound;23) at BETT. Visitors can look forward to an overhauled interface with a range of tools that now includes pressure-sensitive strokes, compatible with major graphics tablets.
Younger artists may prefer the less complex Twist (pound;30) from TAG. As ever, TAG will be featuring some of the most education and budget-friendly digital imaging hardware. This year's on-stand favourites are likely to be the Digital Blue Snap! camera (pound;80) and the Aiptek Pocket Digital Video Camera (pound;100).
Classroom favourites Softease and 2Simple, both at BETT and on the BETT awards shortlist, have suites that offer great tools for embedding ICT at primary level. Textease Studio CT (master licence pound;199) and 2Create A Story (pound;40) introduce to digital manipulation of images, sounds and words.
Looking for an innovative way to embed maths and ICT into art and design? What about Grid Magic v5 (pound;50, review at Web Extras on our website).
This program allows students to create symmetrical patterns that can be applied in a range of contexts. It is intended for key stages 1-3, including pupils with special needs.
With an estimated 25 billion digital photos taken worldwide last year (PMA Marketing Research) there's never been a greater need for digital asset management (DAM) - expect to hear a lot more about it in 2006, so a visit to BETT newcomer Extensis could be worthwhile. Flagship product Portfolio (Pounds 80) is a powerful and comprehensive DAM tool that keeps meticulous track of digital files.