Xara X: A Powerful Draw

For years XaraStudio was a remarkably agile drawing program just waiting to be discovered, but a marketing deal between Xara Ltd. and Corel kept it in the understudy role behind CorelDRAW, wearing the CorelXara name. The agreement expired last year and now Xara Ltd. is marketing a considerably enhanced version named Xara X ($149).

This reviewer admits to being a CorelDraw chauvinist, having used it since version 1. But after a few days with Xara, I was tempted to use this app for all my drawing needs. It’s amazingly fast, robust, and loaded with cutting-edge features such as interactive drop shadows, transparency, and bevels, plus a compact selection of Web-centric tools for creating rollovers, buttons, and navigation bars.

Cut the Dialog
Most Windows illustration programs look and act pretty much alike these days and tout about the same features. Of course, consistency among interfaces can be a good thing for users, and Xara adheres firmly to the Windows interface standard, but it also manages to one-up the interfaces of its competitors. Its most striking characteristic is its avoidance of dialog boxes: You carry out almost every function either through drag-and-drop operations performed using interactive handles or through buttons, sliders, and context menus.

Xara doesn’t ship with a printed manual, but we rarely had to resort to the on-line help — the program is that easy to master. If you want to graze through Xara’s feature set, you can watch any of the 80 tutorial movies provided on a separate CD shipped with the program CD.

The interface itself comprises a main toolbar and a context-sensitive button bar that offers functions specific to the current tool. For example, when you select the Bevel tool, the button bar lets you adjust bevel type, contrast, elevation, and light angle, and it allows you to choose an inner or outer bevel. A variety of selections and functions are available from a set of gallery palettes: bitmap fills, line styles, colors, clip art, fonts, and the like. One aspect of the Font gallery is especially helpful, and unusual: When you select a font included in Xara’s font library from the neatly categorized list of available fonts, Xara will automatically install it for you if you haven’t installed it already.


To work with Xara X’s handy interactive beveling, select from one of the presets or design your own, and then drag the interactive handles to adjust the bevel’s size.

Fully Loaded Toolbox
The toolbox is filled with wonderful illustration goodies. The fantastic Freehand brush/pencil is infinitely adjustable. You can draw shapes using built-in or custom brushes, erase by holding down the Shift key and backtracking, cut out notches, reshape lines, and adjust the smoothness of curves retroactively. Geometric shapes, Bezier curves, exotic stars and polygons, complicated blends, shaped transparencies and gradients, contours, shape envelopes: All are available in the toolbox, and all are blissfully easy to use.


To change the line style used to draw an object in Xara X, you can simply drag a thumbnail from the Line Gallery onto the selected object.

Although the program is primarily for vector illustration, it handles bitmaps quite gracefully. We could use all of our Photoshop plug-ins and make brightness, contrast, and color adjustments. All of Xara’s tools are available for use with bitmaps, so you can instantly create a beveled button from a picture, add transparency, and squish the image into a shaped container with the Mould tool, for example. Should you decide to convert a bitmap into a line drawing, the bitmap tracer will do a respectable job. Its dialog box is one of only a few used by the program.


Interactive transparencies use the same variables as gradients, so you can assign transparency shapes and repeating units as well as direction and percentage.

Xara offers a raft of features for creating Web graphics. You can create JavaScript rollovers, navigation bars, and animated GIFs, and the program includes a good Web optimization export. One caveat: We found the rollover and navigation-bar features the most confusing aspect of the program, and we had to watch the tutorial movie several times before the process became clear. In short, you create or import a button from the Gallery, use the Button and Nav Bar tool to create a button set, and request that Xara create mouse states (layers, actually). To adjust the appearance of buttons in the various states, you have to flip back and forth between the Selection tool and the Button and Nav Bar tool. We found the process overly complicated but it was effective once we grew accustomed to it.

On the Downside
Xara has plenty of import and export options, but some formats didn’t always translate accurately during our testing. Adobe Illustrator (versions 3 through 9.0) wouldn’t open some of the AI files Xara created with complex graphics, and with other files some of Xara’s functions (transparency, for example) were absent when we opened the files in Illustrator. And importing complex Illustrator files resulted in a proper mess. However, the program did a respectable job with WMF, CorelDraw, and bitmaps, including Photoshop files. We could import some pretty obscure file types, too, such as Adobe Illustrator color tables and swatches, multipage PCX, and PaintShop Pro palettes.

One area where Xara falls flat is color calibration: There isn’t any. If you rely on ICM profiles in a calibrated system, Xara reduces you to trial-and-error output. That’s too bad, considering how powerful this program is in other ways.

Another notable omission is Xara X’s lack of a hierarchical object manager. You can assign names to specific objects to see them listed in the Name gallery, but an object manager such as that of Illustrator or CorelDRAW would be far more useful. We also missed the live layer effects, macros, and a history list available in CorelDraw and Illustrator.

Drawing Conclusions
We were genuinely impressed with Xara’s power and ease of use. At a time when most software seems to have bloated beyond any hope of rediscovering its lean youth, Xara X also impresses with its optimization and its economy of code: The entire program occupies only 12MB of disk space and was an unquestionable speed demon in screen redraws. And for a price of only $149, the package also includes 250 fonts, 3,000 pieces of clip art, 1,000 bitmaps, and 18 handsome Web templates.

As with any software, Xara X has its drawbacks, but all in all this bargain-priced package rates as a full-featured illustration package that’s elegantly efficient and dead simple to use — a combination that should appeal to all digital artists. The biggest drawback for people who already use Illustrator may be Xara X’s rough edges with importing and exporting complex Illustrator files.

 

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Posted on: February 21, 2001

10 Comments on Xara X: A Powerful Draw

  1. …what format does it reliably output in, that can be run through a RIP without it choking, spluttering & giving up? In other words is this really a pro package or a consumer package? If it’s consumer, why are we reading about it on creativepro.com?

  2. A note from the author:

    I had no problem outputting from Xara locally, nor did I didn’t have any
    problems running Xara output through Acrobat Distiller or the resultant PDFs
    through a PostScript RIP on my Epson 3000. However, for obvious reasons, I
    couldn’t test these files at a service bureau. PDF output levels the pro
    playing field–you can turn out professional-looking stuff from Microsoft
    Word that slides right through the typesetter’s RIP if you use PDF output.
    Sending PostScript ouput files directly to service bureaus is almost a thing
    of the past. I haven’t done it in two years. So if your concern is
    compatibility with the service bureau, buy a copy of Acrobat Distiller and
    prepare to be deilighted.

    Because Xara has no color calibration, I would consider this a sermi-pro
    package, that is, it’s fine for just about anything short of precision-match
    four-color work that is to be sent to a service bureau. However, my
    standards are pretty high–I didn’t consider CorelDraw a "Pro" package until
    version 10.

    As for consumer versus pro, the definition varies from person to person. I
    know many sucessful graphic designers who have a limited budget and little
    patience with Illustrator’s learning curve. For them, Xara is an inexpensive
    and easily mastered solution. We covered the product because it’s an elegant
    and cost-effective alternative to CorelDraw, Illustrator, and FreeHand and
    we think people should know that Xara is on the market.

  3. In theory PDF levels the field: ask 20 pre-press pros how they like a PDF from Word and I guarantee 90% will have horror stories to tell all night long. I already own distiller – been in the business 14 years.

    No color management is, IMHO, a SERIOUS factor – I would hesitate to call any program an Illustrator/Freehand replacement/competitor if it cannot produce consistant color output or work with ICC profiles. No PMS? No good. No CMYK seps? No good. Uses RGB space only? It’s a toy IMHO.

  4. There seems to be a bit of confusion on the support that Xara X offers. It DOES have PMS support. It DOES support CMYK sep.

    T

  5. Another short note: Among many other formats, Xara X can export to tif and pdf….formats that should pose no problem for RIPs.

  6. “..Xara X can export to tif and pdf….formats that should pose no problem for RIPs. “
    Assuming it exports CORRECTLY. As the review stated, it didn’t always export to ai files correctly, so why would we assume it can export to PDF or TIF correctly? Just because a programm can export to PDF, that doesn’t mean all of a sudden the file can be printed by any provider: bad PDF=problems.

  7. >No CMYK seps? No good. Uses RGB space only? It’s a toy IMHO.

    I’m always infuriated by people claiming they’re experts only because they can do cmyk and separations and can joyfully ride a phototypesetter costing more than my house. Your eagerness to kill more and more trees and produce more and more junk mail in full color does not make you a real designer, sorry. Paper design is quite foreseeably doomed, at least the color separated variety (b/w book design is another matter).

    As for illustration packages, they must be judged before all by how creative they allow you to be, and by that measure, Xara is surprisingly good. Ah, and if I need to prepare a version for print, I use other programs that can do separations just fine. Xara is a program for designers, for CREATIVE pros, not necessarily for service bureau technicians.

    And besides, there are service bureaus who accept Xara files for print.

  8. If you really want to know how creative XaraX can let you be, just take a look at the forums at TalkGraphics.com.

    Look at the main Xara-X forum, and the Gallery – you will be amazed at the quality of some of the work posted on there.

    XaraX lets you to express your creativity with a freedom that no other application allows. To go back to anything else now would seem outdated and clunky.

  9. …that can’t be done with Ill, FH, Painter. PS… all of which can be output by any SB / commercial printer. Your creativity is useless if it can’t be successfully output to industry standard devices.

  10. > creativity is useless if it can’t be successfully output to industry standard devices.

    What a silly proposition… creativity is the gift of God, while industry standard devices are, you know, just
    industry standard devices. Nothing more. How can you compare?

    If you have some great graphics, no matter in which format, you WILL be able to output it. Period. It’s only a
    technical problem and as such it is solvable by definition. It does not even have to be solved by you –
    there’s technical staff out there who will do the work if you can’t do it yourself. If, however, all you have
    is an “industry standard device” and not a bit of creativity in your head, you’re lost. Nobody will help
    you. It’s as simple as that.

    Adobe Illustrator is a perfect example of creativity being sacrificed to the “industry standard”. They’ve been
    trying hard to keep the program down to what can be saved as pure postscript. And postscript is pretty much
    frozen since 1980s. As a result, up to recently you could not do even simple vector transparency in AI, which
    is outright hilarious. It’s industry standard all right, but what’s its use besides that? I would say it’s
    more properly called the industry’s lowest common denominator.

    BTW I own both Xara and AI. I do all my work in Xara, I run AI only when I need to prepare some files done in
    Xara for print. I think it’s outrageous that the way it is, AI costs times more than Xara – it’s the most
    expensive file format converter that i know of, simply because of its reputation of “industry standard”. Still
    i think Xara+AI is a great package deal if you do some print work, otherwise pure Xara will be your bliss.

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