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.
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.
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.