Xara X

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With its new brush, bevel, shadow and button tools and improved output, Xara X offers a refreshing solution for print and Web design.

When it first appeared back in 1995, Xara made a big impression by offering advanced creative power such as graduated transparencies within a streamlined and efficient interface. At the time it was touted as a serious rival to Corel Draw, an idea Corel promptly squashed by buying into the program. Corel's commitment was never convincing, however, and with the company's recent problems it looked like CorelXARA might have reached the end of the line. Fortunately that's not the case and, back in the hands of its original British developers, Xara X is once again determined to make an impact - and if possible to show up Draw.

What always impressed most about Xara was its sheer speed and this is still a huge strength with Xara X claiming to offer redraw speeds "on average between 5 to 12 times faster than our competitors". It's this rendering speed which enables Xara to offer power-hungry effects, such as anti-aliasing and advanced transparency handling, in real time. In the latest release this has been expanded, with the automatic anti-aliasing of bitmaps as well as vectors and the ability to instantly soften any object with a feathering slider on the main toolbar.

It's not just the underlying engine that creates the impression of speed - the new flat-look interface is also streamlined and efficient. In particular, thanks to the rendering speed, most effects can be handled interactively on the image or via the context-sensitive toolbar rather than requiring menu commands, dialog boxes or semi-detached palettes. With everything happening in real time and an instant undo always at hand, Xara is the most interactive drawing program around, constantly encouraging creative experimentation.

Xara's streamlined engine and interface are the secret of its success.

In such an interactive environment Xara's tools are central and Xara X sees a major revamp of the existing toolset. The Fill tool, for example, now supports multi-stage fills in which you can drag any number of colours onto the fill arrow, while the Transparency tool offers a number of new blend modes such as saturation, brightness, luminosity and hue as well as repeating patterns. All effect tools also now support transition profiling so that with the interactive Blend tool, for example, you can control the rate of change of all intermediate objects.

Much the biggest change though is to the main Freehand drawing tool which is now called the Freehand and Brush tool. The toolbar now offers a drop-down list of brush shapes or pressure profiles that can be draped along the length of a stroke to give more naturalist flowing effects. Much more powerful is the second dropdown list of brush types. These work by repeating shapes along the length of the stroke. Xara offers a range of novelty effects, such as spheres, feet and drawing pins, but much more regularly useful will be the natural media brushes that can produce completely realistic crayon, chalk and even airbrush effects.

Xara X's new brushes are based on draping objects along the stroke path - but look and feel very natural.

The beauty of the strokes is that they remain completely editable. You can instantly change the width or colour of the stroke or even apply a pressure profile as soon as you've drawn it, while you can change the stroke's path with the Shape Editor tool. Alternatively, using the Edit Brush command, you are presented with options for controlling the spacing, transparency, offset, scaling and fill of the stroke - and of course in Xara these update onscreen in real time. Best of all is the ability to create your own brushes and to tie in their scaling and transparency to a pressure-sensitive tablet. Many vector drawing programs now offer natural media brushes, but thanks to Xara's speed it is the one that offers the most naturalistic results and handling.

Xara X hasn't just reworked its existing tools, it also adds four important new options. The first of these is the Contour tool which interactively creates concentric rings within or around shapes and lines and even groups of objects. More regularly useful will be the Bevel tool which creates the illusion of depth by giving an object an apparently raised edge. Again the toolbar offers comprehensive range of options with fifteen different bevel types from chiseled to ruffled and control over size, contrast, light angle and elevation. In most circumstances though you can get the results you want interactively by controlling the bevel width and lighting direction directly on the object.

Xara offers interactive Bevel effects.

This same interactive control is even more impressive with the new Shadow tool. Simply drag on an object and a completely realistic soft and semi-transparent shadow appears and follows the cursor around in real time. Using the toolbar you can fine-tune the blurring and transparency and swap between a surrounding glow effect, or shadows that appear lit from in front or from above. The realism of the shadows is so complete that overlapping shadows darken while a graduated transparency applied to the object also affects its shadow. Suddenly competing packages' drop shadow effects seem horribly crude.

Xara X's shadow effects put rivals to shame.

Xara's bevel and shadow effects are useful in traditional graphic design, but come into their own when it comes to Web design. This is a field that Xara was quick to spot and to exploit as the program's combination of vector-based object handling and real time pixel-based processing is ideal for managing complex page layouts that are eventually destined for output as JPEG and GIF bitmaps. Now it's child's play to quickly add a rectangle, give it a 3D effect and apply a drop shadow to create a Web button.

In fact Xara X offers more than this with its new Button and Nav Bar tool. In particular this recognizes that most buttons aren't created in isolation. By selecting a single button and its text, you can automatically create any number of copies complete with control over direction and spacing. You can then change the text on any button and, if you select the auto-stretch option, all buttons will grow to accommodate their text. What really makes the difference though is that the navigation bar remains live, so that you can quickly add a new button, or change spacing, or reorder your buttons

The new Button tool can produce navigation bars and rollovers.

These days of course Web buttons need to be dynamic for the end user too and the Button and Nav Bar tool also lets you create rollovers with different mouseover, mousedown and selected image states. To format each state you simply format one button, for example using the Bevel or Shadow tools, and then hit the Set New Design command and all buttons are automatically updated.

Unfortunately Xara X doesn't offer an inbuilt preview or even a Preview in Browser option so the only way to see your rollover in action is to use the new Export Images in Slices command which automatically outputs the necessary image files along with the HTML table and JavaScript necessary to rebuild the effect. During the process you can choose image optimization settings in the Export Bitmap dialog. This is still too small and only lets you compare two settings but at least you can now swap between GIF, JPEG and GIF alternatives and for outputting GIFs there is a new Websnap palette option along with the ability to lock or delete individual colours or to make them Web-safe.

Other more advanced Web export options include the ability to batch export elements in an image which is handled through the new ability to name objects and groups of objects. When re-editing an existing table you can also choose to insert the necessary HTML into an existing Web page though this simply adds the new HTML table at the top of the existing page rather than intelligently replacing the existing Xara-created table. Rather more sophisticated control is offered with Dreamweaver, where Xara's support for design notes mean that you can automatically load the associated Xara file whenever you want to update an embedded GIF or JPEG.

Xara also recognizes that while the bitmap-based GIF and JPEG formats currently dominate the Web, the future belongs to more efficient vector formats. In the past Xara promoted its own proprietary WEB format, but with Xara X it has fallen into line with the rest of the industry by supporting Macromedia's Flash SWF format. As SWF files can be imported into Flash this is a good way to set up certain effects such as beveled buttons though unfortunately the most striking Xara effects, such as graduated transparencies and shadows, can only be handled as bitmaps. More disappointing is the fact that Xara's support for SWF doesn't extend to include its new rollover or its existing animation capabilities.

Generally Xara's SWF support is typical of its Web capabilities overall which are impressive without ever being best-of-breed. In particular without features such as an inbuilt preview, style-based formatting and greater control over the final HTML and image output, Xara can't compete with the likes of Fireworks (see page ) for the Web imaging crown. In a way though it's wrong to compare the two. Fireworks is a dedicated Web-production tool while Xara is much more ambitious, a vector drawing tool that is just as happy producing designs for the Web or for commercial print.

That's impressive enough with Xara largely holding its own in the core area of illustration against the likes of FreeHand, Illustrator and Corel Draw - especially when you remember that the program costs just $149. What really sets Xara apart though is its streamlining and speed. This isn't just of value in its own right, it also enables the program to offer a better all-round creative experience and ensures that Xara is as much a breath of fresh air today as it was five years ago.

Xara X is fast, simple, powerful, focused, creative, interactive, enjoyable and good value - and you can't ask for much more than that.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

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System Requirements: 86 or higher, 64Mb of RAM, 20Mb of disk space, VGA, Windows 95, 98, 2000 or NT 4

Tom Arah

January 2001

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