Xara X1

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The new feature list is short but, crucially, unrivalled handling of imported bitmaps is now added to Xara X1’s existing unrivalled vector handling.

Xara is billing the launch of Xara X1 as “a new choice for vector graphics” and after a gap of well over 3 years since the launch of Xara X it will undoubtedly be a new name to many users. The slogan is misleading however as Xara actually has a long and distinguished pedigree stretching right back to the launch of Xara Studio way back in 1995 (incidentally my first ever graphics review).

The program certainly isn’t new then but it’s still a breath of fresh air compared to the three main vector drawing applications – Illustrator, CorelDRAW and FreeHand. What makes the program stand out (apart from its budget price) boils down to one thing above all else – speed. The program’s underlying engine has been hand-tuned from the ground-up in assembly language to ensure the fastest performance available. And by a large margin.

So what does this speed mean in practice to you as the end user? To begin with it means that Xara X has always been ahead of the curve in terms of the core functionality it has been able to offer and in particular the way it manages to mix features more usually associated with bitmaps such as on-screen anti-aliasing, feathering, graduated transparencies, brilliant bitmap fill handling and drop shadows. The outcome is smoother, higher quality and more realistic (or artistic) end results than you would usually associate with vectors (though it’s worth remembering that this means that you’re often better saving out to a fixed size bitmap rather than to a scalable vector format).

XaraX1’s speed enables it to produce more realistic and artistic drawings that are more like bitmaps.

It’s not just the end results – the whole creative process benefits from Xara X’s amazing speed. Most importantly, there’s no delay while you wait until you see how a particular effect looks as almost all effects – transparency, blend, colour, shadows, bevels and so on – are handled in real time. Drag with the eyedropper tool anywhere on the existing image, for example, and the colour of your selected object continuously updates in real time in situ! And Xara X makes the absolute most of this speed with its streamlined interface and in particular its reliance on direct action tools that enable you to make adjustments directly on the drawing – for example creating gradients directly on an object’s fill arrow – rather than depending on the complexities of onscreen palettes or command dialogs.

Xara X’s existing graphics engine is superb then, so what does this new release add? Well to begin with, it adds yet more speed with some effects 20% faster and some more than 100% faster. In particular the program now offers live “solid” repositioning, rotating and resizing where most rival applications only offer outlines or a bounding box. Trace a photo for example and even though the result involves thousands of separate objects you can resize it in real-time just like you would the bitmap. In a way it’s so natural that you don’t really notice it – until you move back to a traditional drawing application that is.

Apart from the extra speed the major new feature that Xara is trumpeting in this latest release is the improvement in the handling of imported bitmaps. This was already pretty impressive with support for interactive transparency, feathering, enveloping and so on, but X1 now integrates a dedicated Picture Editor. So what does this offer? Disappointingly the answer at first sight is: very little. Basically you can crop your image, change its brightness, saturation and contrast and sharpen or blur it. And that’s it. There are no other in-built filters (though third-party filter support is promised in the near future as a free upgrade) and no local pixel editing ie no painting or retouching. It’s a huge disappointment especially compared to competitors such as Macromedia Fireworks and Mediachance RealDRAW Pro which let you paint on your artwork as easily as you draw.

The new in-built Picture Editor is handy but very limited.

But don’t write Xara X1’s bitmap handling off quite yet. It has two features that make it unique and very exciting. First, it’s important to understand that all changes are non-destructive – in other words at any point you can decide to go back and undo your crops or changes to brightness, sharpness and so on and the quality of the image is not compromised. For the moment this isn’t exactly thrilling as the Picture Editor’s functionality is so limited but when the promised third-party filter support is added the creative options will explode and Xara X1’s “infinite undo” will really come into its own. I for one can’t wait.

The second major breakthrough that X1 introduces is the fact that images are embedded in their native format – most usefully JPEG (for the record all edits are stored as XML data which is then reapplied to the embedded image on opening almost instantly thanks to Xara’s speed). In a program like Illustrator by comparison each bitmap is stored uncompressed so that a typical digital camera image, which might eat up 2MB as a JPEG, will eat up >20MB. Most importantly, every time you copy the image within Illustrator this will add another 20MB making saving and processing increasingly longwinded and eventually unmanageable. Within Xara X1 however the unique “zero-memory footprint” approach means that each new copy and edited copy requires no additional memory or file space. The end result is that Xara X1 becomes the ideal platform for creating compositions that mix native vectors and imported bitmaps – or at least it should do when the Picture Editor’s promised extra functionality and third-party support becomes available.

Xara X1 is unrivalled when it comes to mixing vectors and imported bitmaps within the same composition.

So much for the new bitmap handling – what else is new? Minor interface tweaks include an improved colour picker, thumbnail support for XAR files in the Open and Save dialogs and the ability to download new demos and tutorials from the Xara site as these are added. Otherwise the emphasis is on professional output with a support for bitmap export sizes up to 16,000 pixels wide or high and the ability to output multi-layered images to separate PNG files with transparency (though support for layered PSD format would be much more welcome). The CMYK handling necessary for professional print has also been revamped with the ability to preview the individual cyan, yellow, magenta and black plates onscreen and export support for CMYK TIFF.

Frankly it’s a bit disappointing especially compared to the explosion of functionality seen in Xara X – artistic brushes, bevels, shadows, web functionality, Flash support and so on. In fact you’d be forgiven for thinking that Xara must have virtually given up developing its flagship Xara X program for the last three years while it concentrated on developing its various - and presumably more lucrative - web-based programs and utilities and then spotted that the standalone Picture Editor utility it was developing could be retrofitted to Xara X to make the ideal partner.

This certainly isn’t a major release then – it’s down as version 1.1 in the About dialog - and I hope that Xara pulls out its collective finger and gets down to some serious developing for a Xara X2 in the near future. Having said that the fact that, after three and a half years, the program still more than holds its own for interactive creativity shows the amazing strength of the program’s underlying vector engine and X1 deserves recognition for extending the same principles to imported bitmaps. When you bear in mind that the $149 price for the full program is cheaper than the upgrade price to the latest Illustrator, FreeHand or CorelDRAW, Xara X1 has to be high on your purchase list.

But don’t take my word for it. Xara X1 is one of those programs that you can only fully appreciate when you see it in action, so why not download the free trial and take it for a creative workout yourself.

Tom Arah

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

System Requirements: Pentium or higher, 64Mb of RAM, 20Mb of disk space, VGA, Windows 98, Me, 2000 or XP

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Tom Arah

July 2004

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