Vector graphics shoot-out: Inkscape v CorelDRAW

Vector graphics shoot-out: Inkscape v CorelDRAW

Summary: Vector-based images are the mainstay of digital graphic design. In this two-part article we compare some of the best free and open-source software (FOSS) for creating and manipulating (primarily 2D) vector images with the equivalent proprietary offerings.


In the first of this 'FOSS v proprietary' series we looked at some of the best software for editing and manipulating bitmap images. With digital photography such programs replace the earlier darkroom processes used for film, and the software borrows workflows and terminology from that earlier technology.

With vector graphics, the image is usually created entirely within the software application. In this case the software takes the place of the commercial artist's drafting table and borrows terminology and techniques from that world.

The advantage of vector images are that they scale well and have an efficient memory footprint, although they are also processor-intensive. As a result, highly detailed vector images can take a long time to render and redraw.

Part one of this article looks at the history and background of vector image creation and examines Inkscape, an open-source application, and CorelDRAW, a proprietary program.

Part two (coming in September) looks at Adobe Illustrator and two simpler desktop applications — Microsoft's Visio and LibreOffice Draw. We'll also briefly examine some iPad drawing apps.

The technique of using layers in art goes back a long way. The early masters of oil painting learned how to use several layers of transparent paint applied over an opaque white base to create dazzling effects of light, shade and colour. Later, in commercial art and in animation, a stack of transparent sheets was used to build up a composite image with parts of the image on each layer. This allowed the creation of a number of different versions of, for example, an advertisement, by adding, exchanging and removing layers. Layers could easily be changed without having to recreate the entire image.

Vector editors borrow the older stack-of-transparencies technique, and the use of layers is basic to their operation. Good layer management and manipulation is vital in vector-editing software.

Rulers, guides and dimensions
For many commercial art applications, precise control of position and dimension within digital artwork is essential. Images for web or print pages can be rescaled to a degree, but artwork that relates to physical objects — product labels for example, or control files for CNC machining, or for laser cutting and engraving — must be accurate. The details of the user interface for units, rulers, guides and dimensions, and the control of snapping to guides, is one differentiator between vector graphics editors.

Colour management

dispcalGUI, a GUI front end for Argyll, can be used with a number of commercial colorimeters to calibrate and profile Linux system displays.

Accurate colour management is also vital in commercial art. Reproduced paint and print colours must appear as the designer intends, and remain consistent over a product range and over the products' lifetimes. Graphics software should include the ability to select input and output device profiles and to perform soft-proofing.

Apple is the pioneer in digital colour management, which is very well supported in Mac OS X and in Apple applications. Microsoft has now caught up, and colour management is well supported in its software too. Commercial calibration and profiling products are available for these proprietary operating systems. Colour management is still a little rough around the edges in Linux, but is possible via utilities such as LittleCMS, Argyll and dispcalGUI.

The SVG standard
The family of specifications for Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is significant because it's an open standard that's been in development by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) since 1999. SVG is XML-based and all the current leading browsers have at least some degree of support for it — early versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer did not have native SVG support. SVG is currently at version 1.1 and supports not only vector graphics, but also raster graphics and text objects.

SVG is the native file format for the FOSS vector-editor Inkscape. Inkscape has full compliance with SVG version 1.1 as one of its design aims in order to be able to announce the release of Inkscape version 1.0 (the current version is 0.48). The SVG specification defines sRGB as the reference colour space, and so Inkscape uses sRGB as its working colour space.

The SVG standard does not include layers, but it does include groups and Inkscape layers are simply SVG groups with some extra Inkscape-specific parameters attached. Unfortunately these are not recognised by most other vector editors, but Inkscape layers can be preserved within an SVG file for import into other editors by first explicitly defining each layer as a group. Once imported, these groups can be cut and pasted into fresh layers.

Most vector editing software will display a long list of file types — either standards or native to other applications — that can be opened, saved and supposedly exchanged.

Closely related applications — Adobe's Photoshop and Premiere, for example — can often exchange files without problems, but exchanging files between an open-source application and a proprietary application — between Inkscape and Illustrator, for exmple — is almost always troublesome. Illustrator can save files in SVG but, like Inkscape, it uses a modified format with some Adobe-specific data attached.

In practice the process of exchanging files between one application and another frequently involves workarounds and reconstruction to arrive at a functionally identical copy open in another program.

File exchange, fonts and text

GNOME Font Manager (top) and the font information box (bottom).

One obvious, but not insurmountable, problem is with text. Although the font files on a Windows system won't correspond with the font files on a Linux system, Windows TrueType font files can be copied to a Linux system and installed and managed using a utility like GNOME Font Manager or Fontmatrix. In Ubuntu, opening the Nautilus file manager and double-left-clicking on a font file will open the GNOME font viewer, which includes an install button. (Font copyrights should, of course, be observed.)

To ensure that an image displays with the correct fonts — no matter which system it is displayed on — it's helpful to make a note of the fonts used and to keep a backup of font files so they can be added to a system if required. The MyFonts website can be used to attempt to identify a font by uploading a bit map image. This functionality is built into CorelDRAW via the menu option Text / WhatTheFont?!.

Font dependencies can be removed by converting text to 'outline' — for example in Inkscape using the Path / Object to path menu choice, or similarly to 'curves' in CorelDraw using Layout / Convert to curves. However, once this is done it can no longer be edited as text.

When sending a completed piece of artwork off for further processing (for example to a commercial press printer), all layering and dependencies should be removed to produce as simple a file as possible in the required format.

Topics: Open Source, Apps, Reviews, Software

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  • Vector graphics software: FOSS v proprietary (Part 1)

    Nice article, thanks for the information.
    Anna @ sewa mobil jakarta
  • Compare Ecosystems, Not Individual Products

    I think Free Software apps work best in combination rather than isolation. Take the combination of Gimp, Inkscape and Blender, and try and come up with whatever selection of proprietary software you like to compare to that, even assuming you could afford it. Add in extras like Python scripting with all the add-on libraries that makes available, data interchange in standard formats, native 64-bit execution, and you leave the proprietary options looking pretty weak indeed.
    • I agree - for the commercial side it's quite easy as well..

      If you want to look at ecosystems, you can compare the FOSS systems that Ido17 mentions with Adobe's Creative Suite (gives you an idea the interoperability between Photoshop, Illustrator, and the Web or Desktop publishing software in the suite), as well as a product like QuarkXpress, or some video editing applications.

      I believe Corel also has CorelDraw and PhotoPaint interoperability as well.
  • These "All-in" comparisons are doomed to fail.

    I notice that we're seeing more comparisons between software that is only somewhat related. Last week it was VirtualBox being lumped in with VMware ESXi, XenServer and Hyper-V, and now you've mentioned that you are throwing MS Visio into the ring with Illustrator, LibreOffice Draw, CorelDraw and InkScape.

    Can I suggest - this isn't going to be of much value to people looking to actually compare these products - most notably Visio. A person designing logos or product packaging is not going to use a program such as Visio, and a person building a network diagram or trying to map the data flow of an ERP isn't going to use CorelDraw or illustrator.

    The workflow in these applications are far too different, the customer is different, and the skillsets required are different. You just *CAN'T* compare these. At all.
    • Yeah, I agree...

      Visio seems like "one of these things is not like the other."
  • Nice update five years later

    I was a longtime CorelDraw (v2 through 13!) user but made a decision to switch to Inkscape maybe 5-6 years ago. I simply got tired of the never ending upgrade-bloat cycle of proprietary software, and since I use a lot of software on a number of different computers, the constant upgrading and licensing hassles with Photoshop, Illustrator, Corel, etc. really got to be a bother (and expensive.) I still keep an old v. of Corel on an old Win machine just in case I need to open an old CDR file. Thankfully haven't had to do that in a couple years though.

    Once I got into Gimp and Inkscape I'm really sold. And I can easily keep all my machines up to date with the latest versions and no license keys to enter. On the proprietaries you are generally limited to two machines per license.

    Inkscape I particularly love. I've designed everything from production product packaging to web graphics to print advertising to architectural illustrations and product concepts. It's so fast and light and it hasn't grown overcomplicated over the years. The proprietaries just get so complicated and bloated trying to add features to make you want to upgrade. Don't really need em. Yes there are some nicer features that save you time once in a while, yet for quickly putting a design together, a nice clean fast interface wins to me.

    The one thing I miss about CorelDraw is the multipage ability - it's also a DTP program, in effect. (And what made it so much better than Illustrator. Inkscape unfortunately follows the Illustrator 'one canvas' model.) Now I go to Scribus or OpenOffice when I need a multipage document. For instance, a 100 page book with lots of text and pictures - Scribus. For me the workflow is Gimp photos, MyPaint for hand illustrations with the graphics tablet, Inkscape for fancy vector/bitmap graphics, Scribus puts it all together when necessary. And yeah Blender for some 3D as well. And it all works on Ubuntu and Windows as well. Putting the time in to transition to nearly all open source has really paid off for me.

    I only wish more of this stuff were compiled for Android tablets! Galaxy Note 10.1 with stylus? now that would be sweet with the full FOSS graphics array.
    • So glad the GIMP allowed us to have a unified window.

      One thing I will say about the GIMP, however: I'm sooooo glad the GIMP has finally allowed us to have a unified window. That was one thing that needed to be changed. The whole idea of "everything is a series of floating windows" was a sacred cow that needed to be shot. It never worked well.
      • Most annoying in Linux

        In Linux, I had set inactive windows to darken & gray out(I like it to be obvious which window is active), which made Gimp's multiple windows harder to use. I look forward to installing Linux again sometime & having Gimp cooperate with my window settings.
        I'm still fairly tied to Windows, and I'm too low on disk space for another OS, but I'm getting pretty close to only using programs that also have a Linux version. My next computer will be dual-boot, for sure.
        Garrett Williams
    • So glad the GIMP allowed us to have a unified window.

      One thing I will say about the GIMP, however: I'm sooooo glad the GIMP has finally allowed us to have a unified window. That was one thing that needed to be changed. The whole idea of "everything is a series of floating windows" was a sacred cow that needed to be shot. It never worked well.
    • Gimp and Inkscape on iPad or Android with the AlwaysOnPC app

      You'll be happy to hear that you can now use Gimp and Inkscape on any iPad or Android device, thanks to the AlwaysOnPC app? It also includes dropbox access. Check the iTunes store for alwaysonpc, or visit
  • thoughts

    "Some of the filters are extremely processor-intensive and can slow zooming, or moving a drawing object, down to crawl."

    Yeah - I think Inkscape needs to rewrite the filters. I know from experience that there are several ways to write filters, and if you do it the wrong way it won't really matter how you write it.

    I once rewrote an AOI blur filter to have O(m*n) performance (where m is the size of the image and n is the size of the kernel) when it previously had O(m^2*n^2) performance, leading to an incredibly faster filter with no artifacts or side effects.

    So yeah - I'm hoping that Inkscape is doing it right. Although from my experience, they're probably not :(.

    "In Inkscape the soft-proofing colour-managed display can be enabled and disabled by mouse-toggling the colour space symbol at the bottom right intersection of the scroll bars."

    Sigh. Well, there's -1 for usability. A little tiny icon in an odd place is actually functional, not a decoration. I think 99% of Inkscape users (including myself) never knew that.

    "However, print publication is less important these days than it was, . . ."

    Although it should be noted that any product with a label of any sort is created with this sort of software. And yes, a lot of people still buy stuff in print. I still see magazine sections in stores, so they're likely still selling them.

    Personally, I'm not a graphic artist, so I only occasionally dabble in this kind of stuff. Thus, I use Inkscape, as it's free and does what I need. And it's actually quite capable - not a shabby program. It's not Illustrator, but I have no major complaints.
    • AOI = 3D

      Oh, and if anybody was wondering (NEED EDIT AGAIN ZDNET), AOI = Art Of Illusion, an open source 3D program, and you can add post-processing filters to the camera. I don't think my changes ever made it in, though, as I made them via a plugin rather than as a direct source code edit.
  • Not a very good explanation...

    of the differences between, and the advantages/disadvantages of, vector ("draw") and bitmap/raster ("paint") software. But what does one expect these days? That a writer actually understands what they're writing about, and can explain it well?
    • What Are You Talking About?

      The differences between raster and vector graphics are not covered in the article. It is assumed that you are looking at the article because you are interested in vector graphics, and you already know what that means. It's not as though there were a bad explanation of the difference between raster and vector in the article. There's no explanation at all. That subject is just outside its scope.
  • Gimp and Inkscape on iPad or Android with the AlwaysOnPC app

    You'll be happy to hear that you can now use Gimp and Inkscape on any iPad or Android device, thanks to the AlwaysOnPC app? It also includes dropbox access. Check the iTunes store for alwaysonpc, or visit
  • ....

    This is utter crap. Also, how is this vector? And, photoshop? I mean, who uses Corel anything anymore?
    • These Are Vector Graphics Programs

      Most modern vector grapics programs allow at least some raster graphics editing as well, but these are definitely vector graphics programs. Also, CorelDraw is still a well respected vector graphics program. PhotoPaint was never big, but CorelDraw is still used by quite a few people, and it has some advantages over Illustrator. Corel made a few business missteps a few years back which hurt them more than their product lineup ever did.
  • Hi

    You'll be happy to hear that you can now use Gimp and Inkscape on any iPad or Android device, thanks to the AlwaysOnPC app? It also includes dropbox access.
  • wireless audio android

    You organize the article very well and your writing ability is really wonderful.As an English learner, this post is a little too difficult for me to understand

    wireless audio android
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 2, Real "graphics" computers within a tablet!

    Now we can install all our traditional graphics software on a "real" computer, the size and shape of a tablet and use a stylus just like a tablet. These are not the toy tablets for consumption, of the last years. The Surface Pro 2 with its i5 Intel Haswell processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, and wacom digitizer screen (1080p) is a production computer that's portable. I'll be installing my "2nd" licenses of CorelDRAW, Office, AutoCAD, and Revit on mine. It will sync with our Office 365 Pro accounts (Exchange, Sharepoint, Skydrive) and of course DropBox.

    It would be good to get an update on the compared usability of the various graphic software (vs. Apps) on these powerful new computer tablets.

    Should be exciting.