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Xara X

  • Editors' rating
    7.8 Very good

Pros

  • Extremely fast renderings and redraws
  • real-time ‘hands-on’ modifications
  • automatic anti-aliasing for cleaner on-screen images
  • improved Web page design support
  • small size and low price.

Cons

  • Several vague help topics
  • difficult interface for newcomers
  • no spelling checker or thesaurus.

Xara X, a substantial upgrade to CorelXara, makes it easier than ever for experienced designers to create impressive illustrations for desktop publishing, professional printing or the Web. For one thing, Xara's familiar interface and speedy rendering can save learning and drawing time. And at less than £100 (ex. VAT), Xara X won't break your bank -- dedicated illustration applications, such as Adobe’s Illustrator, can cost hundreds more. For newcomers, Xara X takes some getting used to. Still, Xara X is a fine choice for those who dabble in both print and Web graphics. If money is no object, Adobe’s LiveMotion is a more sophisticated choice for serious artists who deal with Flash animation.

Xara X costs the same for a boxed CD or a 6.46MB download (alternatively, you can download the 30-day trial version). Installation takes mere minutes, and doesn't require a restart.

Like most illustration packages, Xara X's work window takes up the middle of your screen. A horizontal command menu perches across the top, a vertical toolbar sits on the left, and a colour selection palette lies across the bottom. To start your project, you first select the type of document you want to create -- either an animation or a vector drawing – and then build your design by drawing or importing objects and images.

Xara X's interface feels cleaner than those of other illustration programs, such as Adobe’s Illustrator. To minimise on-screen clutter, Xara doesn't display its palettes or toolbars by default. Instead, you must click one of the left-hand buttons (including Text, Color, Texture and Size) to activate the palettes.

Xara X also introduces several useful features, including JavaScript rollover buttons, automatic anti-aliasing to help smooth the screen appearance of curved object edges, and easy integration with Macromedia's popular Web authoring application Dreamweaver. You can now create an image in Xara X, export it to Dreamweaver, and continue to edit that image at any time in the future. Note: this interoperability only applies to Dreamweaver 3.0 and above.

The program also gives you access to a wide range of prefabricated objects, including thousands of clip-art images and photographs -- some of extremely high quality -- and scores of decorative and conservative fonts.

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Applying fills, such as colours and textures, doesn't take much time at all, since you can simply drag and drop them onto your image. As you do so, Xara renders the effects on the object itself, and Xara's fast rendering engine means that this process can take seconds rather than minutes. Bear in mind, though, that we ran these tests on a Pentium 4 PC equipped with a GeForce4 Ti 4600 graphics card, so slower PCs might experience longer waits.

With Xara X, adding and manipulating text is easy, and the text remains editable indefinitely – it took Photoshop years to add this function. However, handling text is not this program's strongest suit. Keep a dictionary handy, as you won't find an integrated spelling checker or thesaurus. And there's no way to wrap text around the boundaries of a complex object for, say, creating an intricate company logo. However, you can kern (respace) text to follow the path of simple curves.

Experienced designers should have little trouble working within this no-nonsense environment; it looks and operates like most other illustration tools. If you're new to design software, however, you may find yourself at a loss. The workspace gives you some good hints: any time you mouse over a tool icon, pop-up hints appear. And if you click a tool such as the Bezier pen, a context-sensitive toolbar appears at the top of the screen. But, overall, Xara X doesn't hold your hand.

By default, the program saves your finished work files in its native XAR format, but Xara X also supports common multipurpose graphic formats such as GIF, JPEG, BMP and PNG, in addition to specific formats, such as AI (Adobe Illustrator), CMX (CorelDraw) and SWF (Macromedia Flash). We had no problems exporting in any format. Xara also lets you ‘slice’ your images into sections to reduce the size and complexity for easier online management and downloads.

Considering its functionality and versatility, Xara X runs a tight ship. At less than 20MB, it takes up a fraction of the space demanded by Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw. The program is fast, too; we experienced no frustrating delays or rendering pauses, even when creating complex blends or manipulating busy images.

Since Xara X can be baffling to newcomers, newcomers should start by visiting the help files. Even then, you may come away with more questions than answers: many of the written instructions desperately need updates, illustrations and examples. To Xara's credit, an included CD contains an informative introductory movie and smaller instructional videos that offer some much-needed guidance.

Xara X features a wide range of online customer support options, including illustrated tutorials, forums, FAQs, and links to several user-created sites. To reach a live technician, send your question via Xara's technical support form. We submitted a query at the developer's Web site and received a workable solution within 48 hours. You won't find any free phone support here, unfortunately.

Xara X delivers many of the amenities of high-end graphics packages at a fraction of the cost. You'll start out slowly, but Xara X is wonderfully efficient and very fast once you get the hang of it. Whether you're into graphics design, be it for hard-copy printing or Web applications, you'll find much to like in Xara X.