Xara X1

by Joe Gillespie — Jul 1, 2004

When I first saw Xara several years ago, I was very impressed. It was a fast and easy to use vector drawing program for Windows that put all the bigger, established programs to shame. Not only was the program itself a delight, it came with a comprehensive library of clip art and fonts. Clip art has a tendency to be cheap and cheerful, and looks it, but the Xara clip art was in a class of its own and had a very useful full colour reference book to help find the images. All these goodies, and the whole package cost considerably less than the competition.

Things then took a turn for the worse. Xara, the program, not the company, was taken over by Corel whose CorelDRAW was then looking slow and expensive by comparison – and, and, and ... nothing! Corel Xara seem to have been slipped into a bottom drawer and left to wither. I wonder why?

A couple of years down the line, the original developers in England managed to retrieve the program back from Corel and relaunched it as Xara X. By then, CorelDRAW, Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia Freehand had moved on apace and Xara's outstanding advantages weren't what they were.

Xara X has just been introduced with a slightly modified name – Xara X1. It retains all the advantages of the earlier versions but adds some compelling new features – and it's even faster.

Unlike many other Windows programs, it does not assault the senses with a mass of buttons and menus. The interface is clean and workmanlike with almost every tool immediately at hand. A toolbar down the left hand side provides all the basic drawing and manipulation functions and a contextual control bar along the top changes to provide options for each selected tool. Along the bottom of the window is a scrolling colour palette that can be modified with the Color Editor.

One of the features I really love is the drawing quality slider. Moved fully to the right, it gives a quality of anti-aliasing that really has to be seen to believed. Moved over to the left, you get a basic outline view. In between, you get intermediate qualities. This may at first seem strange because the highest quality is so fast anyway. It's not until you produce really complex drawings that lower qualities begin to make sense. It's not so much a speed issue, more to do with being able to identify and select elements.

The simplicity, and usability, of the interface is an object lesson for other program writers but there is another area where Xara X1 really excels – help and tutorials. The CD is crammed with movies that cover just about every aspect of learning the program and are much preferable to a stuffy book. From the basic introduction to the many 'how to' examples, you feel right at home.

A status bar at the bottom of the window constantly reminds you of what is happening and what options you might want to consider. As I was running through some of the tutorials, a dialog box came up telling me that new tutorials were ready to download via the Web. Fantastic!

If you find that learning other drawing programs is intimidating, you really should check this one out.

The most significant new features in the new release are CMYK support, including on-screen plate previews, and an integrated bitmap editor called the Xara Picture Editor. This isn't a fully fledged painting program but a way to manipulate photos and scans for inclusion into a vector drawing. You can rotate, crop, sharpen and blur pictures and give them multi-level transparency. The program works with an alias of the original image file, so it's non destructive, but the amazing thing is the speed. An image of 20 megabytes, or more, seems like it was only a few kilobytes and the files can be saved in the blink of an eye – not an hourglass in sight! Why don't all programs work like this?

If you want to convert a bitmap into a vector image, the bitmap tracer makes short work of it and can be made to produce some very interesting 'painterly' effects too.

Output file formats are plentiful. Along with its own .XAR format, Xara X1 will export all the popular Web and print vector and bitmap formats including .SWF (Flash), .EPS, .AI(Illustrator), .WMF, .PNG, JPG, GIF etc. The only one missing of any significance is .PDF.

Gripes. It is very difficult to find fault with Xara X1 but my main complaint is that it is not available for Mac. That aside, my only minor niggle is with the scrolling colour palette. Tidy as it is, I would prefer my color swatches to be static and a bit bigger. An option to 'float' the colour palette would be nice. There is a floating Color Gallery palette, but it scrolls too and makes choosing relative colours more difficult than need be.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. The exquisite samples of work on the CD and on the Xara Web site show the true capabilities of the program for producing top quality artwork. Admittedly, these were done by very talented artists and no program alone can make you into one of those. They are, however, testament to the fact that the program has virtually no bounds and will do everything you need it to do now and for the foreseeable future.

The 15 day free trial can't include all the extras you get on the CD version, but should be enough to convince you to buy it.

Xara X 1
Features red bar95%
Ease of Use yellow bar90%
Value for Money green bar95%
'Must Have' Factor blue bar95%
Manufacturer Xara.com
Price From $179 (CD). Upgrades from $29 – Windows only
Summary Outstanding vector graphics program for print or Web.
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