Live image effects, improved bitmap handling, yet more speed and a massive price cut make Xara Xtreme an absolute steal.
Although still relatively unknown in the vector drawing world, Xara has been around for over ten years and has won an enthusiastic band of followers. And for one overriding reason – Xara is incredibly fast. So fast that it leaves rivals such as Illustrator gasping. And with Xara Xtreme this speed has been increased yet again, especially when it comes to blend, contour and group rendering and the basics of resizing, rotation, translation and zooming. This speed isn’t only of theoretical or occasional benefit; it affects the whole working experience. Being able to instantly toggle between zoom levels (up to 25601%), for example, or transforming, and now interactively copying, complex objects and groups in real-time without the onscreen display having to resort to wireframe or boundary boxes is completely liberating. And completely natural. In fact it’s only when you go back to one of the big name packages that you fully appreciate working with Xara.
Xara’s underlying speed is matched by an equally efficient working environment. Key to this is the range of direct action tools with which advanced effects such as bitmap fills, graduated transparency, bevels and shadow effects are applied interactively to objects in real time (even when all effects are combined!). And with Xara Xtreme you can now apply nested transparency to groups of objects, copy shadow effects and ungroup shadowed objects.
Xara’s sheer speed takes vector handling into new creative territory.
Alongside these tools, Xara also offers a range of onscreen palettes, or Galleries, for managing textures, clipart, fonts and so on and these can now be conveniently docked to either side of the screen. It’s a big step forward but it’s been a long time coming and generally Xara Xtreme’s interface still feels dated and slightly amateurish. A cosmetic makeover would do wonders, but don’t be fooled by appearances: in practice, Xara’s streamlined efficiency shines through.
Hands-on vector handling is undoubtedly Xara’s greatest strength, but, with pioneering features such as automatic anti-aliasing, tiled fill support and object feathering, it has also always recognized the unique benefits that bitmap handling brings to creative illustration. In particular Xara’s rendering speed makes it an excellent compositing program for assembling images and layouts that combine both bitmap and vector elements. As such the improved support for 32-bit images with in-built alpha masks is especially welcome - for example these can now be recoloured simply by clicking on Xara Xtreme’s colour bar.
So what else can you do with your bitmaps once they’ve been imported? Direct pixel-based painting and retouching isn’t an option (though apparently it’s in the pipeline), but you can crop and control global brightness, saturation, contrast and sharpness using the integrated Xara Picture Editor (XPE). Using Xtreme’s updated XPE you can also now remove red eye and apply plug-in effects. One sample Xara plug-in, for giving images a 3D bump map effect, is provided to show what the architecture is capable of and more will be made available from the website. Xara also bundles a selection of third-party Photoshop filters that can be used for hue-shifting, image masking and applying a range of special effects such as crumples, mosaics and fur. What stands out in Xara’s implementation is the speed and the fact that edits are non-destructive so that you can always undo changes or apply new ones with no cumulative degradation.
These same benefits are also seen in Xara Xtreme’s most impressive new feature, the Live Effects tool. Using this you can quickly apply any Xara or Photoshop-compatible filter not only to imported bitmaps but to vector elements too. With older filters the vector objects are effectively converted to bitmaps so that to edit the filter or the object you have to remove and then reapply the effect. With modern scriptable filters though you can edit either the objects themselves or the filter settings and the effect automatically updates. As always with Xara the interactive creative power this offers is extraordinary: apply a melt filter to some text and the dripping effect updates as you type!
Live effects can now be applied to both bitmap and vector objects.
Xara Xtreme offers powerful vector and bitmap handling all round with some unique capabilities of its own on top of its sheer speed and creative interactivity. However it still can’t compete with every feature that professional programs such as Illustrator and Photoshop offer nor with their underlying integration and workflow. That’s why Xara Xtreme has reworked its PDF export to support its core graduated fill and transparency effects as true vectors. As well as offering higher quality and smaller file sizes, this means that PDF can now be used as an exchange format enabling your Xara work to be imported into Illustrator for further editing.
Crucially Xara has also more than halved the cost of Xtreme to under £50 – far less than a typical Illustrator add-on. Xara is presenting this as part of a masterplan in which the Xtreme code is both ported to Linux and Mac and opened up to third party development so making Xara Xtreme the natural cross-platform, open source drawing champion. It’s certainly a bold move but it’s clearly one that has been forced on Xara. By all rights, as the fastest, most interactive and in many ways most creative drawing package available, Xara Xtreme should be competing on equal terms with the big US players. However, after suffering against CorelDRAW and Macromedia FreeHand, now it’s Adobe Illustrator that dominates, with Microsoft Expression waiting in the wings.
It might be bad news for Xara but, by enabling such enormous power to be provided at such a ridiculous price (less than half the price of the upgrade to Illustrator!), it has to be good news for end users - I’m tempted to say xtremely good news. But don’t take my word for it. Xara Xtreme 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.
ratings out of 6
System Requirements: Windows 98, Me, 2000, XP
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