Corel Xara 1

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Reviewed as Xara Studio

A ground breaking graphics package that goes a long way towards  bridging the gap between drawing and painting on the computer. Better  suited for realistic illustration than typographic design.

Corel Xara 1

Although to the traditional artist the difference between drawing and painting is little more than the choice of picking up a pen or brush, on the computer it has always represented a yawning divide. The division lies at the very heart of the two imaging processes with paint programs building up their bitmapped pictures pixel by pixel while drawing packages build up their vector graphics shape by shape. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. For the drawing package the benefits are based around far greater control and precision, while the drawbacks centre on the comparatively unnatural end results.

Recently though these basic distinctions between drawing and painting on the computer have begun to blur. Bitmap editing programs like PhotoShop and Picture Publisher have been taking ideas such as objects and layers that were previously only associated with draw programs and making them their own. Now it seems that it the turn of the drawing programs to try and bridge the gap from their side. That is certainly the intention of British company Xara with their brand new illustration program Studio. With no history in the design field they obviously have a huge amount of ground to catch up on existing market leaders, but equally they also have the opportunity to come in completely fresh and to offer what they call "the new generation of graphics software."

Installation is a slightly strange affair involving both CD and floppy, but apart from that straightforward on machines running either Windows 3.1 or 95. After the initial - and completely irrational - disappointment that Studio was only going to need 8Mb of hard disk space, first impressions were very positive. Rather than bundling extra programs of dubious benefit, Xara have concentrated on the one job in hand. As a result there is plenty of room on the CD for fonts, clip art and textures. Even better are the online demonstrations and tutorials to walk you through the various design processes; the best introduction to any program I've yet come across.

Studio might be the next generation of graphics package but this obviously doesn't apply to its interface. This is similar to just about every current drawing package with a toolbar down the left of the screen and a Control bar below the menu bar for controlling file management, zoom and so on. Xara have learnt from the confusion found in many other packages and rather than resorting to separate roll-ups when needed to manage such features as scaling, placement or typeface they have a single Infobar with controls changing according to the currently selected tool. This general clean screen policy is a big step forward though it is rather spoilt by the six Galleries. These are persistent on-screen dialogs which are just about fine for choosing clip art or textures but become very awkward when used for controlling line attributes or colours.

Multiple images can be opened simultaneously which is just as well as each file is limited to a single page. Even with many files open simultaneously, performance remains excellent with very snappy response even on extremely complex images. Xara rightly makes much of the fact that it can redraw the famous Corel Draw! snowbarn image in less than a quarter of the time needed by Corel itself (see the "How Studio Compares" panel). What really sets Studio apart however is the quality of its display. Even on a basic 256 colour screen illustrations look excellent thanks partly to Xara's optimised dithering, but mainly to the in-built anti-aliasing. This is the process whereby the edges of lines are automatically smoothed by calculating intermediate colours and so avoiding that typical jaggy, computerised look.

Studio has all the usual tools for adding  simple objects that one would expect in a drawing package. There are no  less than three tools for drawing lines - the Freehand tool, the Shape  editor tool and the Pen tool - though I tended to stick with the first  which also offers the nice trick of editing existing lines and shapes by  simply redrawing the section you want to replace. Rectangles and ellipses  are added with their own tools, while regular polygons and stars are added  with the QuickShape tool. This also allows the creation of an infinite  number of flower and pastry-cutter type shapes as dragging with it on one  side of a star automatically deforms all edges symmetrically. Much easier  to do than describe, this is not only very useful but also extremely  enjoyable.

For those with less creative ability there is always the option to import existing images and Studio comes with thousands of ready to use images. These are imported into a drawing by dragging and dropping from the Clip Art gallery. There is a drawback however in that much of the clip art is of too high a standard to be very practical. For most users a simple no smoking symbol is more likely to be useful than a photorealistic drawing of a parrot. In Studio the clip art tends to be more inspirational than functional and reinforces the idea that Studio is very much a tool for those wanting to create serious illustrations. If you are a business user wanting to quickly knock up a diagram by bolting together existing objects, you would almost certainly be better off looking elsewhere.

At first sight Studio's typographic controls seem strong enough with the inclusion of over 800 fonts that are then available to all Windows applications. Inexplicably Studio cannot access ATM postscript fonts which are still the design standard, an omission which will automatically rule it out of contention for many graphics professionals. For TrueType fonts all the usual options for changing typeface, point size, leading, kerning and tracking are available. In addition there are more advanced options like stretching and squashing, and some features that are unique such as the ability to fit multiple lines of text to a curve.

Unfortunately though the handling of text blocks is more or less non-existent with no way of controlling text flow or word-wrap, let alone the ability to justify a paragraph. The manual says that large blocks of text are best handled by a wordprocessor or desktop publishing package which is undeniably true of even the best drawing package, but that isn't really the point. Although I wouldn't want to have to produce a newsletter or even a text heavy leaflet in a drawing program, I want to feel that the capability to produce more than a couple of lines at a time is there if needed. Studio's text handling is by far its weakest point and is a major restriction to the usefulness of the package.

Once all the basic elements including any text have been added to a drawing, Studio has all the usual options for object handling. Objects can be moved by dragging with the mouse, scaled by dragging on a corner handle and rotated by dragging on a rotation handle; all processes that can be controlled precisely with the Infobar. Objects can be easily copied and multiple objects can be grouped together, aligned or evenly distributed. There are various options for combining elements, either to merge them into one or to create various intermediate shapes. In addition there are several more advanced controls for creating special effects, most notably blending, enveloping and applying perspective.

Once the objects have been added and edited they are ready for formatting. The line weight can be altered directly with the Control bar, but different line styles such as dashed patterns and arrow heads have to be selected from an awkward on-screen gallery and then dragged onto the selected object. There is also a Colour gallery from which an outline colour can be dragged and dropped, but thankfully this will not normally be necessary as it is much simpler to select from the Colour Line running along the bottom of the screen.

The Colour Line is also used for selecting basic, single colour fills which can then be fine tuned with the Colour Editor. Four colour models are available including RGB and CMYK but there are no colour matching models. The lack of the industry-standard Pantone support in particular is a major oversight that again rules Studio out for whole areas of design work, for example in the creation of corporate logos. One major innovation is the introduction of colour styles. This allows, for example, a photorealistic picture of a car to be built up with complex blends and shading all based on a single colour style. By editing this one style the whole tonal range of the image can be updated so that it would be possible to see the car in all its different colour finishes.

Such features make it clear that Studio is concentrating its strengths on the production of realistic illustrations rather than on the mass of non-naturalistic design work. This is an impression reinforced by Studio's controls for graduated fills which again are excellent for producing life-like shading and colouring effects. Linear, circular, elliptical or conical graduated fills can all be added by dragging over an object with the Fill tool. This creates a Fill arrow indicating the end colours, direction and extent of the effect, all of which can be changed at any time in the future. One slight worry is that the process is if anything too interactive, with no precise control over settings.

It is with its patterned fills that Studio  really begins to deliver on its promise as the new generation of graphics  software. In the past in most drawing package, fills have been a very  unnatural affair. Selecting "brick" for example would fill an object with  numerous hollow rectangles; the intention would be clear, but it was  hardly convincing. With Studio any bitmap can be used as a fill,  interactively re-sized, rotated, skewed and seamlessly tiled to create  some astonishingly realistic and eye-catching effects. Included on the CD  are over 200 high quality bitmap textures so at last it is possible to  draw walls that actually look like they are made of brick and fences that  look like they are made of wood (see Texture and Transparency side panel).  It might not sound that revolutionary, but it means that at last the  opportunity exists for a drawing program to create illustrations as  realistic as those produced with paint programs.

Having seen the way Studio handles bitmaps as texture fills, it comes as no surprise to find that its controls over bitmaps as objects are just as good. Images cannot be created or edited on a pixel level, but they can be imported in most of the existing standard formats including TIFF and PCX. Brightness, contrast and colour can then be adjusted and a range of more advanced effects such as sharpen, blur and edge detect can be applied. More importantly, once the bitmaps are imported they can be treated just like any other object. For example it is possible to cut out a section of an image, an eye from a scanned in face for example, and to then stretch, rotate and skew it until it fits in over the eye in a computer-drawn face and to then change the colours and contrast until the two images effectively merge. Studio's controls over bitmaps are so good that it even makes sense to use the program simply as a post-processing program for composing and controlling images produced in other dedicated paint programs such as PhotoShop.

The final trick that Studio has up its sleeve is its unique control over transparency. For most drawing packages it almost seems inevitable that fills must be solid with objects higher in the stacking order obscuring those below. Slowly things have been changing with some programs offering special lens effects to bolt on a type of transparency control. With Studio this is no longer the case with even complex graduated transparencies as simple to apply as graduated fills (see Texture and Transparency side panel). No doubt the new capability will lead to many design excesses, but when you realise how important shading and glass effects are in making an illustration realistic you will understand what a breakthrough this represents.

No matter how excellent and life-like an image looks on-screen within Studio, it is of no real use until it has been output either to paper or to a file. Unfortunately this is not necessarily as straight forward as might be hoped. Admittedly print quality is excellent thanks to the built-in anti-aliasing and dithering, but the controls offered over the printing process are derisory. In particular the omission of scaling, crop marks or colour separation effectively rules out Studio for outputting finished professional work.

This wouldn't be such a problem if it was easy to create a file that could be imported into another program with better print management. Unfortunately this is not as easy as it might sound as the qualities that set Studio apart - its control of bitmaps, texture fills and transparency - are all features that are unsupported by existing vector formats. In the future full OLE implementation should overcome this problem, but for the time being the only real option is to export to a bitmap format such as TIFF. In the past this would have rightly been seen as a massive backward step, throwing away the precision gained from using a drawing package in the first place. With Studio it just serves to demonstrate what a different sort of program it is. Studio combines the best of both vector and bitmap approaches and, as with any application breaking new ground, compatibility inevitably suffers.

Of course, as in any first version, there are still many weaknesses that need to be addressed. The need for better handling of text and printing and support for Pantone colour matching and Postscript fonts are only the most urgent items on the wish list for version 2. Having said that, and recognising that Studio is not the answer to all graphics needs, it is still an excellent product and a very useful tool for any serious designer. At 199 (or 99 for a competitive upgrade) and remembering all the fonts, textures and clip art images that come included in the price, there is no doubt that Xara deserve considerable success. They have seen the gap that currently exists between paint and draw programs, realised that it represents a gap in the market and with Studio they have gone a long way towards filling it.


How Studio Compares Panel

The obvious point of comparison for any new PC-based drawing package is inevitably the market leader, the ubiquitous Corel Draw! currently nearing its sixth release. It is a comparison Xara positively encourage as they know that, for Studio to be a success, a considerable proportion of existing Draw! users are going to have to be tempted to defect. As part of this recruitment drive, integral to Studio is the ability to open existing Corel files directly in their native *.CDR format. Not only that, more than one Corel file can be opened simultaneously, the performance is far faster than in Draw! and the on-screen and print quality are improved thanks to the in-built anti-aliasing and optimised dithering.

When the superior controls over texture fills, bitmap images and the unique ability for controlling graduated transparency are also taken into account, you begin to see why Xara are happy to be judged. In fact though this is only half the story as there are as many weaknesses to hide as there are strengths to boast of. In particular, Corel's ability to have multiple pages; its superior text handling; its better colour model support; its excellent use of symbols as ready-made drawing elements; its colour separation capabilities; and finally its bundled supplementary programs such as PhotoPaint! and Chart! are all features missing from Studio.

The truth is that, despite the initial similarities, Draw! and Studio are very different programs. If you are looking for a program to produce logos, diagrams or leaflets, the typographic and simple design strengths of Corel mean it has to be the best option. On the other hand, if you are wanting to produce computer-drawn but naturalistic illustrations, Studio has to be the only choice. Rather than as rivals, the two programs are better seen as complementary tools. In fact, for many users, Studio will come into its own not only for originating realistic illustrations, but also as a post-processing application offering its unique features and improved output quality for both Corel's draw and paint format files.



Ease of Use


Value For Money




ratings out of 6

Corel Xara has now been replaced by Xara X

Xara X
Software (+ free trial)
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Xara 3D
Software (+ free trial)
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Xara WebStyle
Software (+ free trial)
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Xara Fonts
Software (+ free trial)
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System Requirements: 86 or higher, 64Mb of RAM, 20Mb of disk space, VGA, Windows 95, 98, 2000 or NT 4

Tom Arah

January 1998

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