Corel Xara 2

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Major shift of focus towards Web imaging gives Corel Xara a new lease of  life, but Corel's lack of commitment is holding the program back.

X2transp.png (195948 bytes)

It's almost three years since Xara first appeared on the design scene (reviewed issue 12). Back then Xara Studio as it was called won a recommended award for its radical and streamlined approach. In particular it seemed a breath of fresh air compared to the then bloated market leader, Corel Draw 5. Clearly Corel was similarly impressed and soon afterwards came to an arrangement with its UK developers in which the program was renamed and marketed as Corel Xara.

The future looked bright, but it soon became clear where Corel's primary allegiance lay. After a relatively minor upgrade to version 1.5 nothing much was done with Xara while the best of the program's interface and functionality was ported over to the three subsequent Draw releases. Xara managed to cling on to a core base of committed fans, but most users thought the program had been quietly killed off. Thankfully that isn't the case and Xara's developers have now come up with another radical shift in design thinking to produce Corel Xara 2.

Before looking at the program's new direction it's worth remembering what made Xara so different and to see in what ways these strengths have been updated. In terms of its interface, Xara Studio was very much a forerunner of the modern Windows 95 program. With multiple levels of undo, in-built anti-aliasing, lightning fast redraw, extensive right-click menu support, interactive tools and context-sensitive info-bar, Xara offered a simple, clean and fast working environment. The only fly in the ointment was the reliance on ugly onscreen galleries for opening clipart, choosing fonts, managing layers and so on. I had hoped that Corel would have used its latest technology to turn these galleries into more manageable docker windows, but the old floating palette system remains. This and the inability to customise the environment are disappointing but even so, thanks to its original strengths, Xara's streamlined interface can still more than hold its own

What really set the program apart from the competition was its functionality and in particular its control over fills. Xara recognised that the flat uniform colour fills of typical vector-based drawing are actually the exception rather than the norm out in the real world. In the real world objects have texture and shading, so Xara made it simple to control such effects. Objects can be given gradient fills that are managed by dropping colours onto the end points of an interactively customisable fill arrow. Even more realistic effects are available through naturalistic bitmap-based fills so that giving a rectangle a brick fill, for example, really makes it look like a wall. Best of all, fills can be given a graduated transparency so that truly photo-realistic shadow and glass effects can be easily produced.

These same basic strengths remain, but there have been some changes. In addition to the existing range of interactive gradient fills it's now possible to apply three and four colour fills and transparencies and two kinds of mathematically-generated textured fills - fractal clouds and fractal plasma. Much less welcome is the new method of providing bitmap fills that you discover when the Fills gallery is opened for the first time and revealed to be completely empty! To access the Xara textures you have to click on the Get Fills. command which accesses the Xara web site and begins downloading. Even then only preview thumbnails are downloaded so that if you actually want to apply the bitmap you have to connect again. Such to-ing and fro-ing is hardly efficient and in the end I gave up and imported the texture files provided with another program instead.

Once the bitmap fills have been downloaded or imported, it's possible to apply them to any object and to interactively - and very quickly and powerfully - control the sizing, skewing and rotation of their tiling. It's also possible to apply a number of in-built bitmap filters to control brightness and contrast, to flip the image or to change its bitmap depth. The special effect filters, however, are rudimentary and limited to basic blurring, sharpening and edge detection. This is made up for to some extent by the new Photoshop plug-in support which gives access to third party filters, but again there's a feeling that Xara is living off other programs for functionality that it should be providing itself.

When Xara Studio first came out, its in-built bitmap handling seemed to be breaking down the barrier between vector and bitmap. When compared to the latest generation of programs like Macromedia Fireworks it no longer seems so radical, but for producing photo-realistic bitmap-based illustrations within the flexibility and precision of a vector environment it still remains unmatched. What held Xara Studio back, and prevented it from becoming the general-purpose Draw-killer that it might have been, was its poor text handling and outputting options. In particular, Xara Studio was unable to handle Postscript fonts, had no text block capabilities and couldn't colour-separate work for commercial print.

All these issues have now been addressed, first by the 1.5 release and now again with version 2. Corel Xara 2 supports ATM fonts under both Windows 95 and now NT, and it also allows text to be added as paragraph blocks that can be justified and which automatically re-flow when resized. Print capabilities have also been improved with control over crop marks and separations. Even with these changes, however, Xara is still a long way off becoming a rival to Draw or FreeHand. The typographic control might have improved for example, but there's still no spell-checker or text editor, let alone support for multiple columns and multiple pages. Even for standalone illustrations, while there is now control over knockout and overprinting on an object basis, there is no trapping control or Postscript 3 support. When compared to the print engine available to Draw and Ventura, it's clear that Xara is very much the poor cousin of the Corel family.

If Corel Xara 2 was to be judged on the same basis as the high-end drawing packages its failure regarding text-intensive print-based outputting would still rule it out as a serious contender, just as was the case with version 1. With version 2, however, Xara moves into entirely new territory. Rather than concentrating on outputting to paper, Xara 2 is now focussed on outputting to the Web.

This new emphasis is found throughout the program with features such as the provision of the 216 Web-safe colours from both the Colour gallery and colour bar at the bottom of the screen. It's also possible to set any imported bitmap to seamlessly tile as a page background, useful both for proofing and also to provide optimum anti-aliasing. An unusual feature is the ability to have Xara import all the image files from a web site simply by typing in its URL - though the legitimate use of this is suspect to say the least. Once added to a layout, any object can be given a hyperlink by right-clicking and selecting the Web Address command. The control offered is good with limited auto-correction, support for target frames, rectangular or irregular mapping and the ability to automatically copy the resulting client-side map to the clipboard ready for pasting into your HTML editor.

The obvious question is how does Xara output its primarly vector-based drawings? Xara does offer its own vector-based .WEB format that offers resolution independent quality and bandwidth-friendly file sizes. This could be extremely useful, for example, for enabling a user to zoom in on a particular town from a map of the whole country. The problem is that to be able to view the image at all the viewer has to download a plug-in. A safer bet is to output to the standard bitmap formats GIF, JPEG and the increasingly popular PNG. Corel Xara 2 now offers a dedicated Export dialog for all three formats complete with tabbed control over settings such as palette options, diffusion dithering, transparency and size. Crucially all changes can be previewed in the dialog, or your default browser, together with information on file size and download times which largely cuts out the laborious process of trial-and-error from image optimization.

Xara doesn't just allow its drawings to be output as static bitmaps it also allows the creation of Web animations. To create an animated GIF is a simple process of managing the different cels of the animation through the new Frames gallery just as you would with layers. It's a simple matter to drag and reorder frames, to set them as background or overlays and, using the Frame Properties command, to control timing, colours and looping and to load the animation into your browser for checking. As anyone knows who has tried to handle text or sprites in a bitmap-based GIF animator, the speed, simplicity, editability and flexibility that a vector environment offers is a godsend.

In fact the use of a vector program like Xara for producing Web bitmaps and animations makes perfect sense all round. General-purpose drawing features like multiple undo, editable text, easy alignment and grouping all come into their own when creating objects like web buttons, while Xara's unique qualities, such as its advanced bitmap and transparency handling and in-built onscreen anti-aliasing, are ideal for ensuring eye-catching effects and high quality Web output. Xara's move away from print-based design to online imaging is an excellent move that really gives the program a whole new lease of life.

However, Xara 2 doesn't quite go far enough. While some of the features it offers like the ability to overwrite a map tag within an existing HTML file are impressively advanced, in other areas it is under-powered. While it offers error diffusion and dithering options, for example, there is no support for saving and loading particular palettes. Animation control could also be improved with support for symbols, the ability to automatically copy blend objects to their own frame and, ideally, a Corel-backed vector-based animation format like Macromedia's Shockwave. The real problem for Xara though is that having carved out a potentially successful new niche for itself, it finds that Macromedia Fireworks has got there first (see page ). Compared to Fireworks' integrated vector and bitmap approach and revolutionary features such as pixel-based paths, live effects and seriously dedicated HTML and JavaScript support, Xara's latest capabilities already seem rather old-fashioned.

As it stands, Xara remains an attractively simple and relatively inexpensive drawing program that now offers special strengths in two areas - high quality photo-realistic illustration and web imaging. However, unless Corel can be persuaded to put itself solidly behind the program, the future remains uncertain. Corel still seems to see Xara more as a threat to Draw than as a complementary rival to Fireworks. As such there seems to have been no input from Corel into Xara's development whatsoever with the program crying out for features like Corel's docker windows and print engine. Even worse, the program can still only read Corel Draw's CDR files up to version 5, just as it could three years ago. As Fireworks can read Draw 7 files this means that Macromedia's program actually offers better support for Corel files than Corel's own program.

The final sign of Corel's lack of commitment - and the biggest disappointment of all - is the fact that the company is currently only intending to distribute the program online. To an extent this makes sense as Xara's natural streamlining - and the lack of fills and clipart - make for a very bearable 7.5Mb download. Really, though, Xara deserves a lot better than such shareware-style treatment.

Features

4

Ease Of Use

5

Value For Money

5

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Corel Xara has now been replaced by Xara X

Xara X
Software (+ free trial)
Save $$!   Save ££!

Xara 3D
Software (+ free trial)
Save $$!   Save ££!

Xara WebStyle
Software (+ free trial)
Save $$!   Save ££!

Xara Fonts
Software (+ free trial)
Save $$!   Save ££!

System Requirements: 86 or higher, 64Mb of RAM, 20Mb of disk space, VGA, Windows 95, 98, 2000 or NT 4

Tom Arah

April 1999


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