March 2, 1998 - It's not often that I profess loyalty to a piece of software. I believe that we should be loyal to people, not software, hardware or other tools. If I use one thing and something better comes along, I go with what's better.
But lately I've become loyal to a piece of software--because it's been so loyal to me. The software is CorelXara, developed entirely by a
small British company called Xara and distributed by Corel. I mention this because Corel has often abused the public’s trust by releasing software before all the bugs had been worked out. I wanted to make it clear this software was not developed by Corel, just distributed (or, as some might say, “sequestered”) by them (they knew killer competition for Draw when they saw it).
Xara is the best graphics software I’ve ever used. It’s helped make my own work better because it has
fewer limitations, it’s faster so I can try more things, and because it’s easier, so I don’t shy away from trying something that would be difficult in another program.
That’s a very strong statement, but Xara deserves it. I’ve used every major piece of graphics software in the past 15 years, and Xara is the one I use today to create all my work, both for the web, and in print. For some background about my experience, and Xara’s history, click here.
You’re probably happy with your current graphic software simply because you’re relieved to know it! But just imagine how much better your work could be if you didn’t sit
around waiting for the software? Imagine how much better it could be if the software didn’t get in your way, making simple tasks more difficult than they should be. Imagine how much better your work would be if the software gave you more power to show people the images you saw in your head. You’re imagining Xara.
Even if you think you’re happy with your graphics software, let me tell you why Xara will let you do better work, faster.
Xara is what all software
should be (I know this sounds like marketing hype, and I’d apologize, except that in this case it happens to be quite true). Powerful, but lightning fast (even on slower computers--I first used it on a 486 with only 8MB of RAM). Easy, but deep (I learned it in minutes but keep discovering new things I can do with it after more than a year). It's all those things you hear bandied about by software companies and yet so rarely see in person. It's well-designed and well-written and takes
just over 11 megabytes of hard disk space. Yet it can do things other illustration programs only dream of.
In the last year I’ve used it to create graphics for a number of web sites, two book covers, three software packages, four CD-ROM packages and countless logos and corporate ID sets. In each case, no matter if it was a graphic for the web, or four color separations, Xara worked perfectly. What I saw on-screen was what I got on the web or in print. Colors, transparency, complex fills and
all. Xara never failed me. Never.
The software we use has a profound effect on what we create. Since we know what our software can and can’t do, this unconsciously affects what we try to do. But Xara’s combination of unique features (such as its ultra-powerful transparency) and performance helps you stop thinking about what the software can do, and start thinking about what you want to do. So Xara makes it easier to show the world what you’re seeing in your
imagination. I can’t think of any better compliment for a piece of graphics software.
The first way Xara makes you look good is by anti-aliasing everything you do--in real time on-screen as you work. Anti-aliasing smoothes on-screen jaggies by blending the edges of objects with adjacent objects (or their backgrounds),
creating the impression of smoother edges and higher resolution. While photo editing programs such as Photoshop include anti-aliasing, most illustration programs don't. (Draw now includes this feature, but does it so slowly that I find it useless). While most illustration programs can add anti-aliasing while exporting, this can lead to GIFs and JPGs that are different than what you see on-screen. Xara does it right--what you see on screen is really exactly what you get when you create a GIF
or JPG file. No surprises.
Here’s an example, both of which were created from the same Adobe Illustrator file.
The one above was exported by Illustrator 7.
Notice how much smoother and more legible the Xara GIF is.
Since the point of anti-aliasing is really to make graphics look smooth, the quality of this process is important.
Here, in another part of the same AI file you can see how
Illustrator’s own anti-aliasing leaves a slightly ragged edge on the inside of the “C”, and flattens the side of the “R.”
The same AI file, as exported by Xara shows perfectly
smooth, properly shaped text. Xara makes you look better.
While many people cling to the notion that Photoshop is the only program in the world for creating web graphics, in reality, Xara is much faster, more streamlined, and does a better job with anti-aliasing graphics. For example, to export properly anti-aliased text from Xara, you type the text on a background that matches the background in the browser, then choose Export. That’s it.
Xara anti-aliases everything, not just text. It also gives you the ability to turn off this feature if you choose to do so. Working in anti-aliased mode really spoils you, because when you work in other graphics programs you’ll start to realize how ragged things really look.
Xara includes the web-safe color palette for each drawing. While you can choose directly from this palette, you can also choose any color, then have Xara show you the nearest “web-safe” color. Its color export is so good that graphics you thought would only look good at 24-bit can look great at 8-bit. Once again, it makes your work look better.
Graphics that you might otherwise save as 8-bit can often look great at 4-bit using Xara. This means your graphics not
only look good, but are half the size, which means they download twice as fast. I've redone all the graphics on my site using Xara and they now look better, but are smaller. This is vital for the web, and easy with Xara.
Color matching couldn’t be simpler, and yet it’s effective. A single menu item, Windows/Show printer colors, automatically corrects the screen. It doesn’t require the lengthy, confusing and inaccurate setup that Draw and other
programs do. It just works. Surprise--no surprises!
>Xara2’s export preview
Xara2 adds a brilliant export feature that lets you preview your export exactly as it will look. Most programs make you blindly select options such as graphic format, color depth, color palette and dithering. With Xara2, you can preview how a
graphic will look with each of these options, and compare the file size. This lets you create the best-looking, most compact graphics possible. To see how this works, click here.
Photoshop users can get similar features in an excellent plug-in called WebVise Totality, from AutoF/X, but this plug-in alone costs almost as much as all of Xara2.
Xara2 also allows you to preview graphics in your browser, so you can see what a graphic, transparent background, or web page background will really look. No second guessing. It’s fast and invaluable.
You can also create imagemaps from within Xara (logical, since illustration programs deal with objects, each of which can be a hot-spot), with Xara exporting not just the image, but the imagemap text as well.
Xara even has its own vector format for the web, called Flare (.web). This format is highly compact. With a small plug-in, any browser can view Xara or .WEB graphics, complete with the ability to zoom to 25,000%.
Xara’s other amazing feat is unlimited “transparency,” the ability to make any object, any gradient fill or any bitmap, transparent. Until recently illustration programs couldn’t create any transparent objects because the PostScript printing language upon which many are based cannot describe transparent objects.
While other illustration programs have added some
transparency features, they’re either static (like Illustrator’s), or limited (like CorelDraw’s). Xara’s transparency is both live and unlimited. Not only can Xara make bitmaps transparent (like Photoshop), it can make the amount of transparency vary within the bitmap--say 100% opaque on one end of the bitmap and 100% transparent on the other.
This allows you to create fades, blurs, and textures that, while possible using Photoshop, are much easier here because
they’re constantly live and editable.
The motion blur was a simple combination of transparency and Xara’s “blend” feature.
Finally, when the transparency feature is combined with a
fractal fill feature, Xara can give traditionally smooth vector graphics the more human textured look of bitmapped graphics.
Here I used the feature to simulate the mottled glass of a stained glass window. Because it can be applied to any object,
it was easy to add it to the glass, but not the leading, thereby giving the piece a more realistic look. To see more examples of work I’ve created in Xara, both for print and the web, click here.
Bitmap handling is excellent--and fast. Screen redraws are nearly instant--even with liberal use of anti-aliasing and transparency--this alone can save you hours in the creation of complex graphics. I used to shy away from creating clipping paths to isolate objects from their backgrounds, simply because Draw was so slow. Now I create them all the time, in almost no time.
Xara imports transparent GIF files, with the transparency intact--a quick way to create masks.
Files are saved in a compressed format, so a file containing two bitmaps which took 950K in Draw takes only 95K in Xara format. A file with a 5.5MB 24-bit TIF file saved to only 1.5MB in Xara.
Xara2 improves the way it creates animated GIF files. Instead of layers, you work with “frames.” Frames can be set as backgrounds or overlays--and this allows you to layer pieces of the animated GIF, creating much more compact animations. You can rearrange frames at any time, and get an instant preview of the animation, either in Xara, or in your browser. You have complete control over timing, looping, and color palettes.
Because each frame is always editable, it makes it a snap to
tweak an animation. It’s also easy to select all the frames and scale them in a single step.
I used to rely on Ulead’s GIF Animator to optimize animations I created in Xara, but in Xara2, the files are already so compact that GIF animator couldn’t make them any smaller. That’s how I created the snappy animated “W” I use with this column (see the top and bottom of the page)
>Ease of use
If you’ve used any other illustration program, learning Xara is simple. Not only does it feature familiar tools, it comes with almost 100MB of on-screen tutorials that walk you through the basic features, and Xara’s advanced features, such as transparency.
Xara’s ability to combine shapes makes it exceptionally easy to edit objects, even complex groups of objects. Say you need
to slice off a piece of a graphic, but that graphic is composed of dozens, even hundreds of objects. You simply place one object on top of the first, select both, choose Combine Shapes/Slice, and the top object literally slices through the other objects to create a new one. This also works with bitmaps to create instant clipping paths. It’s even possible to automatically create clipping paths using the program’s built-in trace function.
>Performance and precision
What makes Xara even more of a pleasure is its fast performance (even on computers with just 8 MB of RAM). It loads, saves and exports files in seconds. Xara can zoom in to 25,000%. That’s right, not 250, not 2500, but 25,000%--which means that you can get the details finer than an imagesetter can print them. Amazingly, this never
slows it down--even bitmaps appear almost instantly at any zoom level. Xara also has an almost unlimited number of undos--so you can do a lot of “what if” without ever having to sigh, “what happened?”
Its interface reminds you of an early Corel Draw before it got so cluttered, but with context-sensitive toolbars that change according to your action. This interface makes sense, saves screen real estate, and never “floats” above your work--which means on top of your work and in the way of
>Solid and reliable
Finally, Xara is really solid and reliable. I've put up with (and publicly complained about) CorelDraw's bugginess--mostly because the program did so much and had so little competition. But Xara does things Draw can’t--and it's stable. The only time I've ever had it crash it even gave me the
nicest crash message I’ve ever read: “An extremely serious error has occurred and we must exit the program immediately. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience caused.” And I’ve never lost any work in it. Can you say that about the graphics software you’re using?
My only complaint about Xara is that it doesn’t create backup files--the previous version of the file automatically renamed with an extension of .BAK, just in case you have
troubles or want to go back to something you did before you saved. But that’s easily corrected by just saving versions under different names--easy to do since Xara is a full 32-bit application that supports long filenames. It runs under Windows 95, WindowsNT, and even Windows 3.1!
Xara is a refreshing change from Draw (and other illustration programs) because it seems to have been designed and programmed for the professional designer. Draw adds
everything but the kitchen sink and ends up slow and buggy with a terrible interface. Xara is just so much smoother, faster and more pleasant to use.
Xara2 is available now for world-wide download from www.i-us.com for $149, with discount upgrades for people who own previous versions of Xara.
When you buy Xara2 from i/us, you’ll also get a free subscription to Gary Priester’s twice-monthly Xealot email-newsletter. Gary’s famous for his amazing (and often amazingly simple) tips and tricks for creating truly dazzling graphics with Xara. That’s an exclusive from from i/us. i/us is also introducing the XaraXone, a new, Flash-based content area with more great support for Xara users.
Still not convinced? Take a look at my own web site
(www.will-harris.com), and some of the sites I’ve created (in my design office), all exclusively using Xara for graphics. I’ve
used just about every graphics program on the market, and I’ve yet to find one that is more powerful, faster, more reliable, or better at creating graphics for the web. It’s made my work better, and I’m sure it can do the same for you.
So do yourself a favor. Try Xara You’ll thank me for it!
If you want to try before you buy, the best way at the moment is to download a trial of Xara Webster, CorelXara’s “baby brother.” It doesn’t have all of Xara’s features, but it does use the same graphics engine, so you’ll be able to experience the performance, transparancy and anti-aliasing features of the full version, on a trial basis.