Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 9: can it replace Photoshop?

The beauty of Photoshop has always been its ability to span the worlds of creative design and photography without much compromise; for sheer breadth, there’s nothing that can compete. That said, Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 9 comes closer than most.

Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 9: can it replace Photoshop?

Not only can you use Xara for editing, compositing and optimising your photographs, but it’s also possible to create high-impact commercial print output, from flyers to posters. You can’t do that with the likes of DxO Optics Pro 8 or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5.

Just like Photoshop, Xara can handle layer-based image compositing. It boasts advanced masking and selection tools that are accurate, responsive and refined.

It also has a range of Photoshop-style content-aware tools, from the incredibly effective Healing Brush and the Background Erase tool (both new to version 9) to the content-aware image-resizing tools.

It allows you to sharpen and adjust levels, hue, brightness, contrast and saturation – all the stuff you’d expect of a mature image-editing application – and includes an array of special photo effects, including new tilt-shift, fake HDR and pencil sketch tools.

In some ways, Xara beats Photoshop. It allows you to skip seamlessly between masking, vector-based paths and freehand selection tools, and back again, without having to bother with converting from one to the other. Region and mask-painter tools add to this excellent set of functions, allowing selections and masks to be added to images with a simple brushstroke. As soon as you’ve created a selection in Xara it becomes an editable path, allowing changes to be made by manipulating a series of handles surrounding its edges.

It does all this at a speed most photo and graphics applications can only dream of. No matter how many high-resolution images, layers, selections, effects and masks you’ve applied to a piece of work, Xara always remains ultra-responsive, even on slightly older hardware, allowing you to zoom in and out, pan around, select objects and manipulate them at will.

All changes made to images within Xara are completely non-destructive and can be selectively reversed later. In addition to creative photo compositing, Xara also happily handles vector drawing and basic desktop-publishing tasks – even web-page design – and comes with a host of templates to help you get started.

Xara does have its limitations. The photo effects can take time to apply; there’s nothing to match Photoshop’s Merge to HDR Pro, Puppet Warp or video features; there’s no image-library management; and raw support is limited (although the software can read many DSLR’s raw output, it loses the EXIF data on import).

However, with the ability to take advantage of Photoshop plugins, Xara offers plenty of expansion potential, and – at only £52 inc VAT – it costs a fraction of a year’s subscription to Photoshop Creative Cloud.

It’s powerful and fast, and a fantastically good-value Photoshop alternative.

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