Xara Xtreme review

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Although still relatively unknown in the vector-drawing world, Xara has been around for more than a decade now. It does have an enthusiastic band of followers, though, and for one overriding reason: it’s incredibly fast. So fast, in fact, 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, as well as the basics of resizing, rotation, translation and zooming.

Xara Xtreme review

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 25,601 per cent) 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 a far more organic experience. It’s only when you go back to one of the more commonly used 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 the effects are combined. And with Xara Xtreme you can now apply nested transparency to groups of objects, copy shadow effects and ungroup shadowed objects.

Alongside these tools, Xara also offers a range of onscreen palettes, or Galleries, for managing textures, clip-art, fonts and so on, and these can now be conveniently docked to either side of the screen. It’s a big step forward, but the interface still feels dated and slightly amateurish. A cosmetic makeover would do wonders, although 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 also recognises the unique benefits that bitmap handling brings to creative illustration. In particular, Xara’s rendering speed makes it an excellent compositing program for images and layouts that combine both bitmap and vector elements. As such, the improved support for 32-bit images with built-in alpha masks is especially welcome.

So what else can you do with your bitmaps once they’ve been imported? Direct pixel-based painting and retouching isn’t an option (although it is apparently 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, once again, is the speed, as well as the fact that edits are non-destructive, so you can always undo changes 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, 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.

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