Xara Designer Pro X365 Released for Illustration, Photo Editing, Publishing and Web Design

Windows users in need of a vector illustration program are in a pretty good position these days, with four highly capable applications available from seasoned developers that have been refining their offerings for decades. The most well known is Adobe Illustrator CC, released way back in 1987. It's available as part of the complete Creative Cloud package for $49.99 a month or by itself for $19.99 a month. After almost 30 years of development, there's no doubt that Illustrator is a rock-solid, mature application but Adobe hasn't been moving its capabilities forward significantly in recent releases, leaving the innovation to plugin developer Astute Graphics. You can purchase any one of these plugins individually or snag the bundle of 14 for $423 and create an illustration powerhouse — if money is no object.

Then there's CorelDRAW, which was released in 1989. Although never given the credit it deserved amongst the Mac-dominated design industry, during the 90s CorelDRAW lead Illustrator in defining just what an illustration program could do. Beyond being Windows-specific, part of the reason it has never been taken seriously by pros is that Corel was a leader in providing a software bundle, which included a capable image editing application, a bitmap tracing utility and a huge collection of content, such as fonts, clipart, templates and so on. The latest release of CorelDRAW wasn't riveting but hopefully Corel will be able to regain some momentum in the future. You can make a one-time purchase of CorelDRAW for $499, opt for a program that also includes a year of updates or sign up for a Creative Cloud-style subscription.

Then there's the new kid on the block, Affinity Designer, first released for the Mac in 2014 and recently made available for Windows as a beta. Created by Serif, which has been cranking out Windows graphics and publishing apps for decades, Designer was followed last year by Photo, an image editing application, with page layout program Publisher slated for later this year. Integration comes via the use of a single file format. All three will be available for Windows and are priced at $50 each, with presumably a bundle price making them an attractive alternative.

Which brings us to the latest version of Xara Designer, which can trace its software origins back to related graphics products in the '90s for the Acorn RISC computer. Xara Studio, a Windows-based vector illustration application, was marketed by Corel Corp. as CorelXARA in the late 90s, with the rights later reverting to Xara Corp. It subsequently developed the more advanced Xara X and then Xara Xtreme iteration. Xara went on to split the product into Xtreme and Xtreme Pro versions before being acquired by MAGIX early in 2007. Recent years have seen the product further differentiated into four versions: the modestly-priced Page & Layout Designer, Web Designer and Photo & Graphic Designer, as well as the premium Designer Pro offering, which includes all the capabilities of its siblings plus a few high-end tricks of its own.

Probably the best place to get your head around all the functionality that Designer Pro provides is a detailed feature comparison that lays out its capabilities and those of its three offspring. Also recommende is an overview of the functionality of all the various modules, so we won't go into the core features here, just the highlights of what's new. Also interesting is a listing of what was new in each version since X, which goes back to an era when you were young. If you start with X and work your way through, this provides a great sense of the program's development over the years. Also handy is a detailed explanation of the advanced functionality unique to the Pro edition.

And developed it has been, with its drawing, page layout and image editing functionality having been enhanced to the point where for some Windows users, Designer Pro can now be thought of as an affordable alternative not just to Illustrator but to Creative Cloud itself. The previous version was X11 so perhaps the best way to begin is by explaining the X365 designation. This announces something of a shift in approach, since the application is still supplied with an old-school perpetual license but the idea is that users will receive a number of updates throughout the year after purchase at no charge. During that year users can also access an Online Content Catalog that includes access to a library of more than 500,000 stock photos and 59,000 vector illustrations.

And hats off for some fresh thinking, in the form of the browser-based Xara Online Designer, which makes it possible to edit Xara documents on just about any device, as long as they have been stored on Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox or Google Drive. Online Designer, currently in beta, is available in a feature-limited free version as well as a premium iteration for those with the current version of Designer Pro. Finally, the year after purchase also includes year of Xara's web hosting, for those using the quite robust site creation capabilities of Designer.

So what new functionality does Designer Pro X365 provide, you ask? The best place to browse through what's new is the extensive release notes, followed by Gary Priester's First Look but we'll mention a few highlights. In the domain of photo editing, 26 Photo Filter Presets have been provided for the creation of quick effects, with new Cross Process Photo Effects added for the generation of dramatic effects. An Effect Painter tool makes it possible to paint non-destructive effects directly on a photo, such as brighten, dodge and burn. Users can now create photo layouts by dragging and dropping them onto fixed grids or employing "smart" grids that resize as photos are added or removed. Also of interest is a Magnetic Lasso tool, additional blend modes, and improved scale, rotate and crop.

When it comes to illustration, the Font Awesome collection of symbols has been updated and is supplemented by a collection of Google Material Design icons, providing more than 1,500 symbols in total. SmartShapes provide a quick way to create and edit commonly required shapes, with the new version including more complex objects, such as smart charts for percentage ring, bar charts and column charts. There are also new smart text panels and photo panels, quite a few refinements to text handling and an enhanced version of the Spiral SmartShape.

For those creating sites, 40 new animation types have been added that work on reveal, such as bounce, zoom and flip, which are always fun when used in moderation. The ability to create parallax scrolling effects is welcome, although this has been overused to the point where it has become annoying. And there are 30 new animations that are tied to document scrolling, with objects such as navbars now being able to move to the top and then stick. Finally, all 166 Business site themes, previously priced at $15 a pop, are now included, as well as a variety of new ones.

Conclusion? Even if you have no interest in the page layout, photo editing or website creation capabilities, the core vector illustration functionality is really quite exceptional. It's based on the fast engine that Xara has been perfecting for years (hand-tuned assembly language!) and provides a wide range of drawing tools, sophisticated text handling, transparency and feathering, blends, 3D extrusion, shadows, bevels and contours, infinite undo/redo, 25,000% zoom and support for a wide range of file formats. Factor in that it interoperates well with Photoshop and it might just be the missing piece of the puzzle for quite a few users. And if some of the other functionality and included content comes in handy, so much the better. Or you could go all in and adopt it as a Creative Cloud replacement, depending on your workflow and publishing requirements: small businesses and frugal designers will be on this list. You can find out easily enough by giving the free trial of both Designer and CorelDRAW a spin, since they're direct competitors in this space.

Xara Designer Pro X365 for Windows is priced at $299 (currently on sale for $269), with more information available on the Xara site.