Xara Photo & Graphic Designer Enhanced for Image Editing and Vector Illustration

While Adobe has shifted to making most of its graphics and publishing tools available only via subscription, there remain users with an interest in exploring alternatives that cost less and are still available as perpetually licensed products. One of the more significant providers of such alternatives is Xara, which can trace its personal computer software origins back to the early 80s, with the initial release of its Wordwise word processor, followed by the Impression desktop publishing software and 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 release the application's code as open source in 2006 and then split the product into Xtreme and Xtreme Pro versions before being acquired by MAGIX early in 2007. The current version is Xara Designer Pro X365, which includes all the functionality of Xara Photo & Graphic Designer as well as Xara Web Designer Premium and the addition of such features as support for PDF/X, PANTONE, color separations, multi-core processors, enhanced import/export filters and a pro version of the photo panorama tool. Quite a lot for $299 but perhaps more functionality than you need? Enter Photo & Graphic Designer, which offers the core vector drawing and photo editing capabilities of Designer Pro at the modest price of $89.99.

On the vector illustration side, it's based on the fast engine that Xara has been perfecting for years 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, anti-aliased display, and support for a wide range of file formats that includes PSD and PDF. Also of interest is such functionality as drag and drop re-coloring of clipart and vector groups. A Shape Painter tool makes it possible to add and subtract from a selected shape, as well as paint hard and soft-edged brushstrokes. Then there's the ability to automatically download and install any of the more than 600 Google fonts. Vector clipart includes a wide range of what Xara calls "company logo" designs.

The photo-editing capabilities are also robust, beginning with procedural non-destructive editing, which keeps speed up and file size down. Then there's manual and automatic real-time photo enhancement (brightness and contrast, sharpen/ blur, saturation and temperature); real-time scaling and rotation, even on large images; and flexible cropping, red eye removal, levels control, perspective correction and content-aware scaling and zooming. Also included is an Advanced Healing brush; Mask and Selection tools; and Advanced Background Erase, handy for extracting complex shapes. A wide range of creative effects are also included, as is support for Photoshop plugins (which also work on vector artwork).

The vector side hasn't been overlooked, however, with such functionality as drag and drop re-coloring of clipart and vector groups. A Shape Painter tool makes it possible to add and subtract from a selected shape, as well as paint hard and soft-edged brushstrokes. Also interesting is the ability to automatically download and install Google fonts. Vector clipart includes a wide range of what Xara calls "company logo" designs.

Version 10 provided a range of enhancements but the emphasis was on image editing. Notable were new shadow and highlight tools, as well as a new way to selectively enhance or process areas in an image based on their color. This allowed users to click on part of image and then have all similarly-colored areas of the image affected by further adjustments to such parameters as brightness levels, saturation, blur/sharpen, tinting and re-coloring.

Still with image editing, the automatic panorama stitching functionality was improved by automatically detecting the position of stitched images, as well as providing higher-quality results. Also included was a new online content catalog, support for the automatic rotation of images from iPhones and other cameras with orientation sensors, a new insert menu, improved import/export support for .doc and .docx files, and improved editing of imported PDF files. Then there was the inclusion of Red Giant's PhotoLooks Photoshop plugin, which according to the developer "captures and intensifies the mood of your photo, whether it’s warming up or cooling down an image, or adding a popular film look." Also included were more than 100 stylized treatments for portraits, weddings, nature and event photography, ranging from soft lighting to Hollywood drama.

But that was then. The first big change in the new edition is that it has dropped the use of version numbers and instead is called Photo & Graphic Designer 365. 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. After that, no more free updates or access to the enhanced Online Content Catalog unless you purchase an upgrade but you can continue to use the application for as long as you like. So if the subscription model of Adobe Creative Cloud is not your thing, then this provides an alternative.

Beyond that, Xara typically packs a lot of new functionality into its releases and this is no exception. The best place to browse through what's new is the extensive release notes but it's worth mentioning a few highlights. In the domain of photo editing, about 30 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 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. The photo editing tools have been given a boost via new transparency blend modes and a simple way to rotate, scale, pan and crop. It's worth mentioning that the photo editor employs vector based, editable, non-destructive photo editing.

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 and 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, and an enhanced version of the Spiral SmartShape.

What does it all add up to? In our view, it's by far the best value for Windows users seeking a solid mix of document-driven illustration and photo-editing capabilities, wrapped up in a single application. Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 365 can be purchased for $69.95 until June 12, 2016 (regular $89.99). More information and a trial version is available on the Xara site.