Xara Web Designer Updated for Code-free Responsive Website Creation

"Xara Web Designer provides no programming tools, no script editing and doesn't even provide an HTML view," says Managing Director, Charles Moir, "Our design philosophy is this: You don't need to know the PDF programming language in order to produce PDF files, so neither should you have to know anything about HTML or JavaScript in order to create great websites." That axiom holds for the vast number of people creating and maintaining their own modest sites, whether for business or personal interests. Hence the rise of WordPress, which is free, includes hosting and lets users get up and running in a matter of minutes. They can then customize the structure of their site by employing an ocean of free or commercial templates, and enhance its functionality via third-party plugins, also free or modestly priced. No surprise then that WordPress is currently powering about one in four sites worldwide. So what does Xara Web Designer offer as an alternative?

First off all, more design freedom. Significantly changing the layout of a WordPress or conventional site requires HTML, CSS and even PHP coding skills — yes, there are addons that provide some drag and drop design functionality and themes that take this further but they still offer just a subset of what's possible. Web Designer goes further by providing an entirely WYSIWYG approach, so it's competing directly against Adobe Muse, which is part of the Creative Cloud subscription service, and other code-free solutions, such as Webflow, Wix and Silex.

Despite that, most Web Designer users will start off by loading one of the supplied templates and then pushing and pulling it visually until it meets their needs, thereby generating cross-browser, cross-platform XHTML-compatible pages and complete sites. Users can position text, graphics and photos anywhere on the page, at any size or angle, overlaid or with transparency. But beyond basic layout, Xara has tried to anticipate most of the requirements of the average user. For example, it supports CSS layers with advanced features such as full or graduated transparency, mouse-over effects and animated photo pop-ups. It also includes a significant subset of the vector drawing power of Xara's flagship Xara Designer application, as well as image editing and animation tools. Xara even provides free hosting tied to the integrated FTP functionality, so it's painless to launch and maintain such sites.

Other niceties include a ‘magic’ snap for object alignment; footers automatically move as the page is resized; graphics and photos can be anchored into flowing text; and repeating objects, such as NavBars, headers and footers, automatically update throughout the document with just a single edit. There are also said to be a significant number of template designs and customizable graphics. Web pages can be edited in single or multi-page view, and previewed instantly in popular web browsers. Smart widgets can also be used to add photo and text animations to web pages without the need for any coding knowledge. Support for HTML5 video is present and search engine-friendly sitemaps can be automatically created when publishing the website. Notable is the ability to create PowerPoint-like presentations for the web, either as a stand-alone presentation or as a remote 'webinar' with one person controlling the presentation for invited guest viewers. Tools are also provided for creating graphics from scratch, including freehand and quick-shape drawing tools, shadow, bevel and mould tools, 3D extrude and feathering. Photo editing functionality adds red-eye removal and content-aware scaling.

What else is provided? Well, a text styles feature that makes it possible to control the global appearance of text, by generating CSS-compatible styles; automatic object positioning and smart page resize; an inline graphics capability for embedding symbols and icons into text; optimized display on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. The Premium version adds support for embedded fonts, with the program creating the required special font and script, as well as uploading them to the server; photo transitions and improved slideshow widgets that work with a wide range of display devices; interactive Chart widgets; the ability to design the images for use in bulleted lists; and a live effects tool that adds support for Photoshop plugins.

Then there is the ability to create "supersites," pitched to be an attention-grabbing variant of a traditional website, which remains compatible with all modern web browsers. So what's a supersite? Web Designer users have the option of creating what is in effect a single list of pages that can be scrolled vertically or horizontally, connected by swipeable animated page transitions. If this sounds like it's geared to mobile devices, you're right. Accordingly, Web Designer generates multiple site variants, which respond dynamically to the screen size of the viewer via CSS media queries.

Also interesting are Sticky Objects, which make it possible to have such elements as navigation bars, social media links, text or images rest in place when a page is scrolled. Background images can be set to automatically fill the viewport, while HTML5 animation capabilities allow elements to slide or fade into view as a page is scrolled, or animate with wobbles or shakes on click/tap or mouseover. Admittedly, nothing that a decent coder couldn't implement without blinking but remember that this kind of thing is accomplished in Web Designer with a few clicks. Site files can be synced with Dropbox and Google Drive, making it possible to maintain a site via edits on different systems.

The new release drops version numbers and instead is called Web 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 a year after purchase at no charge. After that, no more free updates unless you purchase an upgrade but you can continue to use the application for as long as you like. If only Adobe provided this approach for Photoshop, I can almost hear you saying!

Also available only during the one-year period is the beta version of Xara Online Designer, which has been given a boost with this release. If you use Dropbox or Google Drive to store your Web Designer or Xara Designer files, you can open and edit these via a browser-based interface on an iPad, Android tablet or a Mac, as well as a Windows device. In addition to providing a flexible way to edit your own documents, this also allows clients to safely update the text and images on their sites. Also included as part of the 365 plan is an enhanced Online Content Catalog, which provides access to theme updates and all the bits and pieces that you can use to stitch together a site. It's worth noting that the number of themes, which are actually complete sites, has been increased, with included business themes now numbering 166. A year of free hosting is also part of the package.

Web Designer 365 includes quite a bit more but in the interest of brevity we'll focus on the standouts. Let's start with the 40 new animation types that work on reveal, such as bounce, zoom and flip, always fun when used in moderation. 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. Text handling has been given a range of improvements; editable vector symbols can be easily added; SmartShape handling has been tweaked and new ones added for such things as chart creation; and a Smart Photo Grids feature simplifies the display of images in different formats within a grid layout.

So while those who want to start with a template and tweak it to fit their needs will find all they need in this release, there's enough site building functionality, coupled with graphics creation capabilities, that Web Designer is also proving popular as a quick way for designers to create and host sites for clients. It all adds up to an ambitious package for a small developer like Xara, especially at its modest price point. Web Designer 365 Premium is definitely worth a look for Windows users who aren't already committed to Adobe's offerings and are seeking a graphically rich website creation environment. If you'd like to see some of the new functionality in action, Xara has created three mini-sites to show it off: one, two and three.

Xara Web Designer 365 Premium for Windows can be purchased on the Xara site during a limited time for $79.99 (regular $99.99,) with an entry-level edition priced at $44.99 (regular $49.99). A feature comparison chart will probably convince you to go with the Premium version and give the entry-level version a pass. A trial version is also available for download.