Xara Designer Pro 6 – Preliminary Review

Xara has the fastest bitmap + vector draw program by far with Xara Designer Pro. Xara has had as one of its consistent virtues blazing speed. Xara is able to handle big bitmap 30-80MB files  [great for the thunderously sized images being produced by top of the line Canon, Nikon, and other  SLR cameras] and complex multi-layered vector+bitmap photo compositions consistently in 3 seconds or less. And Xara abounds with natural drag and drop features plus dozens of keyboard shortcuts [it pays to read the opening tooltips] which are fast as well. So if you want to get a graphics job done in a hurry on a Windows machine Xara Designer Pro is the place to be.

But I approached the new version 6 of Xara with a bit of caution. Other very good software like Corel Paint Shop Pro  X2 and Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 had come up with new features and skins  but at the cost of some spots of woeful response time or unexpected crashes [both have seen notable improvement in their latest versions]. So I was worried that with an all new interface skin and other improvements, Xara Designer Pro 6 would upset the apple cart.

Not to worry.

Xara Designer Pro 6 has adopted the attractive look and styling of its companion tool, the  excellent Web Design/prototyping tool, Xara Web Designer 6 [see our review here].  And Xara in our preliminary testing continues to deliver blazing speeds and familiar, easy-to-use drag and drop operations like beveling, drop shadow, transparency shading , 3D extrusion etc with very quick response. And the animation features [a basic subset of full Flash for GIF Animation or SWF output] are up and bouncing as in the diagram below:

So my biggest concern, the integrity and speed of the bitmap operations is set to rest. The bitmap operations appear conveniently in the top property property bar when the camera icon in the left sidebar is clicked. But as a photographer, ye editor has always felt a little short changed in Xara. But version 6 adds a number of new bitmap editing features which are much appreciated bcause the fill in missing core edits that had to be done outside of Xara.

First there is now a clone tool so that users can make corrections to blemishes on an image. This is handy because  often big images have smal flaws that become apprent when you crop them. A masking mode is now available so you can make selective bitmap brightness, saturation, sharpen, blur  and other corrections [but the blur tool is still very basic – no Gaussioan or Smart Smoothing options like in other photo editors]. Again this is a key added capability.

Xara Designer Pro 6 adds two highend bitmap feature. First, there is now content aware scaling that is conveniently added to the zoom arrows. Just hold down the ALT key when zooming an image and an alternative scaling algorithm is used. It worked spectacularly for a number of images but not always. Second, on import of large images, Xara offers the user the option of automatic scaling. At first I declined but after a few tries I find this more effective than the new auto JPEG optimizing offered on output of a Xara file. Clearly Xara though able to handle very large images very quickly has become more conscious of users needs to output to the Web or other sources that are size-limited.

There is an old feature, panoramic stitching of two images that finally got proper testing. the results were pleasing requiring a few post stitch adjustments. Also the new  perspective correction tools worked reasonably well But Photoshop and other tools have just upped the ante in both areas with perspective and panorama features getting joint improvements.  The bottom line is  that the new bitmap enhancements reduce substantially the number of times I have to round trip a bitmap to and from Photoshop or other photo editor and that is much appreciated along with the increased drag and drop support from external utilities like Windows Explorer.

Summary

This preliminary review concentrates on a)determining that the Hippocratic Oath [ “Do no harm” – with Vista and iPhone 4 its a worry] was observed; and b)I wanted to see how well the new look and layout worked – just as in Xara Web Designer 6, its quite effective. But last the many promised bitmap editing features were of interest. And it is good to report that Xara Designer Pro 6 certainly delivers very welcome and functional enhancements. Check back in 4-6 weeks for the full review.

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