Do you really need separate applications to cover your design needs, whether photo editing, digital art or simple design tasks like producing flyers and scrapbooks? For those who want everything in one package, Xara has the answer.
Xara Photo & Graphic Designer can’t compete with the very best specialist tools like Photoshop, but it’s certainly a match for most. And that’s even after you realise that it’s effectively bundling two or three design packages in one for a very price. And for most people that will be enough.
What it does
As its name implies, Photo & Graphic Designer does a bit of everything: edit and enhance your photos, create illustrations from scratch and even indulge in a bit of basic desktop publishing. A Designs gallery is provided, and is the best place to start when looking for projects or inspiration.
The user interface is reasonably intuitive and should be familiar to anyone who’s used Photoshop Elements or its ilk. A useful help file can steer you towards any hidden tools, and a number of videos help demonstrate how features work while showcasing the program’s capabilities.
If there’s a particular area that Photo & Graphic Designer excels in, it’s photo editing. It’s packed with lots of powerful tools, and comes with the promise of fast, non-destructive handling of photos. That allows you to edit your photos a myriad of different ways without ever touching the original, so you’re not forced to work with an ever-degrading copy.
It also comes packed with all manner of editing and enhancement tools, both manual and automatic, and includes the now-obligatory retouching tools for fixing blemishes both minor and major. A couple of clever erase tools allow you to remove backgrounds or unwanted objects from your photos too – in the case of unwanted objects, simply draw a rough outline around the object, tweak it if necessary and then click Magic Erase. Some results are better than others, but it’s amazing how effective the tool can be.
Version 10 adds two new tools to the mix: Shadows & Highlights, which combine to bring detail out of the darkest shadows and brightest objects such as clouds, and Select & Enhance, which lets you restrict your editing to specific colours. Both have been staple ingredients of other packages for years, but are welcome additions nonetheless and work effectively.
One missing feature we’d like to see is a “before and after” shot, which would make it easier to see how your editing compares to the original photo – there is a compare button for selected effects, and you can technically drag a second copy of your image from the flyout, but neither is as satisfying as the comparative tools you find in Picasa.
Adding effects to your photos is simple too, thanks to the LiveEffects tool, which offers over 60 effects and tweaks to enhance your photos further, from basic colour effects to filters that help sharpen slightly blurred images. You can go further too – Photo & Graphic Designer also works with most Photoshop plug-ins for even greater variety.
Version 10 takes this to another level by throwing in the full PhotoLooks 2 plug-in for free, which includes over 100 fully cooked effects with a selection of tuning tools for each to help you adjust them to perfection. PhotoLooks effectively functions as a separate program, and needs to be downloaded separately after you’ve installed and registered Photo & Graphic Designer – open the Help menu and choose Help > Download content installer to get it and other content.
Once installed, the plug-in can be found under the New > Magic Bullet > Looks… menu option that appears under LiveEffects. This opens the photo in a PhotoLooks where you can browse through all the available effects, divided by category, and fine-tune each using the buttons at the bottom of the screen. Once done, click Finish and the photo is returned to Xara with the effects applied. It really adds even more worth to what is already a great-value package.
Photo & Graphic Designer 10 also delivers much-needed improvements to its panorama tool. Now you no longer need to arrange your images prior to stitching them, while the tool offers better image alignment and lens distortion correction too.
It’s still a little clunky to use, and many interesting features are hobbled unless you upgrade, but the results are impressive enough, with the promised improvements to image alignment and lens distortion definitely making a positive difference. We did, however, find the tool over-exposed the finished result, although the Highlights & Shadows tool made short work of correcting it.
The other half of Xara is – of course – its vector-based design tools. These tend to be a little off-putting for newbies, so the addition of a new SmartShapes library is welcome, giving users access to pre-built shapes include arrows, text panels and more. The current list of shapes is disappointingly small, but Xara promises to deliver more through the rest of the year, so it should become a staple for anyone wishing to knock up quick designs without the skills to match their ambition.
Another new feature is Font Awesome Symbols. Accessible via the new top-level Insert menu, these include smileys, icons and other symbols, and are easily inserted either as editable graphic objects or as text.
In fact, at a push, Photo & Graphic Designer can be used as a fledgling DTP tool – certainly the templates for scrapbooking and brochures hint at its capabilities. In truth, the amount of work required make it less suitable as a replacement for your existing desktop publishing package, but if you can find and adapt a template you like, it’s certainly good enough for occasional jobs.
Version 10 adds a new Content Catalog, which basically gives you access to the Designs Gallery via its own resizable window – handy seeing how keen it is to collapse the flyout on the right-hand side of the main window. Photo & Graphic Designer 10 now also correctly rotates photos automatically, regardless of the device they’ve been imported from.
The app also benefits from improved import and export tools, including the ability to now import Word .doc files. The PDF and RTF import tools have also been enhanced to support more features and provide more editing options.
For those looking for a combined photo-editing and graphic design tool, Xara Photo & Graphic Designer hits the mark, and most users should be pleased with its capabilities. For those thinking about upgrading, the plethora of new and improved features combined with an attractive upgrade price (as little as $35 for users of version 9) make it an irresistible prospect. Don’t believe us? Download the trial and find out for yourself.