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Review: Xara Photo & Graphic Designer MX 8.1

22 May 2012, Mike Williams

Equipping your PC for professional graphics work normally involves buying several different applications, learning their various interfaces and hoping they’ll somehow all work together.

Xara’s philosophy is a little different, though: their new Photo & Graphic Designer MX 8.1 can handle photo editing, illustration, vector drawing, DTP, web graphics, even simple Flash animation, and all in a single $89 application.

It’s no surprise that some of the program’s modules aren’t up to the standard of the more specialist competition. Photo & Graphic Designer MX isn’t going to replace Photoshop anytime soon, for instance, and its Flash animation abilities are really just about simple images: there’s no scripting or audio involved.

You still get a huge amount of power here for your money, though, and this release also benefits from some worthwhile new features. So whether you’re new to Photo & Graphic Designer MX, or thinking about upgrading, it’s well worth giving the program a closer look.

Getting started

If you’re a design novice (or just uninspired) then you might start exploring Photo & Graphic Designer MX at its Design Gallery, where you’ll find plenty of professionally-designed project templates (many new to this version) to help you get started. There are brochures and business cards, calendars, CD covers, greetings cards and more, and while some designs are a little bland there are plenty of quality templates to choose from.

The program provides lots of templates, clipart, photo objects and other content to help you get started

Xara claim Photo & Graphic Designer MX 8 is also better at importing documents from the web, along with SVG, PDF or RAW files. The results still proved variable in our tests, particularly with web pages, but remain useful (they’re at least a simple way to import the text and graphics from a page).

Even if you’re starting with a blank page, the Designs Gallery can assist with clipart, photo objects, frames, a few stock photos, headings, buttons, icons and more. It’s not perfect – we’d like more colour clipart, and the gallery search tool is poor – but there’s a lot of useful content here.

Figuring out exactly what to do with it isn’t too difficult, either. There’s a lot of functionality here and it can take a little while to learn where everything is, but the interface is sensibly organised with tabbed panels and flyout toolbars.

And if you’re still confused at any point, then a well-thought-out local help file and some useful tutorial movies will quickly point you in the right direction.

Photo work

Tweaking digital images is key to many graphics tasks, and Photo & Graphic Designer MX has a reasonable amount to offer here.

The program’s standard toolbar offers buttons to crop or rotate an image, of course, and can adjust brightness, contrast, sharpness, saturation or temperature, either manually or automatically (and at speed: it’s ultra-fast).

Optimise colours automatically with a click, or take full manual control: it's your call

More interesting options include “Magic Erase”; which does a generally good job of removing unwanted objects from photos; “Perspective correction” fixes some perspective issues with a click; and “Brightness Levels” enables you to adjust levels by dragging a colour curve.

The red-eye remover isn’t as successful, essentially just manually painting over the affected area. And while the content-aware resizing tool should allow you to resize an image while preserving the proportions of the key content, results range from amazing to utterly useless.

Still, the program’s support for Photoshop plugins is a major plus. You get 46; colour tweaks, blurs, deformations and distortions, including an amazing Art filter to transform your images into gorgeous paintings (not exactly a new idea, but a great implementation).

Useful new tools this time include a Colour Erase/ Selection option, which allows you to select areas based on their colour alone. A new Hue Adjustment dialog makes it easy to tint your images, the Clone Tool now works more reliably, and there are a few smaller improvements, too.

Put it all together and Photo & Graphic Designer MX 8 will never be our favourite photo editor, then, but it’s more than powerful enough for most purposes, and can easily be extended via an extra Photoshop plugin or two if you need something more.

Graphic design

Move beyond photos and it’s clear that Photo & Graphic Designer MX 8 is an excellent DTP tool. Quality text control makes it easy to set up text to flow smoothly across columns and pages, or have it flow around objects with customisable margins. And new web-like Text Styles allow you to change the look of your project in seconds. Just tweak the font, colour or some other aspect of your “heading” style (for instance), and all the text using that style will be updated immediately.

The program’s illustration abilities are even better, with some very powerful vector drawing tools. You’re able to draw lines, curves and shapes freehand, or use the QuickShape tools to draw assorted pre-set shapes in moments. And if something doesn’t look quite right, just drag and pull on lines to adjust or smooth them, then resize or rotate your design until it’s as you intended.

From technical illustrations to real works of art, the drawing tools here can handle it all

Of course that’s just the start. If you’d then like to convert your shape or outline to a 3D object, just click the 3D toolbar option, click the shape, and drag: that’s it. It’s just as easy to apply contours, fills, bevels, shadows and other effects. And these can include the Photoshop plugins, too: if you want to, say, turn a vector object of your own into an oil painting (or whatever), it only takes a moment.

And if the design still isn’t quite right, the new Shape Eraser tool allows you to further shift the edge of a shape inwards, or you can effectively paint over it entirely. This isn’t destructive, either, because all you’re doing is making part of the shape transparent: the underlying object is still there, and can be restored if you need it.

Photo & Graphic Designer MX even has some useful web graphic options, with tools to create image maps, simple GIF and Flash animations, even online photo galleries. These seem a little more basic than the rest of the package, but that’s only because the best of the web development tools (full website creation, navbars, e-commerce, widgets, presentations, more) have been saved for Photo & Graphic Designer MX’s big brother, Xara Designer Pro X 8 ($299).

If you’re happy with the web basics, though, Xara Photo & Graphic Designer MX 8 makes an excellent graphics choice, with powerful illustration tools, quality DTP, surprisingly capable photo editing and a host of useful extras. Whether there’s enough in this version to justify an upgrade is tricky – we’d say yes, but there’s no single killer new feature – but if you’re new to the package then it looks like a real bargain to us.

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