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Review: Xara Web Designer MX 8 Premium

03 April 2012, Mike Williams

Some people see WYSIWYG web builders as basic, limited, strictly for novice home users who’ll be satisfied with the poor quality templates and limited customisation options they usually offer.

Xara Web Designer MX 8 Premium, fortunately, has a very different philosophy.

Simple e-commerce tools can be added with a drag and drop

Sure, there is a strong focus on ease of use, but Xara hasn’t forgotten that quality matters, too. So the program’s professionally designed multi-page templates get you off to a good start; Xara’s years of experience with desktop publishing means they’re all exceptionally customisable; and the ability to embed YouTube videos, Google maps, PayPal buttons, contact forms, social networking features and more will help you to produce stylish sites which will appeal to a wide audience.

And there’s also some depth here, with far more functionality than you’ll find in most similar products. You get support for building Flash animations, for instance, or creating page and layer transition effects, and the excellent web presentation tools make it easy to create and showcase professional presentations. If you’re looking to build something more than just a simple, personal website then Web Designer definitely merits a closer look.

Attractive templates

The creative process starts with you browsing the Designs Gallery, where you’ll find Web Designer’s website templates. There are only 40 of these, and they aren’t presented particularly well (you can’t easily compare designs side by side). Most of them look reasonably attractive, though – see for yourself here – and they’re also multi-page, with built-in navigation, so just by double-clicking your preferred template you’ll immediately have a working website.

Thumbnails give you a quick look at each website template design

You’ll still have to provide your own content, of course, but that’s easy enough. Click in a text area and start typing to add your own words; right-click an image and select “Replace” to insert your own photos; drag and drop a new colour scheme from the Designs Gallery if you don’t like the default, and so on.

And it really is that straightforward, too, thanks to Web Designer 8’s more intelligent approach to resizing text areas. There’s no longer any need to manually reposition objects or drag the bottom of the page down as content grows; the program now automatically handles this for you, so it all feels very natural, just like working in a word processor.

If you’d like to get a little more creative, though, then the Design Gallery also includes clipart, photos, icons, headings, buttons, navigation bars and more. With over 3,000 items of high quality clipart and photo objects alone it’s surprisingly comprehensive. And adding items to a page is, for the most part, just a matter of dragging and dropping, with the program even asking if you’d like to adapt an object’s colour scheme to match the website. Although there are still occasional complications, here and there (replacing your template’s navigation bar with another, say, can be a challenge).

Alternatively, expert users can always start with a blank page and build their site from scratch. And if you’re looking to start with another design then Web Designer now claims improved import from the web, PPTX, ODP and PDF files. We’re still not overly impressed – web import remains slow and unreliable – but if you just need to extract the text and graphics from a page then it could still be useful.

Adding interactivity

Web Designer can add interactivity to your sites via its “widgets”, essentially chunks of custom HTML which embed all kinds of features into your sites: media players, RSS feeds, slideshows, Facebook and Twitter gadgets, chatrooms, forums and more. Most options just open web pages which you then need to configure to produce the results you need – the Google Search widget takes you here, for instance – so there’s nothing too advanced involved, but it’s still a useful feature which can extend your site in many different ways.

The new Charts widget uses mouseover events to highlight the raw data

The Premium edition of Web Designer extends these with a handy QR Code widget, enabling you to convey a line of text or URL to any mobile scanning device. And a well-designed Chart widget allows you to create column, bar and areas charts (both regular and stacked), line charts, pie graphs and more, each of which use mouseover events to display the underlying figures (see Xara’s example charts to get a feel for the finished results).

And the Premium edition’s Presentations feature is almost as impressive. You only get 13 templates, but they’re all nicely done, with professional animations and transitions to show you what’s possible. As with the websites, they’re easily customisable to suit your needs. And there’s a very convenient addition in the new slide navigation menu. Move your mouse to the bottom left of the slideshow and you’ll find Previous, Home and Next buttons, as well as a menu of the entire presentation so you can jump to whatever slide you like.

New features

We’ve detailed a few of the new Web Designer MX 8 Premium features already, but there are plenty of others.

Support for text styles is one notable addition. If you’ve spent a while choosing the precise font, size, style and colour for a banner headline, say, you can now create a style based on all those attributes. Select the banner on another page, give it that style and it’ll be updated immediately. And if you decide later that the bright green text doesn’t quite work after all, change the style and everything with that style applied (across all your pages) will be updated immediately. Which all works well enough, although the template sites aren’t styled by default, so to use this feature you’ll have to create styles and apply them manually (wherever appropriate) to each page.

The "Art" option is just one of 40 Photoshop filters now bundled with the program

Web Designer Premium MX 8 now also supports Microsoft’s Embedded OpenType (EOT), which means that if you use a non-web-safe font on a page then the program can embed this in your site. Sounds good, but of course this generates more files to download (embedding “Broadway” added 118KB to our test page, for instance). And if your visitors aren’t using IE then they may not be able to see the font anyway, so this may be a feature to ignore.

There’s better news with the new Live Effects tool, which allows you to apply Photoshop plug-in effects to both bitmap and vector graphics. Especially as you get 40 filters thrown in (sharpens, blurs, colour tweaks, deformations, and a great art filter, amongst others).

And the program has plenty of welcome smaller features, everywhere you look. Bullet or numbered lists can now use your choice of bullet or number character, for instance. You’re at last able to set the frame rate of AVI animations. And layer animations now take advantage of hardware acceleration on iOS devices, delivering faster, smoother results.

Put it all together and Web Designer MX 8 Premium retains a good balance of features, then, with plenty here to keep experienced users happy, while still remaining easy enough for beginners to handle. So if you’re looking to build a website with the minimum of hassle then we’d recommend taking the trial for a spin, just to see how much you can achieve.

If your needs are basic, though, keep in mind that Xara also produces a standard Web Designer MX 8 edition. This drops a lot of advanced features – presentations, animations, Live Effects/ Photoshop plugin support, HTML5 video, the chart widget and a lot of content, amongst others – but it’s half the price, and could be a more sensible choice if you just need to create a straightforward personal site.

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