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Review: Xara Designer Pro 6

28 June 2010, Mike Williams

There are many different ways to get creative with graphics, and satisfying all those needs can require an entire library of applications. So you’ll open one program for photo editing, another for web graphics, a third for desktop publishing, and the list goes on.

Maybe, though, there is a another way. Xara Designer Pro 6 is a photo editor, yes. But it’s also a vector drawing tool. A web graphics creator. An excellent desktop publishing tool, with templates to help you build calendars, greetings cards, brochures, business cards, CD covers and labels, newspapers and more. An easy to use and very capable WYSIWYG web designer, a useful collection of 3,000 clipart items, and more.

There is a down side to this level of graphics power, of course: the interface can be confusing, at least initially. Open a photo to edit it, for instance, and the toolbars remain packed with options that you probably don’t need right now (extrude and transparency tools, “snap to objects”, link properties and more). The menus offer little help, too, so it’ll probably take some exploration before you find the options you require.

This isn’t an issue for too long, though. After a little time spent pointing and clicking, or maybe consulting the excellent Help file, you soon learn where everything is and are ready to start using the functions on offer.

Photo editing

Designer Pro 6 opens images in all the main formats (including PSD and many RAW variants), then provides an “Enhance” toolbar for quick tweaks. Brightness, contrast, saturation, temperature, and blur/ sharpness can all be adjusted separately through sliders, or if you prefer the easy life, then just click the Enhance button and the program will optimise them all automatically.

There are a reasonable number of filters here, too, and they’re mostly very configurable. You don’t just get a locked “Emboss” option, for example – this one lets you set direction, light colour, luminous intensity, shine, angle of incidence, depth, smoothing and reflection. And support for Photoshop plugins means it’s easy to find and add any other effects you might require.

Importantly, a new Mask feature finally allows you to apply these effects to a selected area of an image.

And there are a host of other useful additions. Content-aware zoom allows you to get a closer look at the focus of your photograph, without changing its overall dimensions. A Perspective Correction tool provides a simple way to fix many common perspective problems. The Levels dialog now lets you construct a manual brightness curve for detailed brightness control. An EXIF viewer displays basic image metadata, and this is now preserved when JPEGs are exported.

Xara is playing “catch up” here, to an extent, and the new features aren’t always as easy to use as we’d like. Still, the various improvements do mean that Designer Pro 6 can now be taken seriously as a photo editor – you may never have to use anything else.


Designer Pro 6 is, at heart, a vector drawing tool, and the program provides plenty of useful options to help you get creative.

It’s easy to create freehand lines, curves and shapes, for instance. If a curve isn’t quite right then you can have the program smooth it out. The Quick Shape, Rectangle and Ellipse tools help you draw shapes, and everything you draw has handles for easy resizing and rotation.

New to this version is live shape drawing, where you see a solid shape (not just an outline), with the correct fill and line colours, as you drag. Which means there’s no guessing how a particular idea will turn out, as you can the results immediately: it’s a far more WYSIWYG approach and helps you work more quickly.

And if you use pressure-sensitive tablets then you should find Designer Pro 6 delivers better results, producing accurate real-time variable-width lines as you draw with a pressure pen.

Elsewhere the design tools are mostly as they’ve always been (which isn’t really a problem, as they’ve always been impressive). The Extrude tool makes it easy to turn any shape into a properly rendered 3D object, and you might then add soft shadows or bevels to objects in a click. Variable transparency, clever contouring and a host of fills provide even more creative possibilities.

There is one appealing addition, though, in the shape of the new opacity masks, which will quickly create an irregular transparent shape around any object, or group of objects. They’re easy to create, just draw a shape around your subject and Designer Pro does the hard work. Then paste it into your image, and admire the results: they’re perfect for creating a vignette or soft fade around the subject of a photo, for instance.

And useful text improvements include the text tool’s new ability to handle bullets, numbered lists and indents, as well as a search and replace option.

If you’re upgrading from Xara Xtreme then this may not seem quite enough. If you’re a newcomer to the package, though, Designer Pro 6 provides plenty of creative power and could be enough to handle all your illustration and design needs.

Web tools

If you’ve used the drawing tools to create web graphics then you’ll appreciate the GIF, JPG and PNG (including alpha channel) support. You get full control over the palette, including the ability to lock particular colours so you can be sure they’re always present. You’re able to choose colour depth, dithering and transparency options, minimise apparent anti-aliasing effects, and more.

There’s good support for image slicing and image maps, with Designer Pro 6 doing most of the hard work. If you assign a URL to each object within a document (or an area within that object), perhaps, then you can export it as an image map and the program will generate both the image and the necessary HTML for you.

And it’s reasonably easy to create simple animations in GIF or Flash formats.

The real star in Designer Pro 6, though, is the revamped web designer. If you like to take control yourself then you’ll appreciate the new NavBar object, which helps you quickly create horizontal or vertical NavBars, while DHTML submenus provide their own animation and transparency effects.

Or, if you’re in a hurry, maybe just use one of the bundled web templates – there’s plenty, they look great, and you even get a few fully-linked 8-page sites. Insert your own content and they’re ready to go.

It’s now much easier to add all kinds of files of files to your site. Drag and drop an MP4 video onto the page, say, a Flash video player will be embedded, and the video uploaded to your web server. You’d prefer a slideshow? Just drag and drop the photos onto the page, set the appropriate options and Designer Pro 6 will build the necessary code for you.

And easy-to-use Widgets allow you to add all kinds of interactivity and features to your site: contact forms, e-commerce options, YouTube videos, Flickr slideshows, Google maps, RSS feeds, Facebook and Twitter comment, and more. Just drag and drop whatever you need onto the page, configure it accordingly and once again Designer Pro 6 will handle all the difficult bits.

Experienced web designers may be frustrated by the lack of low-level control. And the HTML code generated here isn’t always as efficient as it could be (though it’s generally good enough). If you just want to generate an attractive site at speed, though, Designer Pro 6 does the job very well, delivering feature-packed and professional-looking pages even if you’ve no previous web design experience.

More features

Designer Pro 6 also comes with a sizeable collection of document templates in an easier-to-use hierarchical Designs Gallery (no more hunting around for the examples you need). There are calendars, photo albums, greetings cards, brochures, CD and DVD labels, a new “interactive presentations” category and more.

The designs are generally high quality, and in some cases deliver notably more than you might think. Open the Business Cards and Letters category, say, and along with the standard fax cover, invoice and statement, you’ll find almost 50 themes providing matching business cards, compliments slips and letterhead designs. Customise the content and you’ll have a complete business stationery set in minutes.

And while you can get most of this functionality in the much cheaper Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 6, Designer Pro does have plenty of features that are all its own.

The website creator is strictly Designer Pro-only, for instance.

Photo editing improvements include HD Photo/ Windows Media Photo import, and an enhanced Panorama Studio for stitching together any number of photos, and even creating 360 degree web panoramas.

Multi-core CPU support improves performance, while the option to reconfigure shortcut keys may help your workflow. PANTONE libraries can be used as spot and process colours. And when you’ve finished your work, Designer Pro 6 can now export the results as colour separations, XPS or even PDF/X files, the latter providing complete control over every aspect of the finished PDF file.

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