This friendly, highly polished illustration package excels at creating graphics and logos, and can turn its hand to DTP
Xara Xtreme is an illustration package for creating logos, diagrams, website buttons and other graphics.
Version 4 introduced features that made it an excellent choice for desktop publishing (DTP) projects too, and you can even use it to produce basic web pages without having to worry about the intricacies of web programming languages.
Xtreme 5 is much easier to get to grips with than pricier software such as Adobe Illustrator. It’s also extremely quick to use. The interface remains responsive even when you’re manipulating complex designs. Better still, most tools are controlled by a set of handles and sliders that float above your artwork. These are far superior to the usual endless array of buttons and drop-down menus. It’s easier to use than Illustrator, which relies heavily on keyboard short cuts to speed up your workflow. Despite this, it has all the functions you’ll need, such as textured fills, variable transparency, drop shadows, bevels, 3D extrusion and lots more besides.
Its web-page-creation capabilities have seen a host of improvements, including rollover graphics that change as the mouse hovers over them and automatic optimisation of photos to keep quality up and file sizes down. These are welcome improvements, but Xtreme is still far from suitable for regular use as a web-design package. Pages are essentially static, with no support for streaming media or interaction with visitors. Still, Xtreme’s web export facilities are welcome for occasional use, as you’re free to design your pages as you wish, leaving the software to worry about web formatting standards. Serious web designers should consider Xara Xtreme for its ability to export simple animations in Flash format.
Content-aware rescaling is a new feature that aims to stretch photos into new shapes without making the key elements look deformed. It does this by analysing a photo to work out what the main subject is, and then stretching or squeezing only the other areas of the image, leaving the main subject unaffected. This may sound like a fairly niche tool, but we’ve often been in situations where a chosen image doesn’t quite fit the layout of a DTP or web page. Adobe’s Photoshop CS4 also offers content-aware scaling, but it costs £450.
Sadly, Xtreme 5’s subject detection wasn’t particularly reliable in our tests – it doesn’t appear to use face detection to power this feature, for instance. The software often got it almost right but still stretched a shoulder or other body part. However, it was easy to define the main subject area manually by drawing a mask around it, after which the feature worked extremely well. Not all photos leant themselves to the process, but for the odd occasion when it’s likely to be useful, we anticipate being very grateful for it.
Other new and improved features boost Xara Xtreme 5’s standing as a desktop-publishing program. The new Object Gallery organises individual elements by page and then by layer, making multiple-page documents easier to manage. Spellchecking is now built in, with support for 11 European languages, although we didn’t like the way the check-as-you-type mode underlined words as incorrect before we’d finished typing them.
There’s a long list of other text-related improvements, including the ability to attach graphic objects to a point in a text box so that they keep their position relative to the updated text. This is useful for images that appear in the margins of a layout, but sadly this function can’t be used at the same time as the Repel text command for making text wrap round a graphic. Still, Xtreme now compares well with dedicated DTP packages, although the lack of a proper clip-art gallery counts against it. The Xtreme Pro version of the software (£199 including VAT) supports colour separations and Pantone colours for professional printing, as well as various other advanced features, but most home users will find everything they need in the standard version.
Xara Xtreme 5 lacks any must-have new features, but there are more than enough worthwhile improvements to justify the £29 upgrade price. For new users, this is easily the best-value illustration package around, and those who don’t need clip art will find it well equipped for DTP projects, too. Best of all, its responsive interface and aptitude for fresh and stylish artwork make it great fun to use.