June 7, 2006

First look: Xara Xtreme LX

Author: Bruce Byfield

Xara Xtreme LX (Xara LX), the port of Xara's flagship graphics program released under the GNU General Public License, has been developing rapidly since the first code was released in March. The patches have been coming so quickly that any review promised to be obsolete before it was published. That is still true, but, with version 0.5 being treated as a milestone by the company, the time for a first look has finally arrived. Those familiar with the Windows version of Xara Xtreme will know what to expect. Those new to the program will find a highly contextual interface and precision tools that are quick to learn and easy to use, and marred only by the absence of a few key features and extras.

Xara Xtreme has been critically acclaimed on the Windows platform for years. Although primarily a scaleable vector graphics (SVG) program, competing against such products as Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia FreeHand, and CorelDraw, it also includes enough features to be an alternative to raster graphics programs such as Adobe Photoshop, especially for the budget-minded. As explained in an earlier Newsforge article, the development of Xara LX is a bold gamble by the company to expand its base of programmers and to develop the GNU/Linux market ahead of its rivals.

Xara LX is available for download in three formats: as a binary in a tar file, as source code, and as an Autopackage archive. Because the program uses wxWidgets rather than Qt or GTK, and has several other dependencies, the Autopackage archive is by far the easiest choice to use. Besides automatically installing the dependencies, Autopackage gives you the option of installing for a single user only, which sidesteps the possibility of any system-wide problems that might arise from unstable software.

The editing window

Xara LX's interface closely resembles the Window's version. The main tools, which are arranged down the left side of the editing window, are similar to those of most SVG programs; besides tools for selecting objects and drawing basic shapes, they include ones for freehand drawing, text, fill, transparency, and shadow.

Xara Xtreme XL - click to enlarge

What is unusual in both versions of Xara Xtreme is the economy with which functions are displayed. Many functions are not listed in the main menu, and, unlike Adobe graphics products or the GIMP, Xtreme makes only limited use of floating palettes -- mostly for utilities, such as the Layer Gallery or the Color Editor. A casual user might easily conclude that the program lacked some expected features. The truth is, most of the functionality is available either from the Info bar or the right-click menu for a selected object. Since the content of both changes with the type of object, when a function is unavailable, it may not be on the interface.

Some features, too, are in places where users of other SVG programs might not expect them. For example, the Layer Gallery is listed as a sub-item in Utilities -> Galleries, instead of being a top-level item. Similarly, gradients are grouped in the Fill tool instead of being a separate item.

Other functions are hidden by the fact that they are mouse-driven. Colors can dragged and dropped from the color selector at the bottom of the editing window, while users can zoom in on a selected area by outlining it with the mouse. You can select multiple objects either by lassooing them with the mouse, or pressing the Shift key and the left mouse button. For more complex operations, you can use multiple mouse-clicks to change the purpose of the handles on selected objects from resizing or reshaping to rotation, or to select successive objects in a stack.

In short, Xara LX's interface is highly contextual and sometimes unconventional. While few of its interface characteristics are unique, the combination of so many of them is. New users may find themselves scrambling at first, or resorting to the online help or company Web site more often than they are used to. But once they understand the basic logic -- and learn to pay attention to the status bar at the bottom of the window -- they will quickly find Xara LX's editing window both refreshingly uncluttered and outstandingly efficient. If it's mainly a program for serious users, the consistency of the interface ensures that it is reasonably accessible to home users as well.

Elegance and details

Like other mature graphics programs, Xara LX has far too many features to describe more than a few in detail. However, all of them are characterized by simplicity and fine-grained control.

The simplicity can best be seen in the Fill tool. Set to Flat fill in the Info bar, the Fill tool colors a selected object, just as dragging from the color selector does. Set to any of the other 10 options, it creates a gradient within the object. Each type of gradient can be further refined by choosing additional options on the Info bar. The exact position of each gradient is defined by one or more guide lines within the object. Each guide line can be dragged with the mouse to reposition the gradient, and the colors in the gradient can be changed by dragging and dropping from the color selector. Other main tools, including the Transparency, Shadow, Bevel, and Contour tools, work much the same way, using a few simple interactions to create numerous possibilities.

The degree of control in Xara LX's tools is especially obvious with the text tool. Like many graphics programs, Xara LX has the ability to create text objects, using a variety of fonts and font weights, and giving the characters left, right, center, or full justification. What is more unusual is that Xara LX also offers tools more commonly found in desktop publishing programs, including kerning (adjusting the spacing between selected letters), and tracking (the average space between all letters). The base line can also be shifted for individual letters. Once entered, the text object can be selected and angled, rotated, or flipped like any other kind of object. Most of the main tools show a similar array of controls. You don't need to use all of them -- you can, for example, simply draw an object using the grid as a reference for size and never look at the Info bar for its precise size in pixels. Yet, for any layout work, having precision tools available can make all the difference to improve work speed and results alike.

All the tools are backed by a full set of general options. The default options can be set in Utilities -> Options, or for the current document in File -> Page Options. Many of these options set the amount of memory allotted for basic purposes such as showing recent documents, redraws, or undo, and are especially important if your machine has a limited amount of RAM or you are working on a large project. Others offer customizing options for the grid or for mouse actions or the default units of measurement. Like the tools within the program, these options are set to sensible defaults, but offer simple but powerful control for those who need it.

Features still to implement

Version 0.5 is enough to give a sense of what Xara LX will be like when it's finished, but the Debug menu on the right serves as a reminder that the program is still a work in progress. In general, version 0.5 is both stable and quick, taking less than 10 seconds to open a 60MB file that both the GIMP and OpenOffice.org Draw take more than twice as long to process, and that other graphics program crash trying to handle. Still, random crashes and the occasional screen freeze during redraws do occur.

Nor are the features complete. The Freehand line and brush tool has its smoothing feature for improving the look of a freehand line, but brushes have still to be implemented, which means the thickness of a freehand line cannot be changed. Similarly, files can only be saved to Xara's native format, and only three basic formats -- JPEG, GIF, and PNG -- can be imported into the program. Only a temporary, somewhat disorganized Help file is available. Other features, such as Xtreme's tool for creating animated GIFs, are unimplemented, although listed in the menu or on a tool bar.

For many, the most important missing feature is probably the Xara Picture Editor (XPE). In Windows, XPE gives Xtreme much of its ability to edit raster graphics, resizing and cropping them while exporting. It is especially useful as part of the export file, allowing on-the-fly changes. Without it, users can get no sense of how Xara LX compares to the GIMP, or of how useful it is for editing photographs.

Many of the extras that make the Windows version an attractive graphic program are not included, either. These missing extras include the clipart and font galleries. Another missing set of extras is the demo movies, although some are downloadable from the Xara LX site, or from the main Xara site. However, users should note that the demos from the main site may refer to features that have yet to be implemented in Xara LX.

These missing features are only to be expected in an unfinished product. All the same, they mean that Xara LX 0.5 is not ready for anything except the lightest of professional work. It should be considered simply a preview.

Conclusion

Many of the unimplemented features should eventually find their way into the final version of Xara LX. Others, such as the fonts, which are proprietary, will not. Possibly, some will be reserved for a commercial version of the product. A few may be replaced by a free software version; for example, it is easy to imagine that the clipart gallery might be replaced by the Open Clip Art Gallery.

The thought of a leading tool like Xara Xtreme becoming available for GNU/Linux is enough to make any free software supporter with an interest in graphic design sit up and pay attention. Yet, more than anything, the question of how these unimplemented features are developed will have a major influence on how Xara LX's 1.0 release is received. Although version 0.5 is tantalizing, without many of these unimplemented features, the final version of the program threatens to be crippled, neither attracting professional graphic designers to the GNU/Linux platform nor offering home users anything except an alternative to Inkscape. By contrast, with these features -- or replacements of comparable quality -- Xara LX promises to be the most important gift from the proprietary world to free software since OpenOffice.org.

Click Here!