• Price When Reviewed: $149 (around £102.34) plus VAT

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X not only marks the spot, but darn well hits it too if Xara X is anything to go by. Not only does this version offer up one the most significant upgrades to the value-packed vector-arts application, it’s also the first release of the tool since it divorced from Corel and changed its name from CorelXara. Xara X – as it’s now called – offers many compelling reasons to upgrade, not least of which is its sheer speed. Xara X is fast, even lightning quick when it comes to redraw speeds and stroke manipulation, and is equally swift for creating bitmap files. By keeping the feature-set substantially more lightweight than other packages such as Deneba Canvas or Adobe Illustrator, Xara X delivers the main staples needed for a designer’s daily creative diet, without sacrificing speed for a bloated feature-set. That said, this upgrade sees significant strides in several areas: a impressive collection of Web tools for creating streamlined, online graphics, plus real-time effects and working when using tools such as brushes. A great timesaver, the real-time deployment of brush strokes – including simulated air brushing – remain fully editable, so you can chop and change your artwork instantly. Perhaps the biggest change is a comprehensive Web focus. Now, Xara X includes tools to create sliced images and automatically generate rollover buttons from slice states – all HTML and JavaScript is written behind the scenes. Other tools, such as an automatic bevel-creation tool, make creating Web buttons a snap. Other Web-centric features include tight integration with Macromedia Dreamweaver and the ability to export Macromedia Flash files in .swf format. However, it’s here where Xara X is slightly disappointing, able only to export static graphics to Flash, lacking as it does any animation capabilities. And while the static images are good – it makes sense to use a cheaper vector tool such as Xara X to create images to be uses as symbols and so on in Flash – some kind of animation features would have been welcome. That said, the ability to optimize graphics, including the now mandatory multi-frame preview of images before export, and low-level control over colour palettes and transparency perform well. A collection of Web templates, clip art and buttons is bundled with the package to help kick off the creative process, and the addition of RGB hex Web colour support and a Websafe colour palette is good. Especially neat: the linked stretching of objects that makes creating and then editing buttons and navigation bars a simpler process. For the non-Web creative, Xara X hasn’t been skimpy on the new features, either. As well as the excellent real-time brush stokes, a fully interactive shadow tool debuts that provides a simple way to create smooth, soft shadows. A contour tool for expanding the borders of an object features, as does a multi-stage live and interactive graduated colour fill feature – which works along the lines of those found in high-end vector-art tools. Other tweaks abound. A new Names gallery is handy for grouping objects together in a project and gaining swift access to them, while bitmaps that are scaled and rotated are now displayed as antialiased objects. An improved eye-dropper tool features, and graphics-tablet users are now offered full support for using pressure-sensitive pens. It’s also the little changes that help lift it into a league that’s way above its price range. The likes of PNG alpha channel support, better transparency handling, a revamped blend tool (including editable blends on a curve), and a bitmap file preview in the import dialog all offer workflow improvements that should speed the creative process. Xara X has come a long way since it was marketed by Corel, and with the tool back in the hands of its British owners, great things have come about in this upgrade. OK, so this is no Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia FreeHand, but it’s ideal for down-&-dirty creative work, and for the majority of daily design grind. However, a quick note on prices. Xara quotes its prices in US dollars – even for the UK market – and you have to convert at the day’s exchange rate when you purchase. It’s an odd system, but for around £102.34 not a bad purchase at all.