Xtreme Illustrations

Not only is Xara Extreme a Linux-compatible alternative to Inkscape, but now it even has its roots into the Open Source community as well.
The Good

Opening it up, Xara Xtreme has two very obvious good points: it's well laid out, and it's fast. As I noted before, I do most of the draft-phase of my illustration work on my laptop in a coffee shop (when you run your own business, you don't actually meet a lot of people unless you make it a point to go somewhere). Laptops make it possible to do a day's work without setting foot in the office, depending on the day. Unfortunately, a proper graphics laptop still will cost you your grandmother's dentures recapped with diamonds, so my mobile rig is a bit more modest. As such, I care about speed. Programs that are bloated, overcomplicated or poorly engineered don't last long on my hard drive unless there is no other tool available. Xara is well engineered and handles big documents without lagging, particularly compared to Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape. Of course, it is possible to overload it—eventually, one meets the end of one's RAM—but you have to work at it.

The other glorious thing about this little program is the design. Far too often with graphics programs, the interface gets in the way. Mountains of opaque floating menus that bury your work—something that runs directly counter to the purpose of working in a visual medium—is generally de rigueur for this application space. Less egregious, but still irritating, is the tendency to bury commonly used tools in menus, submenus and under the rock in the corner. Xara, being a mature application that has, for years, had to fight for its market position, has kept its interface lean and accessible. It quite simply doesn't even get in your way. Alpha gradients, color gradients, distortion tools, primitives, freehand drawing tools, 3-D extrusion and skewing tools, rotation, and just about every other sort of basic manipulation is comfortably situated on the left-hand toolbar. Context toolbars appear conveniently along the top of the drawing space, and they contain a few nifty tricks that, if not unique to Xara, certainly are unique in their thoroughness.

For example, in Inkscape and Illustrator, when you add a primitive object, you have a certain amount of control over how it winds up looking. In any decent vector graphics app, once a shape is on the page, you can edit its size, height and width, and in some cases, you can increase or decrease the number of sides and perhaps change the number of points, if it's a star. If all those fail, you can grab the bezier handles and tweak the shape manually. In Xara, you get one better. You can do all those things, but you also can change the type of object it is on the fly—polygon to circle to star—just by selecting it and pressing the button corresponding to what shape you want.

Xara's 3-D tools, although not yet fully implemented, are a cut above other open-source competitors. The bevel tool is at the left on the main toolbar and works splendidly, and—unlike other open-source apps—in Xara, you can adjust the color and direction of the light bevel without going into submenus or subscreens. According to the documentation, you actually can use the bevel and contour tools to do honest-to-goodness extrusion, but having tried for a while to pull this off, I'm forced to conclude that parts of the tools are as-yet unimplemented in Linux, because it doesn't currently work as advertised (in the Windows version, however, this isn't a problem).

The final point in Xara's favor over Inkscape is its orientation. Xara is designed for artists, period. It's geared at people who aren't, and never will be, programmers. Quite a bit of Inkscape's best functionality requires far too much familiarity with XML, scripting and arcane geometric mathematics to be accessible to a run-of-the-mill graphic artist. I've been doing 3-D work for long enough that I can stumble my way through, but in a lot of cases, it's just more trouble than it's worth, and I'll do my roughs in Inkscape and then import the .svg into Blender to do the finishing touches. In Xara Xtreme, finished projects are far more obtainable without resorting to helper applications.

The Bad

Despite these good points, Xara currently is limited in some fairly irritating ways. First, there is no 64-bit binary. The available 32-bit binary works fine in compatibility mode, but taking advantage of my processor's full bandwidth required compiling the source, and it wasn't the easiest compile in the world.

It's also still very much a work in progress. Porting a commercial app with a number of chunks of third-party code to a foreign platform using only open code is a nontrivial task, and at the time of this writing, there is still a healthy list of features that work in Windows but not in Linux. A number of features and effects present in Inkscape aren't yet available in Xara, and for now, it is wise to run both programs just in case you end up needing a tool in one that's not available in the other.

I've also discovered a bug, which I've filed with Xara's bug tracker, with .eps import. As part of my testing process, I did a number of import/export operations with the different file formats Xara supports. The Adobe Illustrator .eps file format seems to import everything rotated 90° off prime, which is irritating by itself, but can be a fatal flaw for some projects when combined with another bug. It seems, you see, that Xara can't zoom out past 10% of the view, and in the case of one file I tested, that limitation ruined the project. The object in question was a 60" wide timeline on which I plotted a recent novel—it had several hundred detailed text entries cross-correlated in a number of ways, with a navigation key at the bottom. Upon importing it with the Illustrator .eps format, the rotation bug put half the length of the timeline out of my reach—no matter what I did, I could neither enlarge the canvas enough to encompass the whole project for rotation, nor could I zoom back far enough to grab all the constituent parts and drag them back into the workspace. For that project, it's a deal-killer.

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