Xtreme Illustrations

by Dan Sawyer

If you really, really need Adobe Illustrator, you can use Wine or CrossOver. If you don't, a number of options are available, the most popular among them being Inkscape, which I've used as needed for a couple years now. It's a good program, and among the available open-source vector graphics apps, it's right up near the top of the heap for feature completeness, quality of implementation and lack of bugs, but it's not without its problems.

First, it's slow. The memory footprint—especially when a large illustration is loaded—is heftier than The GIMP's, an app that is not noted for its modest memory usage and speedy response when editing complicated projects. The slowness quickly becomes apparent when using Inkscape to work at the coffee shop on my less-than-top-of-the-line laptop instead of at home on my holy-crap-it's-HAL graphics workstation. When you're in a groove trying to create and polish something, having to wait for the program to catch up really, really sucks.

My second beef with Inkscape (and really, I only have the two), is the interface. Now, I'm willing to go a long way to learn an interface, and in theory, I like Inkscape's two-fisted approach. After all, I'm the guy who prefers Blender over other the legal, licensed commercial 3-D and compositing systems I have in my shop because of its two-fisted approach—relying on hotkeys for the commands and the mouse for manipulation makes the work flow fast. The problem I've always had working with Inkscape though, is that its command map is about four miles long, and most of the common functions still require two key combinations. Although I like the concept, the implementation takes a long time to learn, and the keystrokes aren't organized in a manner that lends itself to deducing different functions easily by experimentation.

The ideal situation would be to get a program that's just as well thought out as Inkscape, just as bugless, but that has a faster work flow and a smaller footprint. A fuller feature set would be nice too, but I don't begrudge a project at 0.46 for not yet having all its features in place. Still, a few extra tools to take it up into the class of high-end professional illustration software would be nice.

Enter Xara Xtreme, which almost does this very thing. Until last year, Xara X was a professional, closed-source, Windows-only commercial app that garnered excellent reviews in PC World and won a number of awards both for its performance and its habit of underselling the rest of the market. However, when Adobe bought up Macromedia and then Microsoft announced its intention to enter the graphics market in a signature Microsoftian way (that is, with the intention of squeezing out all the small players, marginalizing Adobe and capturing the market using substandard products with ultra-slick marketing and ubiquitous sales placement), Xara saw the writing on the wall and figured it needed a way to stay in the game. Somehow it needed to cut costs, turn out a superior product and capture market space being neglected or deliberately marginalized by the two big kids fighting over the playground.

Companies like MySQL and SugarCRM have used the open-source development model to great effect—maintaining a freely accessible GPL tree and then offering value-added packages with proprietary code, support and other goodies as the mainstay of their businesses. It's a strategy that, when conducted properly, results in everyone winning—the people the company employs get to keep their jobs, the community developers get a fun challenge and a hell of a résumé entry, the broader community gets to use the free version of the product, the clients that need the value-added services can purchase it for far less than the competition, and the company gets to continue existing and (hopefully) turning a profit.

Xara decided to pursue the same strategy, with only a modest change in terms of its goals. It wants to take over the world—it says so right on its Web site. It correctly notes that there are a dearth of pro-level graphics apps for Linux and Mac, and that the few goodies there are for Mac actually may go away, depending on which way the bricks blow off the Adobe building, and Xara thinks it can do something about it. So, Xara pulled the GPL judo and is hoping it sends it to the top of the stack, at least where artists are concerned.

Because of this, Xara has an excellent incentive to play nice, and that's exactly what it seems to be doing. Xara has positioned itself well strategically with regards to the GPL—both to protect its business model and to protect it from the kind of trolling that SCO recently engaged in against, well, everyone. As such, Xara will accept code only from developers who explicitly (and in writing) permit this arrangement, thus covering everyone's backside.

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.


Despite the niggling bad points, I'm thoroughly impressed with Xara Xtreme, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a proper pro-level graphics app on Linux. Although squirrelly with imports and extremely large canvas sizes, for most projects, this program will serve nicely. It's suitable for design, for translating photos into vector-based paintings, for creating animation characters and for designing all kinds of Web graphics, print graphics, logos and mock-ups. The gallery on the Web site makes it clear that, with two months of use, I've still scratched only the surface of this deceptively simple program. Well worth the download, Xara Xtreme requires almost no time to learn and produces professional results, even in the hands of the most novice professional.

In the graphics space, this is how programs should be designed. Hooray for Xara for its decision to open source its project. Let's hope, in the long run, that decision pays off as handsomely for the company as it already is for this community member.


Xara Xtreme can be downloaded from www.xaraxtreme.org.

A quick series of comprehensive video tutorials to bring new users up to speed can be found at www.xaraxtreme.org/about/movies.html.

Inkscape, the current open-source top dog and still an excellent program, can be obtained at www.inkscape.org.

Dan Sawyer is the founder of ArtisticWhispers Productions (www.artisticwhispers.com), a small audio/video studio in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been an enthusiastic advocate for free and open-source software since the late 1990s, when he founded the Blenderwars filmmaking community (www.blenderwars.com). He currently is the host of “The Polyschizmatic Reprobates Hour”, a cultural commentary podcast, and “Sculpting God”, a science-fiction anthology podcast. Author contact information is available at www.jdsawyer.net.

Load Disqus comments

Firstwave Cloud