Sunday, October 27, 2013

Xara Page & Layout Designer

by Tony Thomas


When I first got started doing page layout on computers back in the early 90s, I relied on a handful of desktop publishing programs, most notably Pagemakertm.  Today, most page layout is either done using very expensive professional publishing suites or (much less effectively), on word processing applications like Microsoft Wordtm or Libre Officetm.  Now, Xara has resurrected the DTP genre by providing a solution that delivers a lot of page layout and design power at a very reasonable price: Xara Page & Layout Designer.

Designed as a “document processor”, Xara Page & Layout Designer offers a workflow that will be very familiar to present Xara users and very attractive to those with limited design skills.  As the program offers a rich library of free templates and clipart, you can begin building complex and attractive layouts in seconds by simply dragging and dropping.  Key features include powerful advanced text-handling options (including text flow around objects), a page and layer gallery, web document support, text styles, spell check, and Google font support.

Features totally unexpected for a program in its class include: 3D object creation, integrated drawing and photo editing tools, Pantonetm color support, CMYK separation support plus professional PDF and PDF/X workflow.  In addition, Xara Page & Layout Designer supports a wide range of standard file formats including: RTF, Microsoft Word, JPEG, GIF, BMP, PNG, TIFF, PSD, PDF, EMF, WMF and SVG.

My tests of the program confirmed its ease of use and incredible speed.  I was able to create complex designs quickly and easily, unlike what is possible using traditional word processing apps. At its current price (around $90 US),  Xara Page & Layout Designer is an unrivalled value!

For more information:

www.xara.com

Monday, July 15, 2013

Xara Photo and Graphic Designer 9



I have been using Xara for almost two decades. Not only is it a great drawing tool, but I have also found it useful for general design work, photo editing and compositing. Xara has been able to replace several other tools in my arsenal.

The latest incarnation, Xara Photo and Graphic Designer 9, does not disappoint.  It provides even more powerful photo editing, vector drawing and compositing tools at a rock-bottom price.

New features include:

- A “photo healing”  tool that allows you to remove blemishes and other defects quickly and easily.

- A “background erase” tool that makes it easy to perform tasks that generally require expensive photo editing software.

- New masking tools for complex photo and vector editing tasks.

- A “shape painter” tool that allows to to draw shapes using vector art.

- Google Font support as well as support for multi-weight fonts, graphical bullets and numbers.

- Faster recoloring of grouped items.

- New photo FX plug ins for adding a creative touch.

In using version 9, I found that there are a number of new flyouts in the toolbar interface making it easy to find just the tool you need without any fuss.  There are also a number of new and updated templates that make it easy to get your project started.  I had a lot of fun playing with the new filters and the shape painter and I know that these features will be useful in future projects.

All in all, Xara Photo and Graphic Designer 9 is a strong offering that builds on the solid foundation of the Xara engine.  There is nothing like it for the price!

www.xara.com

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Xara Web Designer 9 Premium




Xara Web Designer 9 Premium is the newest version of the powerful and popular web design application that uses the blazingly-fast Xara graphic engine. I have been a Xara user since 1996, and it has largely replaced my former favorite design tool, CorelDRAW. The latest version of Designer Premium offers a number of great new features. Here are some of them: 64-bit Windows support: if you use a 64-bit version of Windows, you can now take advantage of any memory that you have installed above the former 4GB limitation. What that gives you is the ability to create much larger websites with richer content and high-resolution images. Google Fonts support: One of the biggest recent developments on the web design front is Google's new font collection. Now, from within Xara Designer Premium 9, you can choose any one of the more than 600 fonts that Google offers for free! Drag and Drop Navbar Replacement: Do you need to replace a NavBar in one of your designs? All you need to do is drag and drop the new NavBar on the current one and all of the existing menus and links are copied automatically. New Backgrounds: Designer 9 Premium adds a new collection of color-editable backgrounds including repeating bar designs, tiling textures and graduated fills. To use them, simply drag-and-drop. New Widgets: The program also includes a new collection of widgets that include support for things like basic tables, Google+ buttons and Google's Ad Sense ads. There are also six new photo slideshow and gallery widgets. New Web Theme Designs: Twenty new web themes are included with 15 page layouts each— a $200 value. In addition, there is a new category of themes for businesses like travel agents, hairdressers, pubs, etc. These are completely customized with linked pages and professional photography suited to each business type. High-Resolution Screen Support: Many new devices support high-resolution screens and designer is now up to the task of creating the high resolution photos and web graphics to support them. Not only that, the program automatically creates smart web pages that load the best resolution graphics for system and browser used.
Improved HTML Compatibility: Designer now follows HTML5 standards transparently and without user intervention whenever possible. Shapes and graphics are now displayed using native HTML instead of graphics files. That makes for a faster, more memory-efficient website that is still compatible with older browsers. Quick Re-coloring: This new feature makes it easy to change the individual colors of grouped objects adding both flexibility and speed to the design process. Free Web Hosting: Owners of Web designer premium receive one year of Magix World M hosting with 2 GB of free space, one free domain name and free, web-based e-mail worth nearly $25 a year. For those on a budget, there is also a non-premium version of Web Designer 9 with a slimmed-down feature set at half the price. (Not that Web Designer Premium is that expensive. It is only $99!) While checking out the program, I found that all of the new features are seamlessly integrated into the program’s attractive and clean interface. Designer Premium 9 is as fast and powerful as ever and is an absolute joy to use. These new enhancements make Web Designer Premium 9 a must have program for professional web designers. Its amazing feature set, ease of use and speed make it a tremendous design tool!
http://www.xara.com

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Google Nexus 7 - The Future of Tablets?

First impressions

I finally got a chance to hold and play with a Google Nexus 7 tablet at my local Staples store.  Manufactured by Asus, the Nexus 7 is the first Google experience tablet available.  Equipped with a quad-core nVidia Tegra processor, Jellybean OS, front-facing camera and quality touchscreen display, this tablet offers a lot of computing power at a very attractive price ($199 for 8GB and $249 for 16GB).   Interestingly, despite robust sales, is very difficult to find these tablets locally.  In fact, at Staples, the N7 wasn't located anywhere near all of the other popular tablets.  I found it tucked in its own little corner near the notebook computers.

In terms of form and fit, the N7 seems to resemble other 7 inch tablets.  It does have a very nice textured back which makes it easy to hold and its form factor feels really good in the hand. The display is nice and bright and similar to other Asus displays that I've seen.    In terms of weight, it is quite light and a welcome relief for those of us who have been dealing with larger tablets in the past.

Digging Deeper

Two things that are readily apparent by examining the N7 are its lack of a rear-facing camera and SD card slot.  With only 8 or 16 GB of memory, depending on which model you buy, this tablet is clearly aimed at those who plan to be connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi most of the time (a la the Kindle Fire).  

I believe that these limitations are fatal flaws that may impede sales once the initial popularity of the device starts to fade.  My main 7 inch tablet these days is a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, and I find both the rear camera feature and the micro-SD card slot to be invaluable features that increase its functionality and productivity potential.  Recent news that Google plans to add 3G to the N7 in the near future may increase its longevity as a pure media consumption device.

However, even with those significant limitations, the N7 is an impressive device at its price point.  Its Jellybean OS seems to be an incremental upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich, with a smoother UI experience  ("butter", as Google calls it) and some nice new features.

Final Thoughts

With the introduction of the Nexus 7, it appears that the 7" tablet segment is finally starting to heat up again.  Amazon will be releasing refreshes of its popular Kindle Fire tablets soon and Apple is reportedly its releasing its iPad Mini tablet in October.  I predict that the 7-inch form factor pioneered by Samsung's original Galaxy Tab, the B&N Nook and Amazon's Kindle Fire will eventually become the most popular form factor for tablets.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Apple v. Samsung - Verdict Fallout

I watched the Apple versus Samsung trial with considerable interest. As a consumer of electronics products, I knew its outcome would impact the entire marketplace. Samsung's suspicious internal memos were what ultimately caused Apple to win the case. It was clear from reading them that Samsung flew a little too close to the flame in trying to mimic Apple designs. However, I still don't believe that it should be possible for a company to patent a geometric shape under the category of "trade dress".

$1 billion? Seriously? Are the little bounce animation, pinch-to-zoom functionality and modified rectangular shape really worth 50 bucks a phone?  Is Apple going to become a patent farm trolling for dollars? Are you willing to pay hundreds of dollars per device to underwrite all of the patent claims? These are important questions and it remains to be seen how they are going to be answered by the average consumer. The bottom line is that the consumer is still king. Patents don't mean anything unless people are willing to pay for them.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Are 7" Android Tablets Becoming the New Standard?



The first successful Android tablet was the 7” Samsung Galaxy Tab.  It was based on a skinned and heavily modified version of Android for phones.  Then came Honeycomb and the big push to compete head-to-head with the mighty iPad.  After a few successes and many failures to make a dent in iOS market share, the next flavor of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich was launched.   It looks like it melted considering its slow rollout, low adoption rate and numerous QC issues.

My Asus Transformer has never been the same since ICS arrived, even after four (count ‘em) maintenance updates.  I don’t know who to blame: Asus, nVidia or Google--or all three.  In any case, it isn’t cool to release an alpha grade OS and expected to compete with the highly-polished iOS.  Nor is it wise or particularly competitive.

Amazon released a game-changer with the Kindle Fire and the Android world was taken by surprise.  Several million sold around the holidays and the 7” gold rush was on.  Suddenly, announcements were flying around about all kinds of 7” Android tablets from Motorola, Toshiba, Acer, Samsung, Asus, and even Google.  Reportedly even Apple wants a bite of the mid-size tablet market..

I managed to pick up a Galaxy Tab 2 7” recently which has a 1.0 GHz dual-core TI OMAP processor and a stingy 8GB of RAM.  Thankfully, it also has an SD card slot, allowing me to add another 16GB to make it a very workable traveling companion.  It also has a Touchwiz skinned and more mature version of ICS based around the Linux 3 kernel.  I had previously owned an original Galaxy Tab 7” wi-fi and was well aware of how compelling the 7” form factor really is.  The little GT2 has become my regular traveling companion since it is so small, light and powerful.  

With the rumored release of the Google/Asus 7” tablet within the next month, it will be interesting to see if the 7” Android tablet becomes the new standard.

Xara Delivers Great Graphics at a Low Price



About this time every year, I look forward to the latest refreshes from Gaddesden Place UK, home of Xara software.    I have been a dedicated user of Xara’s graphics offerings since the mid-90s and am always amazed at how they manage to deliver such amazing software for such a small price.   Although Xara was acquired by Magix AG back in 2007 (a company known mostly for multimedia software), the quality of their applications has not suffered one iota and just keeps getting better and better.  Let’s take a look at the latest versions:

Xara Pro X and Xara Photo and Graphic Designer MX

The eighth iteration of Xara’s graphic design tool comes in two flavors: Xara Photo and Graphic Designer MX (their base version product), and Xara Pro X, which includes advanced features targeted to professional graphics designers.  That doesn’t mean that you cannot achieve professional results with either tool; you certainly can!

Installation and activation of the apps was quick and easy, and their footprint is comparatively small at less than 100MB.  On boot up, the apps look very similar to version 7 with its modern, dark-gray color scheme.  The nice thing is that the basic program layout is quite similar to previous versions of Xara, eliminating the steep learning curve that often accompanies new versions of programs.  

Among the new features of both programs are: an improved clone/magic erase tool, enhanced panorama stitching, allowing you to knit together up to 8 photos (previously just 6), support for multi-threaded processing, a shape eraser tool, support for inline graphics and improved import/export capabilities.  In addition, there is a color select/erase tool, hue adjustment, smarter photo replacement and a media exchange feature, allowing for integration with other Magix/Xara apps, as well as Flickr and Facebook.    

One new feature that I am particularly excited about is text styles, which allows you to globally format text attributes just as you can in many word processors and desktop publishing apps.  Text handling has always been Xara’s weak spot and this addition gives it a big boost as a graphic design app for documents as well as graphics.

Xara Pro X adds support for chart drawing, QR code widgets, embedded fonts, automatic object positioning and smart resizing, graphic bullet and number lists, resizable Java widgets, presentations and professional web design.

Web Designer MX and MX Premium

If your needs strictly involve web design and you can’t afford Xara Pro X, Xara offers Web Designer MX and MX Premium.   These programs allow you to easily create great-looking websites via a library of attractive themes without knowing any HTML, Javascript or other code.  If you have web design chops, then you can build pages and sites from scratch using Xara’s powerful design toolbox.  

The program is completely WYSIWYG and web-standards compatible (W3C, XHTML, CSS).  You can import all kinds of formats including PDF, RTF, RAW, PSD, TIFF, JPEG, PNG and GIF.  Web Designer MX offers many of the new features of Xara Photo and Graphic Designer MX and Xara Web Designer MX Premium adds presentation templates, GIF and Flash animation, animated transitions, additional graphics tools and more.  

If you need an app for graphic design, vector drawing, photo editing, compositing, desktop publishing or web design--one of Xara’s apps is certainly up to the task at a price that is refreshingly low in these tight times.

For more information:

http://www.xara.com

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Kindle Fire Review

I had a chance to demo the new Kindle Fire at my local Staples store yesterday and was very impressed.  For $200, you will be hard-pressed to find a better media consumption device.

The key thing to remember is that the Fire is not a Google Android tablet.  It is primarily a book reader with many additional features that allow you to consume various types of media, including movies, music, games and applications.  You won't find any Google applications on the device and the Amazon App Store only offers a fraction of available Android applications.  In addition, you won't find any cameras, GPS, Bluetooth, 3 or 4G, or other niceties on the Fire that you will find on your typical Android tablet.  And if you are looking seriously at the Apple iPad, it may or may not be adequate.  It really depends on what you want to use it for.  But keep this in mind: it is less than half the price.

That said, the Kindle Fire has a lot to offer.  If you are an avid book reader, the Fire offers a great reading experience with color screen, backlighting and crisp text.  (The battery life is decent but nowhere near that of the e-Ink Kindles.)  If you love movies, the Kindle Fire offers a great movie-watching experience on a small screen.  If you love music, the Fire has you covered as well.  In addition, many of the top apps and games are also available on the Fire.  The Amazon ecosystem provides a very wide range of media to consume.

And since the unit is heavily subsidized by Amazon, you get great hardware ( dual-core processor, great screen, etc.) at little more than cost.  The memory is the biggest limitation with only 8GB onboard.  The accelerated Silk browser is adequate, but judging from the benchmarks I’ve seen, it is hard to say whether the acceleration feature lives up to its hype.  When you get one, you may want to experiment with turning acceleration off and see what the performance is like.

If you are looking for a true Google Android tablet, you need to look elsewhere.  The Samsung Galaxy Tab would be a much better choice since it does offer all of the Google applications, dual cameras, GPS and more memory.

But if your objective is getting an inexpensive media consumption solution, the Kindle Fire will fit the bill quite nicely.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amazon Kindle Fire: A Smokin' Hot Deal!

Amazon dropped a bombshell on the tech world today by announcing their new Kindle Fire Tablet at an unbelieveably low price: $199 for a 7” color tablet?  No, that is not a typo.  $199.

Just hours before the announcement, analysts predicted that the new Kindle Fire would cost between $250 and $300.  Bezos and company have delivered a tablet that is not only affordable, but also provides a compelling multimedia experience.  They bypassed the familiar Android UI and cooked up one of their own to highlight Amazon’s expansive offerings.

One exclusive feature of the Fire is the new Amazon Silk (tm) accelerated “split browser”.  It uses an application on the tablet along with an application in the cloud to dramatically speed up web page loading.  Using Amazon’s Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) technology to do the heavy lifting, it also incorporates predictive algorithms to push content to the browser, making it even faster.

While the specs don’t compete with other Android Tablets (only 8GB of storage, no camera or microphone), Amazon is leveraging its massive cloud capabilities to provide books, music, software and movies in a way that no other competitor can--except Apple.  And, they are doing it at a fraction of the price of the iPad 2.  It seems that the folks in Cupertino are well aware of what is coming as news reports state that they have cut iPod 2 production by 25%.

However, it does include a multi-touch 7”  IPS screen with Gorilla Glass (tm) and a dual-core TI processor--features not seen on such an inexpensive tablet.  It seems that this tablet is heavily subsidized by Amazon, as they probably expect to recoup costs from increased sales.  Battery life is up to 8 hours.  Not bad considering its size and price.

Will this change the tablet game?  I think so.  First of all, it signals the re-emergence of the 7” tablet size pioneered by the Samsung Galaxy Tab, plus puts downward pressure on future tablet pricing.  This is good news for consumers and multimedia aficionados 

The Kindle Fire is available for pre-order now and will ship November 15th.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0051VVOB2/ref=famstripe_kf

Monday, September 26, 2011

Why Android Tablets Aren't Taking Off



I was watching an Apple iPad television commercial the other day and it showed some killer applications and how they can be used to improve your life.

I believe that is the missing link in the Android tablet puzzle.

The real reason that Android tablets aren't keeping up with the iPad is that few compelling tablet applications exist.  What Google and Android developers need to do is to develop applications that take advantage of the capabilities of the tablets that are out there. They need to go beyond Angry Birds and give us applications that provide the WOW factor that will move tablets.

Android also needs to address vertical markets. For example, Apple owns the music creation market. Android isn't even in the game. Why can't someone come up with an Android program similar to Garage Band?   That would give musicians a reason to seriously consider Android.

The bottom line is: people do not buy hardware -- they buy solutions.