Programming
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By Craig Buckler

Xara Web Designer 6: the Review

By Craig Buckler
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Xara Web Designer 6 is a WYSIWYG web site designer. Just to be absolutely clear, this is not a paid review nor do I or SitePoint have any affiliation with Xara, their corporate partners, staff, relatives, etc.

Note that Web Designer 6 is not a Dreamweaver or Visual Studio replacement. It’s a purely visual design application — you cannot add your own code or examine the HTML until it’s exported … more about that later.

Web Designer 6 is available for Windows XP, Vista and 7. If you’re running older hardware, you’ll be pleased to hear the requirements are low: just 256MB of RAM and 150MB of disk space. However, many of the templates are included in a separate download so a little extra disk space is required should you use them. The price is also reasonable when compared with some of the wallet-busting competition: Web Designer 6 costs $49 / £39 / €39.

In essence, Web Designer 6 contains many of the features in Xara Photo & Graphic Designer, previously named Xara Xtreme (see my developer review and Jen’s designer review on SitePoint). The interface and feature set is almost identical but there’s more emphasis on web publishing. Web Designer 6 could be more appropriate for your needs and it’s half the cost of its bigger brother.

Installation is painless and, fortunately, Web Designer doesn’t register itself as the default application for every web-related file. You’ll soon be looking at the new dark-style interface:

Xara Web Designer 6 screenshot
Xara Web Designer 6 interface — click to enlarge

Dark interface themes have been adopted by Microsoft for Expression and Visual Studio. They are appearing everywhere and, although it’s largely cosmetic, Xara Web Designer looks far better. The layout and tools will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s used another Xara product. There’s an over-dependency on pop-up windows and the interface can feel a little clunky compared with Adobe or Microsoft products, but there’s nothing fundamentally wrong and many Xara users appear to like it.

As a graphic design package, Xara Web Designer has few faults and you’ll rarely need another application:

  • The primary vector editing facilities are excellent and extremely fast. Even novice users can manipulate Bezier curves with ease.
  • Bitmaps can be scaled, cropped, enhanced or have red-eye removed.
  • It offers simple but effective Flash production with transforms such as moving, scaling, rotating, skewing, and re-coloring between key frames.
  • Text re-flows around objects as they are moved.
  • Roll-over effects can be added by switching to other layers.
  • Resulting pages or images can be exported to PDF, PSD and many graphic formats.

Unfortunately, the web development aspects appear to be tagged on to the main DTP application. Creating pages is easy, but you can only develop fixed-width designs and preview them using the internal IE-based web browser.

There’s a useful Designs Gallery which allows you to import themes or widgets such as Wufoo forms, Google maps, PayPal buttons, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, Twitter updates, and RSS feeds. However, if the widget you require isn’t available, it’s not possible to insert the yourself. The application allows you to resize a widget in the design view but that can cause problems which are not evident until you preview or export the site.

Your completed site can be exported to HTML. The results are impressive: pages look almost identical to the original design and work in most browsers. Even IE6 looks great and transparent PNGs are supported. Text remains as HTML, graphic formats are used appropriately, and validation errors rarely occur.

However, HTML conversion is achieved by making every graphic and line of text (not paragraphs) into absolutely-positioned elements. It’s HTML spaghetti — you won’t want to edit it by hand — and the lack of semantic mark-up could be an issue for search engine optimization and accessibility. Finally, Web Designer 6 struggles to re-import the HTML code it exported — remember to keep your original project files in a safe place.

To be fair, Xara doesn’t promote Web Designer 6 as the ultimate web solution. At it’s heart, Web Designer 6 is a good all-in-one DTP package with HTML export facilities.

The pros:

  • minimal system requirements
  • very fast start-up and editing
  • easy-to-use graphic tools
  • no coding skills required
  • Flash and animation effects
  • great help, videos and resources
  • a wide selection of templates
  • easy to insert widgets for maps, video, social networks, etc.
  • exported HTML pages are identical to your design
  • good cross-browser support — IE6 works well!
  • output to other formats such as PSD, PDF, TIFF, JPG, PNG and GIF
  • automated FTP publishing
  • reasonable price

The cons:

  • too many clunky and ugly pop-up windows
  • can only design fixed-width websites
  • impossible to add or edit HTML, CSS, JavaScript and server-side code
  • only one preview browser (IE)
  • the exported HTML code cannot be edited by hand
  • the web publishing features may be of limited value if you’ve already purchased Xara Photo & Graphic Designer
  • web development facilities feel a little tagged on
  • the “Designer” name could confuse some: it’s a purely visual design tool and not a front-end coding package.

I like Xara Web Designer 6. It’s ideal if you never intend learning HTML or want to produce rapid prototypes. Even programmers may like its simple graphic and Flash production facilities, but you’ll soon return to your IDE when it comes to developing the final web site code.

If you’re not sure whether it’s for you, try the Xara Web Designer 6 30-day free trial.

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