in researching this subject and reading reviews, xara is what i'm going with...
- it does most of what illu$trator (as well as photoshop with a twist of dreamweaver to boot) does with the same level of quality. actually, one user praised xara's color saturation superiority in printouts which sounds odd if you're using pantone colors which should print the same
- it costs less
- it's much easier to learn as it's less complicated
- it works much faster
- it supports photoshop plug ins
it's received high ratings in customer reviews as well as professional ones. everything about sounds better than illustrator to me, though when i get into website design, i'll spring for dreamweaver, but love the fact that it's pro $300 version is a very useable alternative to the illustrator/photoshop competition giving up just a few bells and whitsles without sacrificing quality.
i hate complicated clunky programs. easier to use and more intuitive is how i'd design a program from scratch myself every time if i could.
definitely read reviews for everything, including inkscape on the freeware front and see what matters most to you. maybe you're one of the people that has to have every feature possible... then you'd want illustrator. i want a program i don't have to fight with.
i taught myself to use photoimpact, but hated the way a few features were implimented as well as the fact that it sucks for pure graphics because it only does bitmapping and like many programs, it degreades your photos every time you edit them. that's one thing i love about xara's photo editor... it keeps your original art and preserves resolution by remembering all of your edits and doing them from scratch every time you modify an image. i don't think photoshop does that even.