iPad Painting Programs Compared

After finishing the three sketches below, I took the second sketch (which was done in Sketchbook Pro) and added some color in Art Rage. It would be interesting to try the same thing with Art Studio simply because despite the “flatness” of the results, it’s so much more responsive that I’d probably be more inclined to experiment and use more layers.

Over the last few months I’ve used my iPad as a sketchbook and have become pretty intimately familiar with three of the four main “faux media” apps on the iPad (the fourth, Brushes, I am boycotting because I think it’s overpriced compared to the others and as far as I can tell it replicates some of the usability issues on the iPhone version — which I have).

To illustrate my points I’ve got four versions of the same basic sketch attempted in the three programs. The fourth is a hybrid work created using two of the programs for their strengths.

Let me say at the outset that I like all of these programs and don’t regret paying for any of them. The total amount I paid for them is less than the cost of Pixelmator on the Mac, and less than I’ve spent on Vector drawing programs for the iPad, not one of which is as satisfactory as any of the programs discussed here.

This version of the sketch was produced using Art Studio. Although I’ve tried to create some texture with the brushes, the results are pretty flat.

Art Studio was the first paint program I bought for the iPad, and it’s kind of my go-to doodling app (along with Adobe Ideas, which I may discuss in another post). It’s technically the simplest of the programs, making very little effort to simulate natural media. Consequently it feels lighter than the others in use, and is very responsive. It’s also kind of ugly and it produces “simple” results. Or at least I produce simple results with it. Art Studio’s single worst deficiency is a very poor color picker.

This sketch was created in Sketchbook Pro. I tried to add color, but i disliked the results so much I gave up and ended up adding color in Art Rage (top image).

Sketchbook Pro (by Autodesk) was another early purchase. Early on I found it almost unusable, both because of odd UI decisions and generally sluggish performance. The current version feels almost as light as Art Studio and its brushes are much more sophisticated, but it doesn’t do sophisticated “wet paint” and “brush load” effects (as far as I can tell). But some of its brushes, and its pencils in particular, feel “just right” and are very responsive.

Art Rage is very sluggish, making trying to produce a free-flowing sketch a pretty nasty experience. Once the sketch is blocked out, adding texture is another story.

Art Rage has long been a favorite of mine on the Mac. Having given up on Painter long ago (I actually had a copy of Painter when it still came in a can, and I also had a copy of its forerunner, Fractal Sketch), Art Rage managed to capture the really cool features of Painter (namely wet brush simulation) without the overwhelming UI cruft. Art Rage on the iPad manages to be even cleaner and simpler while retaining the coolness, but boy is it slow. It’s almost impossible to “sketch” in because lines move like treacle.

In the end, I think Sketchbook Pro, as its name suggests, is the supreme sketching tool, but filling out a sketch is less satisfying. (That said, better artists than I get amazing results out of it.) Art Rage gives simple sketches an amazing “real media” quality with very little effort, but I think it really wants more RAM and CPU. Art Studio is a nice toy. It’s the fastest program in use, and it is possible to produce decent stuff in it, but in the end I think it’s just too crude.

How I’d improve the iPad

As I approach six months of living with the iPad, it seems a good time to think about how it could be better. After all, we’re about to see a deluge of cheaper (or perhaps less obviously expensive) knock offs, and it’s worth reminding myself just how good this “1.0” product is.

I was not an iPhone early adopter. I didn’t have the bandwidth to learn to develop software for it, and while it was a very impressive device, I was working from home and don’t use the phone very often. Most importantly, however, we were in the middle of a two year verizon contract. I think it’s safe to say that was the clincher, and it says a good deal about the anti-competitive nature of the US cellphone market.

The iPad doesn’t require a contract (even for the 3G version, which is something Apple hasn’t done a great job of communicating), which is one reason for its instant success.

Anyway, what’s wrong with the iPad?

Well, it’s going to need more memory. A lot of very nice iPad apps are clearly limited by available memory (e.g. the various excellent image apps, such as Sketchbook Pro and Art Studio have fairly harsh layer limits) and I often crash my browser (iCab) by having too many tabs going.

It’s going to need a camera — preferably two. Facetime is seriously awesome on the iPhone 4, but even more useful for me is the ability to use it’s camera as a rather high quality scanner. This lets me sketch something, photograph it, email it to myself, and then work on it with my iPad. But it would be nice to reduce this convoluted workflow to, e.g., “new layer from camera” right inside Art Studio, say.

I can understand Apple’s reluctance to put an SD card slot in the iPhone — e.g. one major source of problems in the iPhone is pocket lint being forced into the works of the iPhone through the earphone socket (seriously), and an SD card slot is going to make this problem much worse (although a plastic blank that can fill the slot when not in use would help). But, iPads don’t live in pockets, and the advantages of being able to work with images straight out of a camera would be huge.

Autocorrection needs a lot of love. To begin with, the widgets are just too small. It’s hard to press the “x” or the word precisely, and why can’t we have more than one suggestion? It’s also high time the correction code recognized things like “e.g.” and stopped trying to start new sentences.

While we’re on the topic, I think that the keyboard could probably use some tweaking. I wouldn’t mind a landscape keyboard with smaller keys and more of them (I have no problems typing on the portrait keyboard, so use keys that size and give me punctuation and numbers instead of bigger keys).

Standardized hard game controls are something Apple needs to start thinking about now, across all its products (including “iTV” if the rumors are true). I get that Apple is cleaning the rest of the game industry’s clock now despite having no capable middleware and treating game developers like second class citizens, but gaming made DOS and Windows successful and eventually folks will catch up close enough to Apple that not having a decent joystick is going to matter.

Heck, don’t build the damn things in, but just bless some kind of standard. Please.

The industrial design of the iPad is very much the ultimate expression of the iPhone design language. It’s nicer than any iPhone prior to the iPhone 4 (about even with the super slim iPod Touch) but next to the iPhone 4 it just looks old. I’d love to see the iPad redone in the new design language.

And that’s about it. Obviously doubling screen resolution (a la the iPhone 4) would be great when the cost benefit makes sense and we can always use more of everything, but really the iPad is pretty darn close to perfect. At 1.0.

Manta and Glass Joysticks

Manta screenshot from Unity dev environment
Manta screenshot from Unity dev environment

I’m finally getting close to releasing Manta and one thing that has somewhat surprised me is what a fabulous gaming device the iPad is. For example, while I’ve never been happy with any “glass joystick” games on the iPhone, I’ve found several on the iPad work just fine — including Manta.

One of the things I was determined to do with Manta’s touch controls was make them “relative”, and this is something the games I’ve liked have in common. In other words, the point you start touching the screen becomes your origin. Most “glass joystick” games on the iPhone combine (a) absolute controls and (b) no central visual feedback. The first means (a) it’s critically important that you put down your thumb in exactly the right spot or you’ll do something weird and (b) you can’t immediately tell by looking at what’s going on in the game where you’ve actually put your finger down — this proves a fatal combination, even for otherwise very polished games such as Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.

With Manta, your “ship” quickly (not instantly) snaps to a heading based on your thumb position, and your initial point of contact is always the origin. It certainly works well for me (and no complaints from my testers) but we’ll see what the reviews are like when and if it appears in the App Store.

iCab for iPad

iCab for iPad is so staggeringly superior to mobile safari it’s almost embarrassing, especially when you consider that most of the ways in which it’s superior are obvious and essentially stolen from desktop safari.

First, you can press and hold on a link to download it (e.g. You can download PDFs and view them offline). You can launch downloaded documents in other programs. You can jump from page to page using tabs — remember those.

The Ui is brilliant. By default it uses some real estate fora tab bar, making life sooooo much better, but if you need the space, it offers full screen mode with subtly displayed controls tucked in the corners and edges.

I often wonder how close the iCab guy got to having his browser acquired by Apple in the Bad Days of IE5.1.

Oh, and it has a slightly customized keyboard that doesn’t suck.

$1.99 well spent.

The Glass Keyboard Revisited

The iPad's glass keyboard showing the extra options when you press-and-hold the $ key.

One of the things I love about Apple products is that they continually surprise me in a good way. I knew there were certain keys on the glass keyboard which, when pressed and held, gave you access to variations (e.g. press-and-hold on .com and you get .net, .edu, .org as options), but I had no idea how thoughtful and extensive these options were. Sadly, they’re not quite thoughtful and extensive enough.

  • It’s a shame they didn’t go the extra yard and provide some, tiny visual cue as to which keys have the extra options, and that they missed a few. E.g. I’ve not figured out how to get ©, ®, or ™ symbols or an n-dash (m-dash is under hyphen).
  • Why aren’t all keys of a given type overloaded the same way? (E.g. the period key on the main keyboard has no overloading, but the period key on the symbol keyboard lets you get to ellipsis).
  • And, finally, it’s also disappointing that those of us who have learned Apple’s long-standing Mac keyboard shortcuts aren’t rewarded with some sensible mappings. I can appreciate that the ° symbol is available from the 0 (zero) key, but why not from the 8 as well? (It’s option-shift-8 on a Mac.)

So, in this respect the glass keyboard gets a B. Foreign typists appear to be well-supported, although having to go to the symbol keyboard (which is two keys away) and then press-and-hold for a French quotation mark seems a bit much — why not overload more keys on the main keyboard? Put all the pauses under the comma key (semicolon, dash, etc.) and all the quotation marks under the period say.