Drawing on the iPad

iOS Apps for Sketching Ideas — the top five apps shown are the ones I'll discuss below.
iOS Apps for Sketching Ideas — the top five apps shown are the ones I’ll discuss below. I may review the other three another day. (The desktop picture is a Paul Klee, in case you’re wondering.)

I’m willing to give almost any halfway-decent looking iPad graphics application a shot, and I thought I’d discuss some of my favorites. What I’d really like is for a single app to take the best ideas from each of them and combine them into a single super app (that was nonetheless lightweight and simple, right?)

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro ★★★★★

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro has some nice pencil tools, and the pinnable palettes are also good, but — once the leader in this category — it lags behind the other apps in almost all respects.
Autodesk Sketchbook Pro has some nice pencil tools, and the pinnable palettes are also good, but — once the leader in this category — it lags behind the other apps in almost all respects.

This was my favorite of the lot until I started working on this review and compared it to its rivals. It used to have the edge on ArtRage in terms of responsiveness, a decent UI (I still like its three-fingered swipe for undo), and a not-quite-so-digital feel to its brushes compared with ArtStudio, but as I compared the latest versions of these apps, I rethought what I assumed would be my take on these apps. It’s probably worth noting that my love of Sketchbook Pro dates to my using it on my first generation iPad, while I revisited all these apps for this review on my fourth generation iPad. So if you’re using an older iPad you may find Sketchbook Pro significantly more usable than, say, ArtRage.

There’s basically nothing about Sketchbook Pro that stands out from this crowd, and — especially compared with ArtRage — I really don’t see any real reason to use it at all right now. Too many of Sketchbook Pro’s brushes are, essentially, booby-traps.

  • Really nice pencil tools
  • Being able to pin various palettes in place is nice, and I like the three-fingered swipe to undo
  • The “lens” thing for changing brush size and opacity still perplexes me despite using this app for years
  • Very fast and responsive
  • Annoying: support for multiple resolutions makes the document navigation UI even more cumbersome
  • Mixed: they’re trying to improve color management (which kind of sucked) but app is currently a bit buggy as a result
  • Syncs to iCloud (good) but torpid syncing owing to large file sizes (bad).
  • Bad: many of the brushes are pretty awful (including most of the defaults) and produce mechanical results (compared to ArtRage)

ArtRage ★★★★

ArtRage is a touch-optimized version of the desktop program of the same name (which I used before the iPad came out). It’s essentially a simplified version of the ridiculously complicated and cluttered Fractal / Metacreations / Corel Painter. I’m not a hardcore Painter user so for my purposes it’s the program I really wanted Painter to be (at the price I wanted to pay), but there are some seriously awesome artists using Painter, who probably use it all day every day, and I doubt ArtRage meets their needs.

All that aside, ArtRage on the iPad was great but sometimes sluggish on the original iPad. On my new iPad 4 it’s just great.

ArtRage has, flat out, the best brushes and produces the best looking images with the least effort if you're simply after an "organic" look.
ArtRage has, flat out, the best brushes and produces the best looking images with the least effort if you’re simply after an “organic” look.
  • The best brushes and simulated natural media by far (ArtRage started out on the desktop as an indie clone of Painter)
  • Produces the best output for the least effort
  • Generally good color picker although it can be hard to get the color you want
  • Bad: can be quite sluggish on older hardware
  • Bad: configuring brushes is fiddly — indeed, so is just creating a new, blank document

Paper by Fifty Three ★★★★★

Paper by Fifty-Three has the best interface for organizing your documents and creating new documents. Unfortunately, it is by far the worst actual program to work and the most expensive of those discussed.
Paper by Fifty-Three has the best interface for organizing your documents and creating new documents. Unfortunately, it is by far the worst actual program to work and the most expensive of those discussed.

I have more to say about Paper than any of the other programs because it’s so infuriating, but has so much potential. Basically, I want its best features ripped off and added to Adobe Ideas.

Paper makes a very good first impression — so good I paid for the tool package. The problem is that Paper is by turns enchanting (document management) and infuriating (half-baked UX ideas). It uses pinch to zoom to switch between the book, page-flip, and drawing views as a result of which you can’t pinch to zoom or pan in the actual drawing view. At first you’ll love the “two-fingered rewind” to quickly go back and forth through lots of changes. Soon you’ll curse having to use it every time a failed page turn or palette retrieval leaves a random spot on a drawing.

In the drawing view you can flip between pages of your book by swiping from the screen edge (and this also creates new documents if you turn past the last page) — it’s delightful when it works, and creates marks on your pages when it doesn’t. Even so, the entire metaphor of organizing your work into notebooks with customizable covers is great and I wish the other programs did something half as nice. But once you get past the surface, it’s not very deep. E.g. no cloud or dropbox sync.

Two of the tools — the basic pen (free) and the watercolor brush ($1.99 by itself) — are lovely, but you can’t configure them at all and the other tools (I can’t speak for the color mixer, which came out recently and costs another $2 to activate) are pretty much useless to me. (And you can’t configure them either.)

  • Lovely interface for flipping through images (drag from off-screen to switch pages)
  • Great feel on some of the tools (especially the pen and watercolor)
  • Looks good, easily customized “book” covers
  • Mixed: lots of interesting interaction ideas, unfortunately most are half-baked
  • Meh: the tool palette autodisappears — getting it back often leads to mistouches
  • Meh: novel “two finger wind” for undo/redo — might be better if it weren’t so often needed to handle mis-touches caused by other novel UI features (e.g. the page turn frequently leads to stray splotches in pages.
  • Bad: can’t undo after turning a page (and turning a page often causes accidental marks on a drawing)
  • Sort of bad: No actual text tool, forcing you to write text with your finger (which I wouldn’t mention if this were a better drawing program — e.g. let me zoom in — but it really detracts from the whole “virtual moleskine” thing)
  • Bad: Cannot zoom and pan
  • Good: default pen and watercolor brush are lovely. Bad: Other tools are kind of useless Worse: They charge you (quite a bit) for every little feature.
  • Good: nicely designed five-color themes. Bad: only five colors. Ugly: you need to pay $1.99 to be able to create new colors. Uglier: missing tools (e.g. the two dollar color mixer) appear as silhouettes in the tool panel, and when touched you get advertised at.

ArtStudio ★★★★

ArtStudio takes a pragmatic approach to simply being a very good color image manipulation tool.
ArtStudio takes a pragmatic approach to simply being a very good color image manipulation tool.

Originally, Art Studio seems to have been targeted at kids, and included things like (quite good) drawing lessons. It had a very similar interface to Sketchbook Pro, and essentially behaved like a very solid “color Mac paint with layers”. I pretty much ignored Art Studio over the last year or so, and when I returned I was initially shocked and soon delighted to discover it had chosen to carve its own path. It now seems to be trying to be the swiss army knife image editor for the iPad. The only thing it really lacks is ArtRage’s simulated brushes and media.

  • Probably the closest thing to the desktop version of Photoshop for the iPad
  • Pragmatic decision to go for — essentially — desktop interface mostly pays off
  • Easiest app to learn for desktop users
  • Fast and light
  • Editable text layers
  • Latest version has very configurable brushes and good preview of settings

Adobe Ideas ★★★★★

Adobe Ideas was designed specifically for sketching out ideas (hence the name) and I have to say it's a fabulous program for exploratory sketching.
Adobe Ideas was designed specifically for sketching out ideas (hence the name) and I have to say it’s a fabulous program for exploratory sketching.

Adobe Ideas is a really interesting program. It was Adobe’s first iOS app as far as I know, and seems to have been produced by some kind of skunkworks team along the lines of Lightroom, so it shows no sign of bloat or deliberate handicapping. It’s vector based, but works like a drawing/painting program and produces quite organic-looking results. It has excellent layer support (I think this is a freemium feature, but I paid $5 or whatever it was within minutes of downloading the app when it first came out).

  • Vector-based, resolution-independent, zoom in and draw details in nooks and crannies, etc.
  • Small file sizes (which also makes syncing quicker relative to, for example, Sketchbook Pro)
  • Rather good feel to the brushes (similar in feel to Paper in many respects, but with the advantages of being vector-based, having zoom and pan, and so on)
  • Individual tools remember their color settings making it very easy to switch between (say) a nearly black pen tool and a translucent grey or colored high-lighter.
  • Bad: color management is pretty bad (why are themes restricted to five colors?).
  • Bad: an actual text tool would be nice.

The Perfect Art Program

  • Paper’s interface for organizing documents into “notebooks” and flipping through sketches by dragging from off-screen etc. But pan and zoom should be for working on images, not navigating the file system.
  • Artrage’s pens, brushes, and media.
  • ArtStudio’s basic functionality — filters, editable text layers, configurable brushes with live preview.

Improving Adobe Ideas

Obviously, I think Adobe Ideas is pretty great as it is (and you know how much I have grown to despise Adobe in general), but it could still be better. Adobe Ideas is in a category by itself, and it would still be useful beside the perfect drawing program described above. Fundamentally, Adobe Ideas with Paper’s notebook metaphor for managing your stuff (suitably modified to match its minimalist aesthetic) would be wonderful.

  • Adobe Ideas drawing engine
  • Create brush/color presets and add them to the palette.
  • More colors in a set, easier to redefine colors and perhaps shortcut to pick shades of a color easily (it’s not that hard as it is).
  • Paper’s document creation/navigation interface

Some iPad Apps


If you want to draw on the iPad it’s hard to miss Brushes ($9.99) or Autodesk Sketchbook Pro ($7.99), but it’s rather easy to overlook ArtStudio ($0.99). I’m quoting prices from memory (and they’re liable to change as well) so don’t shoot me if I’m not exactly right.

I think Sketchbook Pro has a better “feel” than ArtStudio (I can’t comment on Brushes because I paid $4.99 for the iPhone app and refuse to give the developer any more money until I see significant UI improvements) but ArtStudio wins big on user interface. First off, Sketchbook reduces its UI to a single dot which lets you tweak your current brush, and access the rest of the UI. ArtStudio puts hidden undo and redo in corners of the screen, and has a better located “show me the UI” button. As a result, ArtStudio is my go-to app for doodling, while Sketchbook Pro looks pretty and sits in the corner.

ArtStudio does have some UI blemishes — its more advanced function buttons are just ugly — but it gives quicker access to common functions (complete with press and hold to grab colors from your image). I love it.

If I had to pick one, I’d definitely pick ArtStudio over Sketchbook Pro right now — and at one dollar it’s an absolute steal right now, although I know the latter is very popular among digital artists, and I expect the program to improve over time.


The other day I needed a drawing program badly, and the first one that occurred to me was Omnigraffle — for which I have a license somewhere. Then I remembered that Omni is porting everything to the iPad and searched for it. $49.99. Um, OK. Look, I love you guys but that’s absurd. (And the reviews are pretty damning too.)

Eventually I found Freeform ($2.99 I think) which is a really good UI looking for a bit more functionality. All this program needs is some (better? any?) way to delete stuff, text blocks, rotate objects, snap to grid, precise beziers, gradient fill, arrows, and slightly better palette management (it’s quite good already) and it would be pretty much perfect.


Amazon’s Kindle app for the iPad is free. So you can have your cake and eat it. Enough said. It’s missing some of iBooks’s sizzle (e.g. page-turn animations) and cleverness (e.g. adjustable brightness) but beats it on practical considerations (e.g. you can view books as white on black, which is handy if you’re reading in bed next to a sleeping spouse). It’s early days yet, but the iPad is already a better Kindle than the Kindle.


Alone among the Apple offerings on the iPad, Numbers is kind of broken. Some of its quirks are simply infuriating. E.g. stretching a selection doesn’t fill the way it does in the desktop version (e.g. if you want to fill-right or fill-down with a formula), and exactly how scrolling works in grids has me mystified. Insofar as it works, it works quite well, but compared to Pages and Keynote it’s a very unpolished.


My big gripe with Pages is that you can’t modify styles, which is very annoying when you bring in a document and discover some style has been reassigned to an inappropriate font. There’s simply no way to say “make bullet paragraphs Times please”. Aside from that, it’s very well done. Unfortunately, I’m not running iWork 09 on my Macs yet, making it a bit of a pain for interoperability.

Speaking of which: the system for moving files to and from the iPad is horrible (I’m hardly the first to opine thus) and needs to be fixed. Also, when will I be able to drag a PDF onto my iPad (or download one) and read it in iBooks or some other built-in app? (Heck, Safari is pretty decent, but won’t explicitly download files.)

Which leads to:


I was pretty desperate to have a PDF viewer on the iPad and willing to pay anything up to… $0.99 as it happened. GoodReader is a solid app with a cluttered UI and a ridiculous number of features. You can send files to it wirelessly (it pretends to be a server) or use its built-in browser to navigate to pages containing PDFs and download them. (Again, can we please have a file system of some kind? Thanks.) The PDF viewing component is pretty decent, albeit cluttered and perversely pages “down” and “up” rather than “left” and “right” which is not only inconsistent with iBooks (with which the developer may not, at the time, have been familiar) but pretty annoying in general (I generally don’t have any fingers near the center-bottom of the screen when reading).

Note: I just updated my apps and the developer of Goodreader has acknowledged the page-turning issue and promised a fix imminently.

So, a pretty darn nice app (functionally speaking) wrapped in a slipshod UI.

Cat in the Hat & Seuss ABC

Aside from draining my iPad’s battery faster than any other app (including GTA: Chinatown Wars and Pocket Legends) I’ve tried, these are really very nicely done. You can have the books read themselves, read on demand, or read them yourself. If you touch objects the word “puffs” out of them and is spoken. If you touch the text it gets read aloud. And the drawings look incredibly sharp. Very, very nice stuff.

Doodle Buddy

I got this $0.99 (or was it $1.99) drawing app with stamps and sound effects for my twins, and they love it (a little too much). It’s essentially Kid Pix for the iPad (only better and insanely cheap).


There are tons of apps like this out there, but this one was free with a $0.99 internal upgrade (darn I got suckered!). It’s a simple app that gives you a piano keyboard (good multitouch support, but no way to stop the keyboard from scrolling around as you play and no way to hit a note hard or soft), and the ability to play percussion and guitar backing tracks, or hit electric guitar chords. For a $0.99 it’s a fine musical “doodling” tool (well, it is for me — my father would probably wince were he alive to hear it).

Labyrinth Lite

I never bought the full version on the iPhone, although I liked the lite version well enough. The iPad version is prettier (beyond the extra screen real estate) and has almost too many gimmicks, but none of the free content is terribly compelling, nor does it seem to promise enough to hook me into paying. Lovely piece of software though.


Touchpad uses VNC to let your iPhone (and now iPad) act as a remote mouse/keyboard for any Mac running 10.6 (not sure if it works for 10.5, and not really bothered to find out given the immense upgrade cost). We’ve been using it on our iPads to control the Mac that drives the HD TV in our bedroom, and this just makes it more useful (especially since, on the iPhone, it’s a bit of a battery drain).

Pocket Legends

This MORPG  (it’s not massive, at least not yet, so just one M) deserves a review of its own. In almost every sense except perhaps the most important one this is a truly brilliant piece of work. The big problem is gameplay, which is 75% of the way there, but has no flaws that can’t fairly easily be addressed. A slightly lesser problem is a business model that appears to preclude trading items with friends (or anyone else).

Here are the salient features from my point of view:

  • It’s essentially instanced. Your character lives on a server, but games are essentially group-level or solo. So it’s more like Diablo than World of Warcraft. The one difference is you can go to “town” and experience the lag of lots of players all in one place spamming emotes.
  • The game architecture and base assumptions mean that you can play it as a single-player game, or just with friends, or you can just join random games and silently cooperate with strangers (you can chat in game but no-one seems to bother).
  • The business model is essentially Zynga but — I think — better. Instead of spending money on useless doohickeys or simply to gain a leg up on people who don’t waste money, you basically spend money to gain access to more content. This means you pay for what you do, not for how long you keep an account. (World of Warcraft is great value for people playing it 4h/day, but kind of a ripoff for casual players who only log on now and then. Why?) You can also spend real money to buy game money or special gear, but neither seems necessary. I approve.
  • The game itself is very simple. You touch the ground to move. You touch bad guys to target them. You attack enemies by touching an attack button or firing off an expensive special ability. There are three character options: archer (a bird thing who uses bows), mage (human girl), and warrior (a bear thing). The graphics are low poly but stylish, so if you like World of Warcraft’s aesthetic, you’ll probably like Legends. If not, not.
  • The content is also very simple. So far all I’ve seen have been simple mazes with monsters and treasure chests scattered around them. The monsters wander back and forth. The only real challenge in the game is pulling (getting single or small groups of monsters to attack you without drawing any of their friends to help), and it’s not much of a challenge.
  • It works pretty well, although lag can be terrible and sometimes things mysteriously won’t work (e.g. you can’t target a monster, or your wife’s mage’s spells don’t show up on your screen). It also took us quite a while to figure out how to loot chests (you point yourself near them facing towards them and attack).
  • You can’t trade items — which is particularly infuriating if the loot system allocates you a piece of loot your companion can use and you can’t.
  • There’s no sense of a “world”. Dungeons are small, flat mazes. You start at one end, go to the other, kill everything, and you’re done. This opens up the next dungeon. You don’t travel overland (except inside a “dungeon”). There’s no world map.

Anyway, it’s free and the stuff in-game is cheap (and we haven’t paid for anything yet). It’s mildly diverting, and it gives the iPad a coop game that doesn’t suck — which is no bad thing. I think I’ll try out Dungeon Hunter before I spend any money on Legends, though.

Tiny Freecell (iPhone)

The $0.99 iPhone solitaire game implements Freecell and Eight Off very nicely, and it works just dandy on my iPad (and looks great pixel-doubled). It hasn’t been updated in years, so I’m not holding my breath for a native iPad version.

GTA: Chinatown Wars (iPhone)

It hasn’t been updated to support the iPad yet, but the “glass joystick” works better on the iPad than the iPhone (more screen real estate, I think). Even so, I think this app really needs a more “native” interface.