Sketchshare: Sketching With Friends Done Right

I’ve learned two primary things in the brief year I’ve owned an iPad 2; an iPad isn’t really a good substitute for a computer in everyday work, and iPad’s are brilliant supplements to everyday work. There is much I do on the computer that is significantly more time consuming with the iPad (if it can be done with it at all), but because of the plethora of specially designed productivity tools and business oriented applications, it’s perfect for taking into a meeting, having on my lap at a conference, or even presenting from (when that necessity arises).

Sketchshare is one of those apps that strives to make the iPad a perfect companion and supplement for your “full-time” computer. It’s designed to do one thing well, collaborative sketching, with added features that make it attractive for a variety of different work and business environments.


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Getting Started

Getting started with Sketchshare is shockingly easy (I say this because I’ve used similar apps with much more obtuse learning curves). Upon first open, you are presented with a start up screen that gives you the basic run down: toggle the appropriate icon for Gamecenter connectivity, toggle the pen icon to switch between it and the eraser, swipe up or down on the appropriate icon for pen size, and pinch to zoom and rotate. There really isn’t anything else you need to know to be able to dive right in.

Sketchshare Welcome Screen

The first thing you see upon app open, with all of the info you need to get started.

With this knowledge in hand, you can clear the screen and start to use the app to make your first sketch. Don’t expect fancy drawing tools: Sketchshare is for sketching, which by definition tends to be brief, sloppy, and geared toward preliminary, rather than final, creation.

This gives it great potential for storyboarding, layout creation, quick diagramming and related tasks.

Its power though really shines through in the second half of the name: share. Using Gamecenter as its server hub, you can quite quickly connect to other Sketchshare users to collaborate in real time on sketches. Imagine the potential in sitting around a meeting table with iPads loaded with Sketchshare. No longer do you have to share markers and a white board, but in sync with one another quickly storyboard the next viral video sensation, or layout and plan a great website. The potential here is quite exciting, which brings us to the nitty gritty section of the review, where I examine if it actually succeeds in all that it advertises.

Design & Interface

Honestly, you can’t ask for a much simpler interface. You have essentially 3 views: a whiteboard with a right-hand tool bar, a whiteboard with a hidden toolbar, and an app help screen with app and company information. This is a major plus in that it reduces the need for a major learning curve: anyone could open it up and immediately start producing sketches with little effort. There aren’t hidden settings embedded in obscure windows, or anything in that vein.

Sketchshare Help Screen

Built in "Help" menu, including app and company information.

Its interface has a few other nice features. I love that clicking the pen toggles to an eraser, and then clicking the eraser toggles back to the pen. You never have to think about where one or the other is (this can be a problem in some interface heavy apps) and makes the transition as simple as possible.

Another interesting interface feature involves changing the pen size. Rather than dragging a toggle, or clicking on the size you like, you swipe up or down in a circle which has the affect of making the pen larger or smaller. Honestly, this takes some time to get used to. My first few tries always resulted in either a too small or too large pen. With practice it got better but I don’t know if it would be my preferred method longterm to change pen size.

Functionality

Design and interface isn’t necessarily as important as whether an app is able to perform its task well. I’ve known many pretty apps that fail to do anything useful, as well as some really obtuse and ugly apps that function beautifully in spite of the design. Fortunately, Sketchshare does perform its function quite well, with some caveats. I’ll start with the good.

Sketching is dead simple. There is no challenge to it, and you aren’t bogged down with tools you don’t need. This will keep the final review score high.

Sharing in realtime is also quite simple, as done through Gamecenter. In my limited testing of this feature, I didn’t run into any significant problems or issues.

Sharing the final product is also a breeze: you have four basic options — saving to your photo library, saving to your photo library with a transparent background, tweeting your sketch and emailing your sketch. This covers most of what you need.

All that being said, not everything is completely perfect. There were a few glaring errors. The first is that there is no portrait mode. Personally, for sketching, I’d love to be able to hold with one hand (in portrait) while sketching with the other. Technically you could still do this, but the toolbar, and icons, would be in the wrong place and of the wrong orientation. It seems like this would be an easy thing for the developers to add.

Another issue that stood out to me is the ink engine. It’s really quite smooth when sketching and drawing but not quite dense enough. I’d like to see quick strokes leave more ink behind. In the attached screenshots, you can see some of this. Sketching doesn’t require perfection, I realize, but a bit more density would be great! Especially if writing is necessary on a sketch, ink density becomes a bigger issue.

Sketchshare Ink

Three boxes drawn at same speed but different line weights to show the ink engine.

The biggest issue for me though is the lack of any real ability to save and continue working on sketches. It’s designed to produce them in one sitting, export them, and move on to the next. When considering the app for more work related use, it’s an issue if I can’t continue on with sketches at later times. If you close the app, whatever sketch is open is lost. I don’t need a robust file-management setup, but some continuity would be nice (even a must).

Performance

In all of my trials I never ran into any performance issues of any type. No sudden crashes, no dataloss (other than the normal clearing of the whiteboard on app close). It all worked really smoothly. This is a definite boon to the final score.

Comparison to Other Apps

I’ve been sketching in a combination of different apps on my iPad. I started with Notes Plus, then moved on to Noteshelf. Most of my sketching has been going into it, as it’s often coupled with writing, and as I mention above, I like being able to edit later (a feature Sketchshare currently lacks). I’ll occasionally use Bamboo Paper and Adobe Ideas for sketching as well. These are oriented more towards the creative sketching that Sketchshare targets.

Honestly I still have yet to experience an app with a better ink engine than Bamboo Paper, Sketchshare could benefit from considering the differences with its own engine. As to Adobe Ideas, the toolsets between the two are very similar, but work a bit better in Adobe Ideas, plus it has the organizational utility which is a bonus. However, its major lack is sharing, which would keep me moving in the direction of Sketchshare whenever that was a serious need.

Pricing

Sketchshare is priced at $3.99. In the App Store economy, I found it to be very competitively priced overall (many notebook applications, which I have been using to fill the gap that Sketchshare fills, are priced around $5, and both of those mentioned above go for more than $5). Of the app comparisons mentioned above it competes more directly with the latter two; it is more expensive than Bamboo Paper but significantly cheaper than Adobe Ideas (priced at $10). The sharing functionality, though, makes it stand out from either of these two, and makes it deserving of the price tag, in my opinion.

Conclusion

With all of that being said, it’s time for some final remarks.

First and foremost, I really want to love this app. It’s honestly dead simple to use. A significant amount of care has been taken in designing the interface, and focusing on the primary functions (sketching with real-time collaboration), and it shows. If it weren’t for the organizational issue I mentioned above (notably the lack of any long-term storage and organization of sketches), I’d use it for all sketching.

Even with that, because of its ease of use, I see myself turning to it more often than not when I need to make or collaborate on a quick sketch or two. I’m anxiously looking forward to following the development of the app. The developers are maintaining a blog on their website with tutorials on extending functionality, and it’d be nice to see some of those things become future features. All in all, I give it a 7/10, primarily because of the lack of sketch management abilities. Were that not an issue it’d be an easy 9 or 10. Check it out on the App Store if collaborative sketching, or just sketching, is a need you need filled.


Summary

Sketchshare is designed to easily make quick sketches, and when needed, collaborate over a network with friends or co-workers.

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