SketchBook Mobile: Review

I begin this article by pointing out that it is more of a comparison between the latest versions of SketchBook Mobile, an app that can be found on both IOS and Android, v2 & v3, from the point of view of someone switching between each. The reason behind this is that, in the process of development the guys over at Autodesk decided (instead of an update), the progression from v2.9 to v3.0 would instead be the discontinuation of the old app and the release of a new one.

Logo for old SketchBook app.
Old SketchBook Logo.
New SketchBook Logo.
New SketchBook Logo.

So What Is SketchBook?

SketchBook is essentially that, a program for “expressive drawing and concept sketching” (according to the wikipedia page). I personally use it as a means of free hand digital design on my iPad.

My introduction to the app was a few years ago at a time when the mobile version was split into ‘Lite’ and ‘Pro’ versions, retailing at roughly the £5 mark. Studying graphics at the time meant this was a small price to pay for such a powerful asset to my arsenal. With the release of the new version the app is free for all users, with some Pro features being available through an in app purchase of £2.99.

As someone who had the old version though, here is where my gears began to grind. You see, because the ‘v3.0’ update was released as a new app, seemly due to the change in Autodesks licensing of the PC version, I could not simply change to the new edition and keep all the Pro tools I had access to. This meant downloading the new app and paying again for Pro tools.

A Fresh Interface

Old interface (left) VS new interface (right).
Old interface (left) VS new interface (right).

Something I am growing to like about the new app is the layout of the menu. Whilst initially a confusing change from the previous version there is an elegant simplicity in the new interface that conveys much the same information as the old but within a more stylistic layout.

Much but not all. Still present, the customisable corner buttons are no longer shown in the menu, only being available through a double tap function where they would be. Also different is the quick access to the colour swatches on the left hand side, being relegated to a small circle at the top of the brush bar, economically allowing for the layer view to take their place. The striking black task bar (that couldn’t quite fit on one line) from the old version has been removed in favour of the 6 icons, with a drop down menu for accessing all the tools by touching the compass and ruler image. A refreshing feature now available is to be able to draw with the menu still open, providing quick access to layers and brushes.

Saving, Loading, Exporting and Importing

v2.x file system (left) vs v3.x file system (right).
v2.x file system (left) vs v3.x file system (right).

The redesign of the file viewer was equally as, if not more, disorientating than the changes to the menu. Autodesk seem to have opted for a more natural iPad style of viewing, taking after the built in photo album app. The same functionality seems to remain, with the key options being to export a sketch as a .PNG to the camera roll, email or dropbox, or as a .PSD to the later 2 for more complex editing on the PC.

There is an increased emphasis on Autodesks partnering with DeviantArt, allowing users to login in an upload directly from the app. Those stuck for inspiration can also view some of the more popular imagery from the site, but only those created within the program it appears.

The process of transferring drawings from the old software is something that few will have to experience, but for those that do (especially those that use the app more than I) it is long winded and tedious. There is no direct transfer feature, which means for every drawing needing to be ported it has to go through the process of being exported, re-downloaded, opened in the new app and then saved again. The official page on the matter explains in more detail.

One feature I was hoping they would add is the “are you sure?” menu most programs have when exiting a file. Sketchbook offers ‘Save’, ‘Save as Copy’ and ‘Don’t Save’ options when closing the current piece of work, but with the program being touchscreen it is all to easy to press the ‘Don’t Save’ button by accident and lose work.

Brushes

165 Brushes in Sketchbook Mobile v2.x
165 Brushes in Sketchbook Mobile v2.x

When getting stuck into the new software I couldn’t help but notice, with disappointment, that some of the more interesting brushes had been removed. Admittedly these never really offered much in the way of customisation or drawing use, but it was nice to know they were built in should the need arise. The main new addition that struck me was that the fill bucket got an upgrade, being able to be used for gradient and radial fill with colours being able to be changed along the stretch. v3 also features a wider selection of blending tools, something I was vying for a lot when I first ever downloaded the app.

97 Brushes in the current version of SketchBook v3.x
97 Brushes in the current version of SketchBook v3.x

Design choices, as I my attention came round to the favourites bar on the left hand side of the menu, just created some confusion for me. Yes, the v3 Sketchbook app has moved all the handy colour selection and brush editing menus to one place, but the amount of brushes one can pin to the menu remains capped at 10. I have 18 on the v2.x software! As a user the choice to clutter up my workspace with however many various tools should be left to me.

The fact I couldn’t get out of my head for this section was that I was having to pay more more money for less stuff, much of which I already owned!

Shape Tools

This image has been edited. More than one guide tool cannot be used at a time.
This image has been edited. More than one guide tool cannot be used at a time.

Both versions of the app have the handy auto shape tools found in most paint programs, allowing the user to create perfect ellipses and rectangles. Possibly one of my favourite features in the new SkectchBook app is the guides, a Pro tool that binds the pen along fixed lines. The line guide creates a fixed edge between two points, any subsequent attempts to draw while this is in place will make perfectly parallel markings on the page. The circle guide is a better way of making perfect circle than the eclipse tool. Binding the brush around a loci, all that is up to the user to do is choose the radius.

Filling can be confined to selected areas in the new SketchBook version.
Filling can be confined to selected areas in the new SketchBook version.

Text

Type what you need, choose a font and away you go. Text can be moved and scaled the exact same way transformations work.
Type what you need, choose a font and away you go. Text can be moved and scaled the exact same way transformations work.

Something I never used too much anyway, I played with the text editor expressly for this review, and let me say that it is really easy to get to grips with!

The program has never allowed text to be edited after it has been confirmed, it is instantly rasterised as an image and as such loses the property to be changed in such way. New to update however is that the rasterised text in placed in a new layer should one be available, easing edits at a later time.

So what are these Layers?

For those unfamiliar with graphical software the best analogy would be to drawing on acetate. Everything on the lower layers is masked behind what is on the layers above.

Just a few ways of Blending layers in SketchBook Mobile.
Just a few ways of Blending layers in SketchBook Mobile.

The amount of layers SketchBook allows for depends on the physical dimensions of the image. Ranging from 1 (for large images) to 12 (at the smallest). Layers can be merged directly to the one below, and in v3 have multiple ways of colour blending with others. The ability to change the opacity of the layers is something I personally use to apply effects such as cloud or glass.

Transformations

Layers can be manipulated by selecting the transform option from the menu. Scaling, rotation, translating and mirroring are the only features built into Sketchbook. Personally I would like to see some deformation features added in later updates. The ability to stretch an image shouldn’t be too hard to implement and would be well received.

Using a pin the example image can scale the square directly from the corner.
Using a pin the example image can scale the square directly from the corner.

Version 3 of SketchBook Mobile removes a beloved component of mine from the transform tools, this was the ability to pin the origin on the transform and was the only way I used the feature. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to use two fingers to manipulate the image is perfectly natural to the touch interface, but I found that using the pins was much more accurate when I needed it. Need to scale from a specific point? Use pins. What about rotate around a certain area? Use pins. You get the idea.

The nudge tool (circular object with arrows) can be used for refining the position of a layer.
The nudge tool (circular object with arrows) can be used for refining the position of a layer.

The pay off for removing the pin is that there is now a nudge feature, using the circle and arrows to allow the perfect placement of a layer. Doesn’t really help with scaling and rotation though does it?

A more beneficial feature that makes up for the short fall of missing pins is the new selection tool, acting with the typical behaviour, using either rectangular, oval, magic wand or lasso. Finally regions of an image can be edited independently, especially useful for shading.

Conclusion

Considering all things SketchBook Mobile is an excellent and powerful app for the casual (or even serious) artist who wants to be able to design on the go. I am most certainly glad I had it brought into my life.

Maybe I am just nostalgic to the features of the old version, having used it for roughly 4 years, if you’re looking to pick up a drawing app I would thoroughly recommend SketchBook. It’s free! Where can you go wrong? At £2.99, it’s only a small price to pay for the Pro tools that will change how you view your touch device as an artistic medium.

All in all the ‘upgrade’ from the old app to the new was a headache to experience, but something I am glad I did.

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