First Look: Napkin makes fun work of image annotations

Aged & Distilled this week released Napkin, software the company says is aimed at “concise visual communication.” Available exclusively in the Mac App Store, the $40 app aims to make simple work of creating annotated images.

The developers are targeting a wide swath of users: product managers, artists, software developers, designers, photographers, even technology writers. For those users and others, Napkin’s focus is on marking up images (or creating brand new ones), with a straightforward interface and quick, simple sharing.

True to the app’s name, new documents in Napkin open with a napkin-style background texture. (Napkin Style was Psy’s far less successful follow-up single, by the way.) If you prefer, you can make the background plain white or transparent instead.

You can start adding items to your canvas in all the ways you might think to try, and then some. You can paste in images from the clipboard, drag them from the desktop, choose Insert -> Image File, or click on the Image button in Napkin’s toolbar.

Napkin also includes buttons to quickly take and add screenshots or photos from your Mac’s built-in camera. When you choose to take a screenshot, Napkin hides itself; you can click any visible window to take a screenshot of it, or drag to capture a selection. Your screenshot is instantly added to your Napkin document. Photos you snap are, too—though I’d prefer an intermediary step to review the photograph just snapped before it gets inserted into the document for quicker retakes, when necessary. As is, though, it’s no big deal to delete an unwanted photo and click to take another.

Napkin's Callouts make quick work of providing a magnified view of a screenshot or image. In this case, a screenshot of Napkin itself.

Merely assembling images, however, doesn’t scratch the surface of what Napkin can do. Once you have your images in place, you can add all sorts of additional details. Callouts provide magnified views of the images in your document. You choose what section of your image callouts are centered upon, adjust their level of magnification and even their shape, and drag them where you’d like them to go. They work great, and are cleverly implemented.

You can also add generic shapes. Clicking the toolbar icon for a new shape adds a square; clicking and dragging on the green dot on the square’s broder lets you reshape it to have rounded corners, or be a true circle. You can then further resize the shape to make it a rectangle or oval instead, and double-click it to add text. You can quickly add a circle, rectangle, or rounded rectangle from the Insert menu. The only thing lacking from shapes is the ability to give to use them for outlines: I could find no way to trace a circle or rectangle around a given section of an image. Callouts do much of what you might want to trace a shape for, but they’re not the same.

Drag between two objects to create an arrow. Arrows can be simple pointers, but you can also create what Napkin calls Red Lines instead. Those measure the pixel distance between either end, and display it, for when precise measurements of that sort are useful.

When you want to add other text to your document, you just start typing. (You can, instead, add a Text object first—but you don’t need to.) As you can with images, you can customize the look of text you add by adjusting your Frame setting. There are options like Plain, Capsule, Thumbtack, and Tape. I found that some options, like Paperclip, wouldn’t appear at all when Napkin determined there wasn’t enough vertical space to fit them. Until I figured that out, it was rather confusing when I’d add frames but they didn’t appear. Some of the more clever Frame options—like that paperclip—occlude the text beneath them; I’d love if such frames added a bit more padding to avoid that.

As you drag the slider controlling the size of Napkin's redaction pen, you get a live preview showing just how large the pen will be.

If your images contain sensitive information, you can use Napkin’s Redaction tool to black out those portions of the image you’d like to hide. You choose your redacting pen’s size with a fun slider that shows a live preview of how big the black-out will be as you drag.

You can share your Napkin creations in a variety of ways.

Napkin includes a delightfully named File Pip, represented by a button labeled .png in the upper right corner. Drag that wherever you’d like to instantly save an image version of your document. To the File Pip’s left is a Share button, which lets you share your document via iCloud, iMessage, AirDrop, Twitter, Facebook, or Flickr. When you share via iCloud, Napkin says that your file will survive for 14 days. Rather than offering up a lengthy, unattractive short URL, the app provides a shorter, nap.kn link. I found that I couldn’t successfully click the Copy Link button that Napkin shows after sharing via iCloud, but I could click the link itself, which opened it in my browser.

There are plenty of animations in Napkin, and they add a sense of whimsy to the proceedings. Are there any missing features or bugs? Sure, but surprisingly few for a 1.0 release: I longed for an option to re-crop images; the Undo menu option occasionally listed the wrong action label to take back (though it did the right thing regardless); and the Escape key didn’t work to back out of certain areas, like the Redaction interface.

On the whole, though, if you’re in the target audience for Napkin, it’s worth a look. And thanks to the intuitive controls, coupled with the copious in-app help (in both contextual and video form), it’s easy to learn, too.

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