Ember review: Software for serious scrapbookers
At a Glance
The first thing that comes up in my mind when I hear the term “scrapbooking” is the kind of arts-and-crafts project that I used to hate making as a kid—cutting and pasting and collating of images and pictures and articles into an album, usually to celebrate some holiday or other.
Stripped of its grade-school horror, however, scrapbooking is, at its heart, the kind of activity that adults perform for both personal and professional reasons: Many keep a list of favourite recipes, or perhaps put together a collection of articles and website URLs that can be used as reference material when preparing a research paper.
Like many good apps, Ember is, on the surface, a deceptively simple piece of software. It was designed as the successor to Realmac’s LittleSnapper, whose original goal was to make it easier to quickly grab a screenshot of a running app or Web page and either store it on your computer or share it with someone else.
This basic functionality is still present in Ember; in addition to importing existing images into the app, you can take screenshots of your entire screen, of a single window, or of an arbitrary portion of your desktop. You can even take a screenshot on a timer—a surprisingly useful feature when the action you’re trying to capture cannot easily be frozen.
Like LittleSnapper, Ember also supports capturing entire Web pages, using either a built-in browser or a browser extension, which Realmac makes available for both Safari and Chrome. The main difference here is that a screenshot taken this way will include an entire page, rather than just the portion of it that is visible on the screen at any given time.
Finally, you can use an RSS feed as a source of screenshots. This may sound a little odd, but it’s a great way to quickly save an inspiring post from someone whose work you admire, particularly if you work in a visual field. Conveniently, the app even comes with a starter selection of popular feeds that you can use if you don’t have your own.
Unfortunately, Ember will only capture images: you cannot easily copy-and-paste text and individual HTML elements from a captured Web page, and there is no way to import arbitrary data like text files and PDF files into the app. Another minor annoyance is that the app’s support for drag and drop could be better: For example, it’s not possible to drag a URL into it and have a screenshot of the corresponding Web page taken automatically.
Where this app really shines is in its ability to organize the information you store into it. As you capture screenshots and images, they are automatically catalogued for you based on their origin: screen, Web, photo, and so on.
In addition, you can define your own arbitrary groups, which you can then populate manually by dragging and dropping images into them. Interestingly, a particular image can belong to multiple groups, which allows you to categorize your information in multiple ways without having to duplicate data.
The app allows you to annotate images in a number of different ways. For example, you can add a title (or edit the existing one for web pages), and provide any number of tags, as well as drawing and typing your comments directly on each image, or highlighting portions of it in a number of different ways.
All the metadata that you assign to the contents of your library then feeds into Ember’s search functionality, which is extremely strong. You can then look for content both by the attributes you explicitly assign to every item, and by some of its implicit properties, like colors and dimensions. Searches can even be saved into special “smart collections” that are automatically updated by the app as new content is imported into it.
Although Ember’s primary goal seems to be that of collecting information and cataloguing it, it also includes a number of sharing features.
For starters, you can export any one of your images directly to disk. Cleverly, the app allows you to specify whether you want your annotations to be saved alongside the image, which means that you can safely add all sorts of notes and comments on a document without “ruining” the original. Images can be saved in JPEG, PNG, or PDF format, or as Ember documents that you can reuse on a different computer (the app supports storing your library on iCloud, but you may well want to share portions of it with others).
You can also send your work to a friend or colleague using the app’s built-in share menu, which, like in many other apps, supports a number of different services like Twitter, AirDrop, and so on. In this case, however, you won’t be able to avoid sending your annotations along for the ride; this is not a critical problem, since you can simply save to disk and share the original images untouched by hand, but it does feel like a minor inconvenience that could have been easily addressed by the developers.
In the final analysis, Ember is a great app that targets a relatively narrow set of needs.
On one hand, some of the limitations you will encounter can be a little frustrating; for example, being unable to capture anything but images makes the app a less than ideal candidate for any kind of work that deals with textual documents, like PDF files (which, ironically, the app refuses to import even as images).
On the other, if it so happens that Ember’s functionality matches your need—as will likely be the case with designers and other practitioners of the visual arts—chances are that you will be a very happy customer. Every aspect of the user experience has been curated down to the last detail, with many clever little touches that make using the app an absolute joy.