Reader Feedback Friday: Screen Drawing

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Last Friday, I noted that we’d be using occasional Fridays here at Mac Gems HQ to print, and respond to, reader feedback and suggestions (and even print a reader-written review now and then). I then proceeded to beg for such feedback from readers. OK, so I didn’t quite beg—I just asked politely, and readers responded. Today I’m responding back by taking a look at a piece of software recently recommended in the pages of Macworld and some alternatives offered by readers.

In the May issue, in our “Macworld Goody Bag” feature, Tom Penberthy recommended Panic’s $13 Desktastic thusly:

It’s called a desktop, right? So why can’t we use a Mac desktop as we do a physical desktop: draw little scribbles, jot down phone numbers, circle stuff to remind us of...what was that thing I needed to do? Desktastic, from Panic Software, inserts an invisible layer between your applications and your desktop; you can write or draw on the layer. Useful? Maybe. Fun? You bet!

Although this wasn’t officially a Mac Gem—it didn’t appear in a Mac Gems colum—it’s certainly the type of app I’d cover on Mac Gems. And Mac Gems readers responded with suggestions for alternatives. One reader (who didn’t respond to my request to use his name, so I’ll leave it out) wrote:

Read Tom Penberthys note on the cool app Desktastic (that I bought 5 months ago) in the May issue of [Macworld]. However, if he had stumbled upon Scriboard first, then he would more easily see the shortcomings of Desktastic. Scriboard functions the way this type of program should work. They both kinda appears to be the same, though there are very basic differences. Scriboard is the best for presentations, and Desktastic is better for your day-to-day usage (reminder notes ++ as you can write underneath windows). However Desktastic is not working properly when using dual-monitors (they claim to fix this in the next release).

Scriboard can make your drawn line into an arrow (Press ALT before removing your pen tip from the tablet) - which works surprisingly well! Useful during your Keynote (or PowerPoint) presentation. Scriboard lets you assign a focus hotkey that works to gain focus and ESC gives focus back to the previous app! Fundamental for the presentation.

So; Scriboard for presentations and Desktastic for fooling around. Kinda. :-)

That’s some serious feedback! Chalk up one vote for MacMax’s $20 Scriboard . On the other hand, another anonymous reader recommended, without as extended a critique, Snowmint’s $20 Ultimate Pen .

So which is better? I downloaded all three and gave them a good trying out. And as Mr. Reader, above, noted, it depends.

Desktastic By default, Desktastic lets you draw on the Desktop. (In the preferences dialog, you choose to draw either above or below Desktop icons—if you draw above them, you can’t click on them without hiding Desktastic; if you draw below them, you need to press a user-defined F-key to start drawing.) However, regardless of this setting, clicking the second toolbar button from the bottom (they’re unfortunately unlabeled) or pressing the F-key lets you draw on top of active application windows. Using the toolbar, you can “scribble” with an onscreen pen (this is much easier if you have a drawing tablet); type text; and stamp an image (the default is an arrow image, but you can choose your own). Additional toolbar options let you erase using an onscreen eraser; choose the thickness and darkness of your “pen”; and choose the color of your “ink.” The final toolbar button clears the screen of your handywork. At any time you can save your onscreen work as a PNG image file or print it—only your Desktastic work shows; the background will be blank. Desktastic fully supports drawing tablets, including pressure sensitivity, and automatically saves your work when you quit. And contrary to the reader report above, it seems to work fine for multiple windows. Oh, and it’s the cheapest ($13 vs. $20 for the others).

Ultimate Pen Ultimate Pen, by default, draws in its own application layer. In other words, when Ultimate Pen is the active application, you can draw on the screen; when Ultimate Pen is in the background, so are your onscreen scribbles. This makes it a bit less likely that you’ll draw when you didn’t mean to, as you have to specifically switch to Ultimate Pen to start drawing. On the other hand, this means that to switch out of Ultimate Pen—to stop drawing—you need to switch to a different application, either via Command+Tab or the Dock (which is why Ultimate Pen doesn’t draw over the Dock). It also leads to some confusing behavior: Since Ultimate Pen’s “window” is the entire screen, it’s easy to accidentally click on this layer, bringing Ultimate Pen to the front, when you think you’re clicking on a window in another application. As a result, I recommend using the Dock or Command+Tab to switch between applications when Ultimate Pen is running in this mode. (Alternatively, you can switch to Click-Through mode, which activates normal OS X window behavior.)

Like Desktastic, Ultimate Pen features drawing, typing, and erasing tools. It also features a color well that lets you quickly switch between basic colors (or choose a custom color). But you can also draw empty or filled rectangles and ovals, as well as lines with or without arrows. Finally, you can use a selection marquee to choose, and then move, any section of the Ultimate Pen screen. (Unlike Desktastic, Ultimate Pen’s tool palette features tooltips, so you can figure out what a tool does by pointing to it with the cursor.) Ultimate Pen also supports drawing tablets, saving to an image file, and automatically saves your work when you quit. However, it also lets you copy your work to the clipboard and lets you paste images to your “drawing” layer from the clipboard. You can also show/hide your Ultimate Pen work via a hotkey.

Scriboard Scriboard’s most obvious advantage over Desktastic and Ultimate Pen is its activation/deactivation: You bring Scriboard (and thus its markings) to the front by clicking the minimized Scriboard tool palette (which is always onscreen) or by pressing a user-defined keyboard shortcut; you exit Scriboard by pressing the escape key. I found this approach to be the easiest to use, as it didn’t lead to accidentally drawing when I was trying to use a different application. Scriboard’s drawing tools include the standard free line, straight line, empty rectangle, empty oval, empty rectangle with round corners, and text. (Some tools have hidden features; for example, by holding the option key down, you can add an arrow to the end of a line, or draw rectangles from center out instead of corner-to-corner.) You can also switch between four user-defined colors, and adjust the thickness and opacity of the lines. And the text tool in Scriboard is easier to read, as text is surrounded by a “highlighted” background. (On the other hand, this background can obscure whatever is behind it; thankfully, you can customize the colors and opacity.) Finally, Scriboard has extensive keyboard shortcuts; in fact, some features require that you use the keyboard.

Scriboard is also quite flexible in how it can handle your drawings; however, you need to read the manual to avoid “losing” them. It turns out that if you simply press the escape key to exit drawing mode, your drawings are erased. You need to press Shift-escape to exit and save, or press Option+escape to exit and save, keeping your drawings visible onscreen. This flexibility makes Scriboard great for annotating presentations or onscreen demonstrations, but it requires that you remember to press the right escape key combination.

You can also save your Scriboard drawings, and open saved drawings, but the procedure is confusing. The down-arrow on the toolbar means “Save” and the up-arrow means “Open,” but to save to disk or open a saved file, you need to hold down the Shift key as you click the buttons.


Whew! So what’s my verdict? I think our loyal reader is correct that Scriboard is a better choice for enhancing presentations—it’s designed to be activated quickly, to let you annotate what’s on the screen, and then get out of the way. Desktastic and Ultimate Pen, on the other hand, provide features that make them more appropriate for creative endeavors, jotting down notes, and random scribbling. Between the two, I found Desktastic to be easier to use, but Ultimate Pen has more drawing tools and features.


Want us to take a look at something? Looking for a missing feature? Have feedback on previous Gems articles? Drop us an email at our address: macgems@ . Or leave a message in the Mac Gems forum.

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