Review: Napkin a novel image annotation program with an attitude

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At a Glance
  • Aged & Distilled Napkin 1.01

At first glance, Napkin (Mac App Store link), by Aged and Distilled, appears to be a Mac program for sketching and annotation of images. And indeed, it does that. But a closer look reveals the program is best suited for idea illustration and quick comps, rather than finished output. Napkin gets the job done using a remarkably sparse feature set, with a hefty dollop of innovative ideas, and with an almost fanatic attention to your workflow. It’s not a tool for everyone, but it’s wonderfully suited to people who need to rapidly create annotated design concepts and blast out iterative changes.

It’s rare that software so clearly expresses a point of view. Napkin’s says, “Be reasonable. Do things our way.” It conveys this design philosophy by paring down its tool set, intentionally limiting the user’s ability to fiddle with images. And frankly, in a world of software measured by the length of feature lists, Napkin is a refreshing change. Rather than having a ton of features, the ones it has are curated and tweaked to a fare-thee-well.

I Want it Like This: Napkin makes creating magnified callouts and image annotations fast and easy.

Keeping it simple, because you’re not stupid

Whenever possible, Napkin dispenses with modes and tool selections. Drag any image you want to annotate onto the napkin (what other programs would call the canvas, and you have exactly three choices of backgrounds: a napkin texture, white, or transparent). Want to add a text label? Just start typing. A text box appears under the cursor, or positioned to label a selected item. Care to add a callout (a magnified area of the image you’re annotating)? Scribble a rough circle on the napkin, and a circular callout appears, with an instruction to drag the bull’s eye in its center over the part of the image you wish to feature, after which the zoomed image appears within the callout. If you would rather the callout be a rounded or squared-off rectangle, drag a control at the edge of the callout to change its shape. If you want an arrow between the image and a callout, just click and hold for a second until the cursor turns into a pencil, then drag it to its destination. When you release the mouse button, an arrow appears, with an arrowhead at one (and only one) end. The ends of the arrow are magnetic, so moving the callout automatically adjusts the length and angle of the arrow, making sure it keeps pointing where you want it. Within images and callouts, you can create a redline, a measurement line showing the line’s length in pixels at the midpoint.

You can also create vector shapes, though limited to a circle, rectangle, or rounded rectangle, and always filled with a gradient. You can change the gradient color, but you can’t eliminate it, replace it with a different kind of fill, or adjust the shape’s border width or color. Similarly, you can’t change the style of an arrow (other than its fill color). There are no line, pencil, pen, brush, eyedropper, fill, erase, crop, rotation, or zoom tools. If you want to redact part of an image, you can draw a thick black line, but can’t choose a blur instead. Smart guides, a la Keynote or Pages, are an incredibly useful feature that I find truly puzzling that Napkin lacks. The program supplies Apple’s basic unenhanced Fonts and Colors palettes. In keeping with its focus on simplicity, Napkin has no Preferences dialog.

Napkin doesn’t have a selection rectangle; it has something new and better, though it’s hidden. Holding down the Shift key and dragging gives you a freeform scribble with marching ants; when you release the mouse, anything touched by the scribble area gets selected. So you can select multiple objects by drawing a straight selection line, or draw the selection area to avoid some objects, excluding them from the selection.

Share it fast

Sling Your Files: Napkin makes easy work of file sharing. Dragging the File Pip (marked .png) anywhere creates a PNG file or copy of your Napkin image, or you can use any of the eight destinations in the Share menu. Choosing iCloud uploads the file to your account and creates a publically shareable URL.

Napkin makes it very easy to bring in images for your documents, by dragging, an insert dialog, and with Camera and Screenshot tools (unfortunately, the latter tool doesn’t have a hotkey, so you can’t switch to another application, make it active, and snap the other window; but you can drag a crosshair selection over part of the other application’s window). When you’re done creating your image in Napkin, it has a superb set of sharing tools. The innovative File Pip in the toolbar lets you drag to anywhere that accepts dragging, and a PNG file or copy of the image is created where you drop the Pip. The Share menu in the toolbar gives you eight destinations for your image, including a twist on iCloud I haven’t seen in other apps. Picking iCloud from the Share menu uploads the image to your iCloud file storage, and creates a bespoke, public URL that’s good for two weeks, and that you can copy and send to others. This lets you created hosted, sharable links with zero setup.

Besides Documents in the Cloud, Napkin supports other Mountain Lion features, such as Auto Save, Versions, Full Screen mode, Notification Center, and Facebook and Twitter sharing.

Documentation for Napkin (accessed via Help -> Napkin Help) consists of a few Web pages with minimal explanation of each feature, and that only worked properly in Safari (not in Chrome or Firefox). Even an easy-to-use product needs more explanation than this.

Napkin isn’t cheap; at $40, it’s definitely in the “serious investment” section of the App Store. As such, it must deliver a large amount of value. Clearly, the developers chose not to add that value through a huge quantity of features, and in a conversation, they said they thought the fluidity and ease of dashing off a quick visual memo, with the attendant time savings and productivity increase, would tip the value scale in Napkin’s favor. But because the price is too high to be an impulse buy, I think a demo version (which wasn’t available at the time of this review) is essential. It’s difficult to pull the trigger on faith. The developers indicated a demo version is in the works.

Probably Napkin’s closest competitor is Evernote’s Skitch, which recently underwent a major revision that had many longtime users howling in outrage. Like Napkin, Skitch makes it easy to create quick annotated images, though Skitch is oriented more towards taking screenshots and dressing them up, and Napkin is better at assembling and annotating multiple images. Neither program is especially well suited to creating finished, polished output for the Web or print. Skitch has two major things going for it, however; its tight integration with the hugely popular Evernote and a price that can’t be beat (Skitch is free).

Bottom line

Napkin takes a fresh look at the problem of creating annotated visual communications, attempting—and largely succeeding—at making them as easy as possible to create. Yet its limited feature set will be too limited for some people; I’d love to use it to annotate screenshots for my books, but can’t because I can’t style the image elements to my publisher’s specifications. When a developer with strong opinions as to the right feature set faces customers with their own needs, it will be interesting to see how future versions evolve. For now, Napkin will work for people who can live within its boundaries, and shows great promise for the rest of us.

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Innovative features make image annotation easy
    • Quick to learn
    • Good for making iterative design changes
    • Excellent sharing abilities


    • Feature set may be too limited for some
    • Poor documentation
    • No demo version
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