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Adobe Releases a Physical Ruler and Pen to Go with New iPad Apps

David Pogue

It’s officially a Thing: Sooner or later, software companies start selling hardware.

Microsoft and Google sell tablets, Amazon and Google sell phones. Evernote sells a scanner. Those are just a few examples. What’s next — Adobe selling hardware?

Exactly!

Today, Adobe began selling an intriguing, good-looking, aluminum-clad pair of digital drawing tools for the iPad, called Ink and Slide ($200 for the pair, in a handsome box). But we’ll get to that.

Sketch and Line
To understand the new hardware, you first have to meet the new software: two free iPad apps called Sketch and Line. 

Read more: Adobe Voice: A Happy App for Making “Explainer” Videos

They’re both drawing apps, for use with your finger or a stylus. They both offer the same set of tools — Pencil, Pen, Brush, Marker, and Eraser — and the same palettes of color schemes.

Adobe Releases a Physical Ruler and Pen to Go with New iPad Apps

Each lets you import a photo, either from your iPad or from your Adobe (Creative Cloud) account, and either dress it up or trace it; once you’ve traced it, you can get rid of the original photo, and nobody will ever know you cheated. Here’s a Tesla trace in Adobe Line that took me about 15 seconds to do:

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Both apps use the same wonderful Undo/Redo gestures: Swipe leftward with two fingers to undo the last line you drew, or rightward to reinstate it. These gestures quickly become every bit as useful as the drawing tools, because they remove the penalty for experimentation.

If you tap with three fingers, you also get the History slider, a scroll bar at the top of the screen that can rapidly rewind your drawing, line by line, all the way back to the blank canvas, depending on how fast and far you slide your fingers to the left.

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Two many apps
There’s a conceptual confusion here, though. Why are there two different apps? Which would you use when?

Behind the scenes, there is, in fact, a difference. Sketch creates bitmapped art, like Photoshop files; a bitmapped graphic memorizes the color of each individual pixel. The other app, Line, creates vector art, like Illustrator files; each image is memorized as a series of lines, which you can reshape or edit later.

Unfortunately, in the 1.0 version, you can’t export Line’s masterpieces to Illustrator in any editable way. (That’s coming soon, Adobe says.) So for now, there are few differences between the two apps, but the ones there are make you scratch your head a bit:

The exporting options are weirdly different. In both apps, you can post your work to your Behance account (Adobe’s online gallery), where other artists can see it and comment on it. And you can use the standard iPad sharing options (send by mail, post to Facebook, and so on).

But in Line, you can also send your work directly into Photoshop or Illustrator (as a non-editable graphic) on your computer. And in Sketch, you can post a multi-drawing sketchbook to Behance, not just one graphic at a time.

In Line, there’s an option to display perspective and horizon lines, to assist you in drawing three-dimensional scenes. You can adjust them by dragging with a finger:

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Both of these apps feel very young; calling them 1.0 versions is generous. Neither lets you work with text. Neither can automatically trace a photo, as Illustrator can. Line lets you adjust line widths or opacities (by holding your finger down on a tool); but, for no good reason, that option is missing in Sketch.

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Above all, neither app lets you fill in anything; you can’t draw a square and then make it blue inside, for example. That seems like a fairly whopping omission in an art program.

Both apps, by the way, are far buggier than you’d expect from a company like Adobe; I could not, for example, get the photo-tracing feature to work in Line without quitting and reopening the app. (“Looks like you’ve found a bug,” a product manager told me. I’m still waiting for my free T-shirt.)

The company says bug-fix versions will follow very quickly. 

Ink and Slide
The new iPad apps aren’t particularly groundbreaking; there are dozens of drawing apps already in the App Store.

These apps do, however, become more interesting when you add the physical tools.

First, there’s Ink, a stylus for drawing and sketching. It’s beautiful and comfortable — its barrel is a gracefully twisted triangular shaft — but it’s only the latest in a very long line of iPad styluses. (Here’s my review of 40 of them.)

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What distinguishes Ink, though, is its unusually fine point; most styluses have a rounded fat, black rubber tip, intended to simulate the flab of your fingertip. The smaller point yields a sense of better precision.

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Ink is also pressure-sensitive; when you draw in Adobe’s apps, you can bear down harder to get a fatter or darker line. That’s a powerful feature that you can’t get when you use your finger.

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Ink also has a button on one side. You can press it to summon a quick-access menu of preferences and tools.

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The only bummer is that Ink is battery-powered; it lasts for about 10 hours of drawing on a charge. At least Adobe went the extra mile by providing a combination case and charging unit, whose rainbow-colored LED cap gives the whole thing a colorful, slightly magical feeling. (The top of the pen itself glows in a color of your choice, too.)

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The companion tool, Slide, is the eyebrow-raiser. Nothing even remotely like it exists, and it’s not easy to describe. (So see my video, above.)

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It’s sort of a digital straightedge or a digital ruler. When you’re running the Sketch or Line app, you can put the Slide onto the glass. It sprouts a pair of faint parallel lines. These are called hint lines; while they’re on the screen, you can sloppily and quickly trace along them with your stylus to produce a perfect, precision line segment. (You don’t have to trace the entire line.)

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In other words, by turning the Slide on the glass, you can rapidly and precisely make diagrams or pictures that contain perfectly straight lines — even though you’re working freehand.

With a press on the Slide’s button, you can switch to round, square, or triangular hint lines. You resize them by pinching or spreading two fingers on the glass, and then, again, hastily draw around their edges for perfect full or partial shapes.

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You can even load the Slide up with hint lines for other kinds of shapes, like French curves, people, animals, bushes, trees, or, for some reason known only to the mind of Adobe, Herman Miller chairs and tables. (Adobe figures that you’ll usually want to place the entire chair or table into your drawing, so it offers a shortcut: Double-tap the hint lines to deposit the fully drawn furniture.)

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So what are they?
Unfortunately, the tools (Ink and Slide) seem too expensive, and the apps (Sketch and Line) are incomplete.

And yet, here’s the thing: When you see them for the first time, it feels wrong to ask, “Who are they for?” or “When would you use them?” or “What exactly do they do?”

These are basic tools, with very limited features; they’re simple new ways to make beautiful lines. But as we all know, constraints often lead to creativity (see: Vine, Twitter, Etch A Sketch). And even in this early stage, you look at these new mobile artists’ tools in action, and your mind starts leaping.

So: Who are they for? When would you use them? What exactly do they do?

Something tells me that even Adobe couldn’t give you an answer. But this is a company that does know how creative people work. It’s confident — and so am I — that if you put something new into artists’ hands, they’ll create in ways that nobody could have imagined.

You can email David Pogue here.