Alias Sketchbook Pro
Image courtesy of Bob Chiu.
By Mike Caputo · July 31, 2004 | When Fractal Design's Painter was released, it was hailed for its ability to imitate natural media. It worked well on any moderately equipped computer, and when coupled with a Wacom tablet, was (and is) a powerful tool for creating and editing graphics. But it had one flaw, and a major one at that: All its toolbars and palettes left little room for working on the actual document. Remarkably, the interface has barely changed over the years.

Which is the main reason we should all make room for Sketchbook Pro from Alias. Sketchbook Pro is sort of like Painter Fast and Lite—all the speed and responsiveness one would expect, the basic tools for sketching and colouring, and none of the screen clutter. And I mean none.

Alias Sketchbook Pro, formerly available only for Windows but now for Mac OS X as well, is a full-featured sketching tool, "sketching" being the key word. It is not a painting tool, the way Painter is—there are no tools for watercolor, oil painting, or charcoal. There is no selection tool, not even a fill bucket.

No, the tools here are for sketching. There are several pencils, some markers, paint brushes for broad strokes, and an airbrush, but that's about it. Oh, and an eraser. All tools can draw in any color, and the sizes of tips are adjustable, but that's about as sophisticated as it gets.

It does support layers, though, when saving to its default TIFF format, although these layers are merged when opening the document in another application like Photoshop.

Alias Sketchbook Pro
Alias Software
Windows XP/Macintosh OS X
So, what's the big deal with Sketchbook? Simplicity, baby. This is a sketching application, built from the ground up to be fast and easy with an interface that doesn't come between you and the drawing. When used with a Wacom tablet on a conventional Mac or PC, it makes a great drawing application, but when used with something like the Wacom Cintiq tablet (the tablet that's also a screen) or with a Tablet PC (a Windows notebook whose screen is also a tablet), something magical happens. The planets line up, the choir issues forth a resounding chord, clouds flee and water parts.

Well, not really... but it feels like that.

You suddenly realize what you've been missing—drawing right on the screen. The Sketchbook Pro document takes over the screen, leaving only a small curved toolbar in the lower left corner (where your thumb would be if you were holding a painter's palette). From this one toolbar, all tools are accessible via pop-up/fly-out palettes. There are keyboard shortcuts for switching between tools, too, and there's an option for completely hiding the toolbar.

All tool tips are very responsive. In fact, it's apparent that the developers chose to spend time optimizing the program rather than adding tool upon tool. A wise choice. I've used Sketchbook Pro on a Mac Dual-G4 1-GHz desktop, and on a considerably slower Pentium III 900-MHz Tablet PC, and Sketchbook felt equally responsive on both.

Sketchbook is great at what it was designed to do, but anyone coming from Photoshop or some other larger graphics app might be frustrated if they want more from Sketchbook than that. There is no way to alter the size of a document once it's created, and no way to specify dpi resolution, although you can change the pixel resolution of new documents. The selection tool only selects rectangular areas, and of the five formats it can save (TIFF, JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP) only TIFF supports saving layers.

So is it perfect? Well, yes—as long as you don't expect more from it than what it was designed for. The one real drawback to SketchBook is that it doesn't integrate well with Photoshop or Painter. I couldn't figure out how to import a layered TIFF document into Photoshop and retain separate layers, and Painter 8 couldn't open the TIFF file at all.

But as a standalone application for creating quick sketches, Sketchbook Pro stands ahead of the pack.
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