Ember — a digital scrapbook that allows me to capture, curate and annotate images — has been around for a little over 6 months now. When it first launched, Realmac received much blowback due to the fact that, when compared to LittleSnapper, Ember was a considerable regression in feature set.
Since then however, its received a few notable updates, adding new features and overall polish. While still not entirely on par with its predecessor, Ember is making great strides to get there and beyond.
Capture & Syndication
With regard to capture, Ember doesn’t disappoint. Not only am I presented with the usual suspects, Fullscreen Snap, Timed Fullscreen Snap, Area Snap and Window Snap, but I can also directly import images from Chrome or Safari with a simple right click (courtesy of the all new browser extensions). Still on web capture, I can use Embers browser to snap an image of a full web page. As an added bonus, I can quickly and easily resize the browser to popular screen formats (iPhone, iPad Landscape etc.). My only minor quibble, is that timed captures are limited to fullscreen. I’d have liked to see this option available in area and window captures too.
Screen and web capture aren’t the only way of getting images into Ember. Realmac have introduced and novel and ingenious feature — Syndication. Yes, you read right. I can add any RSS feed and Ember will scrape that feed for images which I can then save to my library should I wish to do so. Furthermore, I can import images I already have on my Mac. Another feature that debuted in this latest update, is the ability to define any number of folders which Ember should watch and automatically import any images matching specified criteria.
Feed your inspiration with RSS feeds from your favourite sources.
Powerful Curation and Organisation
Given the ease with which one can capture images, a library can quickly grow unwieldy. In such a case, good search and organisation tools are essential, and fortunately Ember delivers. Images can be rated, tagged and grouped into collections. Besides the metadata I can manually assign, Ember can also distinguish images based on their origin: Screen, Web, Photo, Tablet or Phone, as well as their color.
All this information can be harnessed to create smart collections (akin to smart folders in OS X). I can choose to create a collection of every phone screenshot that is tagged in a certain way and has a rating higher than 3 (a huge timesaver when trying to hone in on the best shots for a review). Unfortunately, as good as all this sounds, it still has shortcomings. I can’t yet perform any type of boolean operation when searching for images, like: show me every image from both Phone AND Tablet. I can only choose one OR the other. With regard to color, I had to set the color search to broad otherwise results would be highly unreliable. Nonetheless, it’s a good solid start to a difficult task.
One of Ember’s core features — and also most frustrating (more on that later) — is it’s ability to annotate images. I can crop, rotate, blur and pixelate or add text and shapes to an image. Ember employs familiar tools to accomplish all but adding shapes. Realmac once again innovated with the inclusion of a smart shape tool. To add a square, elipse or arrow, simply draw one and Ember will take care of the rest.
Odd behaviour when drawing arrows at different zoom levels.
Update (24-02-2014): Realmac have fixed the odd behaviour when drawing arrows. Annotations now look better and are consistent across different zoom levels.
This is far from perfect though and takes some practice to get the desired results consistently. Often, drawing a straight line will render an arrow, whereas other times the final outcome will be a straight line. Also, attention is needed when drawing arrows at different zoom levels since this will give different end results. Having said that, I’m a fan of the smart drawing tool and feel it lends extremely well to annotating on an iPad or iPhone.
It would seem as though Realmac agree with me, since not only do they have a universal iOS app, but one that is almost on par feature wise with its Mac counterpart. With the magic of iCloud sync, I have access to all my images both on the Mac and iPhone or iPad. Collections and Smart Collections are synced and I can add and edit metadata allowing me to capture and organise on the go.
With Ember for iOS, Realmac opted for a freemium model, one which I feel is an example of how freemium should be done. With its free version I can organize, view, capture, tag and rate images. For an extra $0.99, Ember will automatically import any iOS screenshot in the cameral roll, essential for anybody that works with many iOS screenshots, be it for review purposes, research, bug tracking and testing. Pay an additional $4.99 and gain access to the same powerful annotation tools that are available on the Mac. I find that this freemium model allows users to tweak Ember to best suit their particular needs.
Access your library anywhere via iCloud sync.
Rough Around the Edges
Ember is not without its flaws, little quirks that make it infuriating to use at times. Annotations for instance can’t be resized or rotated once drawn, nor can I copy and paste an existing annotation. The choice of colours and stroke width is also limited. I could overlook this issue if I had more control over text size, but unfortunately this too is controlled by stroke width and therefore I have only 3 possible sizes. On iOS, if I zoom in to be able to annotate something a little better, the top border of the image is partially covered by the tool bar.
When it comes time to share an annotated image, Ember presents its sharing options via Mavericks’ sharesheet. Unfortunately, if you use a default mail client other than Mail.app, Ember will simply fail silently when trying to share and image via email. Also missing is the ability to resize and image upon exporting it.
The Elephant in the Room
Many an astute reader will be quick to point out (and rightfully so) that Ember isn’t the only player in the game. However, apps of similar ilk, such as Pixa and Sparkbox, although more competitively priced, fall short when it comes to features. Pixa for instance doesn’t have an iOS client or annotation features. It excels however in terms of organisation and also offers Live Folders, a feature similar to Embers auto-import. Sparkbox does have limited annotation tools and while it does have an iOS companion app, it’ll cost you $4.99 just to view and organise your captures.
The true elephant in the room is Evernote’s Skitch. A free app on both OS X and iOS, Skitch has a lot going for it. Robust tools, flexible export options and sync across all your devices, it’s a tough act to beat and you’d be well served with it. You would however be missing out on syndication, search by color, smart collections, versatile web capture and so much more.
The Road Ahead
In a recent blog post, Realmac announced that they would be focusing solely on three of their flagship apps, letting the remainder fade into the aether. In theory, this means that we should see an increase in development pace for Ember, Clear and RapidWeaver. If we were to judge by their recent spur of updates to Ember, then I’d wage the future looks bright for these three apps. If you’re in the market for a top notch annotation tool, that allows you to capture and curate both on the go or from the comfort of your Mac, then your best bet would be Ember for Mac and iOS, a smart, powerful & cross platform solution for all your annotation needs.