Hands on: Free sketching app Paper adds new features, Phone support

We’ve been big fans of FiftyThree’s Paper for a while. It may not be the most feature-packed drawing app out there, but it’s well designed and easy to use, making it an ideal choice for jotting down quick sketches and diagrams.

The newly released Paper 3 builds on that foundation to become a more full-fledged note-taking and brainstorming app thanks to a host of new features. Oh – and it now runs on the iPhone after starting life as an iPad-only app. Let’s take a closer look at what this new version has to offer.

A refreshed interface

FiftyThree tweaked Paper’s interface a bit in this version to integrate some new features and to make it more iPhone-friendly, but if you’ve used Paper before, you’ll still feel right at home in Paper 3.0.

The home screen is a prime example of the tweaks FiftyThree made to the app. In previous iterations of Paper, the app would present your ideas as virtual notebooks (called “spaces” in Paper parlance), with each sketch represented as its own page. In Paper 3, FiftyThree eschews the old notebook metaphor, instead presenting spaces in virtual stacks of paper.

Orientation aside, Paper 3’s home screen is nearly identical on the iPad (left) and iPhone (right).

This layout makes Paper a little more usable on the iPhone, and it allows for some new features. For instance, you can reorder pages as you see fit just by dragging them around. You can also get a better preview of each item without opening them—you can “pinch” open and peek at the contents of your spaces, or get a nice, large preview of each idea page without having to open them. All in all, it’s a change for the better.

New features aplenty

Paper has its roots in drawing, but in version 3.0, you can also keep text notes. Add a new page, tap the “T” button, then start typing away. At first glance, the notes feature seems very basic, but in a cool twist, you can quickly and easily turn any line of text into a bulleted checklist item by swiping left to right. The bullet doubles as a check box, so you can readily use Paper for your to-do list – just tap the circle to check it off. It won’t replace a dedicated reminders app, but it’s a welcome addition regardless.

Paper 3 lets you create checklists quickly and easily.

In addition to more robust note-taking tools, Paper 3 also lets you annotate photos: Snap a photo or choose one from your photo library, then doodle on it all you want. The Spotlight tool lets you call attention to a particular part of a photo just by drawing a circle. It turns the photo to grayscale, except for the portion you want to call attention to.

The annotation tools are fairly basic – you’re basically just drawing on your photos – but they fit in nicely with the rest of the app.

An example of an annotated photo. (Coco Kitty is ready for her closeup!)

You can add text notes to your sketches and annotated images, which can come in handy if you want to provide a detailed description of a sketch or diagram, for instance. Toggling between the image and text portions of a page isn’t immediately obvious, though—you have to tap on the portion of the page you want to edit from the home screen.

All these new features work together quite well, but it may take you a while to get a feel for how best to make use of all that Paper offers.

Paper for iPhone

Adapting a tablet app interface for a phone is always a challenge, but FiftyThree pulls if off as well as anyone with Paper 3. And if you know how to use Paper on the iPad, you already know how to use Paper on the iPhone.

Paper’s iPhone interface is essentially a shrunken-down version of the iPad interface: All the features are right where you’d expect them to be, but you may need to tap once or twice more to get at some of them. For instance, the color swatches live on a separate screen, and you may need to swipe through an extra pane in order to find the brush you want to use. Those minor tradeoffs aside, however, Paper is a very capable iPhone app.

Sketching on an iPhone 5c. iPhone 6 and 6 Plus users will have a little more space to work with.

Of course, trying to edit your work is a bit more challenging on a phone screen than it is on a tablet. And sure enough, trying to doodle on my iPhone 5c’s screen was a little cumbersome. However, Paper’s pinch-to-zoom-in feature made editing fine details much less tedious.

A stylus makes sketching easier, but the tips of the styluses I used—including FiftyThree’s Pencil stylus—still felt a little clunky on a four-inch screen. I felt as if I were using a thick-point marker on a pocket-sized memo pad. Your mileage may vary, but if you plan on sketching with Paper on your iPhone, you may want to shop around for a stylus that fits your needs.

Using a stylus with Paper on the iPhone is easier than using your finger, but it still isn’t quite as smooth as a fine-tip pen and a notepad.

In an odd quirk, Paper uses a different screen orientation depending on the device you use: You use it in portrait mode on your iPhone, but on the iPad, it comes only in landscape mode (You can, of course, rotate your device all you want as you draw, but the app won’t rotate with you). The decision to go with landscape mode on the iPhone makes sense given how most of us hold our phones, I’d like to see FiftyThree add support for portrait and landscape rotation on all devices in a future version.

Despite some minor annoyances, FiftyThree did an admirable job at cramming lots of functionality into the app, and came up with an interface that works well within the iPhone’s size limitations. Still, it goes without saying that iPhone 6 or 6 Plus owners (or soon, iPhone 6s and 6s Plus owners) will likely have an easier time working with Paper for iPhone than those of us using older devices.

A must-have upgrade

If you’re an existing Paper user, Paper 3.0 is a no-brainer upgrade. It adds plenty of new features—without detracting from the simplicity that made Paper so great in the first place—and if my hands-on experience is any indication, it’s fast and stable. If you don’t use Paper already, you have nothing to lose—it’s a free download from the App Store, so go give it a try.

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