Monday, April 28, 2008

SKETCHBOOK PRO 2009: Inching Forward

I was astounded when I first demo'd Alias' Sketchbook Pro in 2005 at SIGGRAPH on a Wacom Cintiq. This was the future I thought. A true digital drawing platform that delivered realistic tool simulation the likes of which have never been seen. I downloaded a demo and I was hooked. Soon I purchased version 2.0 and over two years, one comic book and numerous sketches and illustrations later, SBP is still a mainstay in my digital process.

In between that time, Alias was acquired by Autodesk and this beloved program was put in limbo with it's future uncertain. Rumors of other companies purchasing SBP where rampant and speculation was that Autodesk was simply going to let the program die. Meanwhile the SBP faithful clamored for so many features to be added to SBP in a hypotethical version 3.0.

The ability to work on multiple windows, blend modes, fill or paintbucket feature, special effects, etc. are just some of the many suggested new features that can make an already great product more powerful.

After downloading and performing trials on Autodesk's attempt at an updated version of SBP, I can safely say that it's been sort of a let down. I guess I was really looking forward to a much more substantial upgrade that what was released.

Basically, the program remains unchanged. ( see Fig 1 and 2 below for the interface comparison) This is a GOOD thing really because had they fooled around with the tool simulation I would have really cried foul, got my cash back and ran back to the loving arms of version 2.0. But thank goodness Autodesk decided not to fix something that wasn't broken.

Okay so what's new? Not a whole lot really. The following are the two most notable new features:

1. PHOTOSHOP PSD INTEGRATION - It's now possible to switch from Photoshop to SBP seamlessly and modify PSD files. SBP even preserves all the original layer information. This is a very big deal because the old alternative was to work with TIFF files. Because SBP's compression is different from Photoshop, layers where automatically flattened when you create TIFF files in SBP and import them to Photoshop. (and vice versa)

2. FLOOD FILL / FLOOD FILL VISIBLE LAYERS - a.k.a - a paintbucket tool. No more enlarging the paintbrush to fill large portions of art with color. Unfortunately these new tools won't work in conjunction with either Select or Lasso Select. Pretty lame in my estimation. So the way it works is the area to be filled must be closed in by a line.

The less notable features? In the LAYER window a thumbnail of each layer is now visible. Instead of writing in the name of a layer, it's now typed in via keyboard. (You can still write the layer name in by selecting this view) And to accomodate the layer thumbnail image, the layer opacity slider has been moved. Honestly these features are either here or there for me. In fact, the old layer interface in SBP 2.o was better. This one looks pretty clunky.

So if I had to grade Autodesk on this version of SBP what would it be? a whopping C+

As much as I am glad that SBP is getting a much needed boost, it falls short of expectations and the new features (mainly the FILL tools) lack any kind of groundbreaking functionality. This felt like "going through the motions" and does not take advantage of the programs unique and innate qualities.

Thankfully for us who have come to rely on Sketchbook Pro, the program still delivers the goods and the additional features are a welcome addition. I hope there's a bit more vision and a whole lot more useful features to be found in the next version of this landmark program.

Fig. 1 - The old Alias SBP version 2.o interface

Fig. 2 - The new SBP 2009 interface. Not much has changed.

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smackmonkey said...

Thanks for the review. Maybe you won't mind a quick question: Do any of the tools require the tilt or rotation functions which are missing on the Modbook? I noticed in the interface that there are chisel-tipped pens and flat brushes and I'm really not fond of the calligraphic effect that results from using these types of tools without tilt/rotation. Do they work off of directional input?

enb said...

Cool blog Louie del Carmen- Thanks for the posting of this. Im right with you on it- kind of a disappointment, but at least its a little better. What is that circular icon on the layers?- is that just to pull up the layer menu? Hmmm... of all the other buttons they could of made that...
anyways- thanks for posting up!

Louie del Carmen said...


There is no native tilt or rotation function on SBP but you can change these settings for each tool in the tool settings. This works for both the default and user-created tools. This is an issue for Wacom and Axiotron because I know that newer tablets have a tip rotate function.

enb -

The circular icon simply brings up the same menu as in 2.0. (new layer, hide layer, trash, rename layer, etc) The only new feature there is the layer thumbnail. They also claim that the orange frame that highlights the current layer is a NEW feature. This feature is already on version 2.0

fernando said...

hi, thank you for your review. i just downloaded the demo and was dumbfounded when i didn't noticed anything new. i hadn't noticed the bucket or the icons ... but the PSD feature was already there in sketchbook 2.0 - unless there was some improvement made like automatic update if you have the same file opened in both photoshop and sketchbook.

Louie del Carmen said...

Pretty interesting bit of info Fernando. I had never thought to have both SBP 2.0 and PS open working on the same psd. I would think this process would confuse both programs since you have to save each file to preserve the changes? And to my knowledge SBP 2.0 won't recognize PS psd files? (at least on a Mac version, I don't know about PC)

Basically the new version enables you to bounce a psd file between apps with the layer info intact. Nothing flashy but it does simplify matters by not having to rely on TIFF files for high quality output.

fernando said...

oops sorry. i always went from sketchbook to photoshop and never tried to go the other way back. i wasn't aware you couldn't do it before. so i guess it is a new feature or the missing half-feature from 2.0

Louie del Carmen said...

Cool! Thanks for confirming that.

smackmonkey said...

Yippee! Looks like I'll finally be buying SBP (for Mac). Thanks for answering my question, Louie. Hopefully I can start doing developement/storyboards with it and wean myself off of paper.

Louie del Carmen said...


Did you download the 15 day trial? That might help you decide as well. I can tell you that doing boards on SBP is the ultimate. The simplicity of SBP is it's best asset and it really helps users concentrate on drawing instead of tinkering with interface.

Another feature i'd like is the ability to save tool sets so you can have multiple brush/pen settings per project. You simply load them in like PS.

Have fun with SBP!

Char said...

Is there any way I can buy this in Norway yet? I have been wanting to support this product by buying a copy for a few months now, but I cannot digitally download this handy product (didn't try to get it shipped because it was always out of stock when I checked). I love 2.0 and I hope that they didn't replace the handwritten layer names, rather they just added the functionality to type. I loved writing in the name to the layer, I thought it was nice to have a mostly keyboard free program, leaving more concentration to the art at hand.

Louie del Carmen said...


You can download it directly via the Autodesk site for $195 USD. Here is the link:

Unfortunately they did take away the handwritten layer name function which I didn't mind myself. I thought it was a nice touch and something very unique to SBP. That really goes to show you the difference between the Alias and Autodesk. Those Alias developers had some real vision.

stevenf said...

Wow, that sounds really... disappointing. I love SketchBook Pro, but $90 sounds brutal for this seemingly minor set of improvements.

At least it's a Universal Binary now, I guess...?

Man, I can't believe they _removed_ inked layer names. That was so useful. :/

Louie del Carmen said...


I agree with you regarding upgrading. Although I do find the PSD integration handy, staying with 2.0 and saving the 90 bucks is a good choice at this point. And yes I did love the handwritten layer name function quite cool as well. Autodesk gets a "boo" for taking it away....

Anson Jew said...

I wasn't aware that a new version had been made. Thanks for the review! I'm glad about the improved compatibility with Photoshop, as this has been an aggravating quirk of the program for me. It's nice to see that they added a paint bucket, but I'd much rather see a line tool, personally. I'm still debating whether the changes are worth $90 for me, but it's good to see that they're taking some steps in the right direction.

cowdreybunga said...

Hey, there's a way to turn the layer naming back on, where you right it in. Just open the layer to name it as you would have done in 2, and uncheck the "Show me what's on this layer" box. You can then clear the layer and write in your name.

Louie del Carmen said...


I share your sentiments. Imagine what SBP will be with some additional features...


Thanks for pointing this out. A few guys at work also mentioned this to me.