Ink and Slide: Adobe's Stylus Revolution

Adobe is finally making its first venture in to the hardware market, and it's doing so with the highly anticipated stylus and ruler combo it first teased a year ago. That combo, Ink and Slide, work together to turn your iPad into a full-on art tablet, but not like any stylus that's come before. At US$199, the set isn't cheap. Read on to find out if it's worth the steep price tag.

Adobe's Ink and Slide stylus and ruler comboAdobe's Ink and Slide stylus and ruler combo

Ink and Slide were first teased about a year ago when Adobe showed conceptual versions under the code names Mighty (the stylus) and Napoleon (the little ruler). The idea took iPad styluses beyond the notion that they're simply refined pointing devices and extensions of our fingers, and made them into tools that work along with our apps to enhance their features.

Adobe's stylus concept quickly caught the attention of designers looking for something that better brought real world drawing and painting to the tablet screen, and with Ink and Slide it looks like the company is delivering -- at least to a point. Ink and Slide show plenty of potential, although there are some limitations simply because they're brand new products.

Next Up: Adobe's Ink Stylus

To the Point: Adobe Ink

Ink is a sleek looking stylus with a triangular-shaped aluminum body that twists along the shaft. The shape makes Ink surprisingly comfortable to hold in either hand, and Adobe even took into consideration that not everyone in the world is right-handed.

Adobe's Ink stylus with carrying tube chargerAdobe's Ink stylus with carrying tube charger

When the Mighty concept stylus was first shown off, Adobe's David Macy told The Mac Observer, "Mighty feels great for both right and left handed people. The triangle twist makes it sit flat at the finger tips where the user holds it and also at the base of the thumb."

Ink sports a single concave button that doesn't get in the way when you're drawing or writing, but is still easy to press. The stylus is rechargeable and offers about eight hours use before it's time to juice up again. Recharging takes about an hour, so you should be able to get a full day's work in before pluggin in for the night.

Ink connects to your iPad via Bluetooth 4.0 LE. Adobe says it's compatible with the fourth generation iPad, iPad Air, iPad mini and iPad mini with Retina Display.

Our tests showed Ink held up without any problems and lasted all day long. Charging is quick enough that it's OK to forget to plug in the Ink before going to bed and power it up the next morning without having to worry about unexpected down time.

Adobe paid attention to the little details with Ink. Along with its cool look and feel, it includes a magnetic charging base. When the stylus is charging, a ring around the base lights up red and then pulses through the color spectrum once charging is complete.

The base also serves as the cap for the included stylus storage tube. It's great for protecting your Ink while it bounces around in your computer bag and it looks good, too.

Ink also sports a light at the charging end that pulses through the color spectrum when you first turn it on, and can be customized to show a specific color when you quickly double tap the button. Customizing the color is a clever way to personalize your Ink, and handy if you hang out with other Ink users: just pick different colors for each person's Ink so you can tell them apart.

Holding Ink is an absolute pleasure. It's comfortable in your hand, balances well and doesn't feel like it's going to fall apart, plus its triangular shape helps a little to keep it from rolling off tables.

Ink's stylus tip is only 3.18mm across and tapers to an even smaller point. The stylus was co-designed by Adonit, so it's using Pixelpoint technology -- the same tech we first saw in Adonit's Jot Script several months ago. It sports 2,048 levels of pressure for better control over your lines and strokes in apps that support pressure sensitivity. Ink works in other apps just like non-pressure sensitive styluses.

The problem with many styluses is that they feel like writing on glass with plastic, and Ink offers pretty much the same experience. That said, it feels better than any other hard-tip stylus I've tried and drawing with it felt more natural because of that. The smaller tip also means it's easier to see what you're working on because the stylus doesn't obscure your view.

My biggest complaint about Ink is that the tip is significantly offset from where you're actually drawing. The gap between my stylus tip and lines was a good 3mm, which is significant. If we weren't blessed with undo in drawing apps I would've given up on trying to draw anything where even the remotest level of precision was needed.

I know this wasn't the case, but it felt like I spent as much time undoing as I did drawing just to get my lines fairly close to where I wanted. Drawing glasses on faces, for example, always left them sitting too low. Hopefully this is something Adobe can address with a software update, otherwise I'll be stuck drawing people that need to push up their glasses.

Adobe does include some basic calibration in its Line and Sketch apps based on which hand you draw with and the angle of the stylus in your hand. It helps, but wasn't a perfect fix for the issue. I found the hand position that most closely matches how I hold pens put my lines farther way from my stylus tip, so I experimented with the other position settings until I found one that seemed to work better.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised with how good the Ink felt both in my hand and on my iPad display. We still aren't to a place where fine point tips feel like pencil or pen on paper, but we're getting much closer with Ink.

To take advantage of Ink's ability to copy content from your art from one app to another -- or even to another iPad -- you'll need a Creative Cloud account. Adobe offers free accounts with 2GB of storage, but you won't get access to Creative Cloud apps like Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator. You can set up an account by creating an Adobe ID at the Adobe website.

If you aren't comfortable having an Adobe account you can still use Ink and Slide, but you won't be able to copy and share content between devices.

Next Up: Adobe's Slide ruler

Straighten Up: Adobe Slide

Where Ink expands on the concept of what an iPad stylus can be, Slide takes us into new territory. It's more than a straight edge, which is great because the edge of a book or ruler handles that task without any problem at all.

Adobe's Slide ruler companion for InkAdobe's Slide ruler companion for Ink

Instead, Slide is more like a little personal assistant for you and your stylus. Along with helping you draw straight lines, it lets you draw perfect squares, circles and triangles, create bezier curves, draw on or stamp with built-in stencils, and find intersection points in perspective drawings.

Slide doesn't use batteries, so there isn't any need to worry about recharging. Instead, it works much like an extra set of fingers tapping and swiping in apps for you. Slide includes a single concave button for switching between shapes, lines and stencils.

Once I got Slide in my hand I quickly realized all other styluses feel like they're missing an important component when using them for anything other than writing. Slide made it so much easier to get just the shape I wanted into a drawing, place lines exactly where I needed, and visualize how the next line or shape I planned to draw would look before placing digital ink on my work of art.

The upside to Slide is that it takes the frustration out of drawing straight and curved lines, as well as geometric shapes, out of the mix. People who otherwise would just give up can draw without feeling like they simply aren't capable, and more advanced artists get a new level of precision they haven't had before on the iPad.

The downside is that Slide takes up literal space on your iPad display. I often had to spin mine around into different positions to keep both ends on screen when I used my iPad Air. On my iPad mini I routinely found it just didn't fit.

While I found Slide to be a fantastic addition to my drawing arsenal on my iPad Air, it was little more than a tool for drawing straight lines and perfect circles on my iPad mini. That said, putting both in the hands of an 11 year old showed the iPad mini's screen to be big enough, and was also a great reminder to just how creative kids can be.

Working with Ink and Slide is easy and picking up on how to use both is simple, too. Even easy to use tools can benefit from some quick how-to training, so Adobe put together a set of video tutorials showing how to set up your Ink and Slide, and how to use them in the companion Line and Sketch iPad apps. They're short and well done, and Adobe even went so far as to list the time stamps for each new topic in all of the videos.

Next Up: Adobe's Line and Sketch iPad apps

Ink's Little Friends: Line & Sketch

Adobe Line (free) is more of a precision drawing app for the iPad that's also great for drafting work. It includes a small handful of brushes: two pencils, two ink pens, two markers, and an eraser. All are customizable, so they offer more versatility than appears at first, but are limited compared to many other drawing apps.

Line supports importing images from your iPad's built-in camera or from your saved photos, which is handy if you want to trace, and can make for cool effects if you want to include a pic in your drawing. Imported images can be placed on a background layer so they remain untouched, and you can change the layer's opacity to make photos disappear so all you see is your drawing. Placed images can be resized and rotated, too.

Adobe Line, where I kept drawing cartoonsAdobe Line, where I kept drawing cartoons

Both Line and Sketch really show off Ink and Slide's power because you can use the two devices together, and you can take advantage of Ink's ability to copy content and place it in a different drawing, or even jump to a different iPad and place the content there. You can also tag items you've drawn as favorites so they're always loaded in your Ink and ready to use.

I found Ink's copy and paste function to be great when I was working with multiple documents in a single app, or when jumping between apps on the same iPad. When I copied on my iPad Air and pasted on my first generation non-Retina iPad mini, however, the copy failed.

That fail wasn't just an "Oh, that didn't work" moment. The process seemed to work at first, but Line would stall with a "Pasting" dialog on screen and eventually I'd have to jump out of the app, swipe it out of the active apps list, and then relaunch. On relaunch, whatever I pasted would appear momentarily, then vanish never to be seen again.

I also noticed in-app copying grabbed from the top layer only and didn't include the background. That's not an issue and actually is exactly how I expected the feature to work. If you aren't familiar with layer-based copying from apps like Photoshop, however, that could come as a surprise.

Despite the frustration I experienced with cross-device copy and paste, Lines turned out to be a versatile app. Working with the perspective grid, especially with Slide, was easy and I was able to draw buildings that didn't look like cartoons.

In the hands of someone that's more skilled in drafting, this can be a killer app. Imagine being able to draw professional looking building ideas for clients and coworkers in a coffee shop or meeting room with nothing more than an iPad, Ink, and Slide. Once done, you can send the drawings to your camera roll, email them off, send them to your Creative Cloud account, or share them on Behance.

Line's simplicity is one of its greatest assets. It has enough tools to get the job done, but isn't so overloaded that it becomes intimidating to learn and use.

Where Adobe Line is more of a detail-oriented drawing app, Adobe Sketch (free) focuses on a more free form style. Like Line, Sketch includes a limited tool set: a graphite pencil, a pen, two markers, and an eraser. You can adjust each tool's size, opacity and color, so they do offer some versatility. Add in Ink's pressure sensitive control and there's a lot you can do with each.

Sketch supports Slide, so you can create straight lines, curves and geometric shapes, and apply stamps just as you do in Line. While I'm more of a free form drawing kind of guy I found myself going back to Lines more often simply because I felt I had more control over the drawing tools. That's purely subjective, so be sure to give both a fair shake.

Adobe Sketch, where I kept drawing geometric shapesAdobe Sketch, where I kept drawing geometric shapes

My first impression with Sketch was, "Hey, this is a lot like Paper by FiftyThree." It really does have a Paper feel, although not so much that I'm ready to give it up.

Exporting your artwork from Line and Sketch is fairly simple: just tap the export button and choose how you want to share your file. The "Get Feedback" option sends your art to Behance where you can solicit comments, "Copy Image to Creative Cloud" sends your file to your Creative Cloud account, and "Share" brings up iOS 7's built-in options such as AirDrop, text message, Mail and print.

Exporting is a critical feature in any art-related app, so I'm glad to see Adobe embracing so many options. Unfortunately, I found a couple big issues: First, exported images have an off white mottled background, so selecting and deleting is a little more involved than a quick click with Photoshop's magic wand tool. Second, Lines doesn't export to vector formats. That's a big omission considering the app is all about lines, and I'm betting plenty of Ink and Slide users want to move their art from the iPad into Illustrator.

On one hand, I was surprised Adobe didn't offer support for saving images to other online services such as Dropbox or Google Drive. On the other hand, this is all about Adobe's ecosystem, so that means any online service you want is fine as long as it's Creative Cloud.

Both Line and Sketch periodically ask me to re-login to my Creative Cloud account on launch. The apps remembered my user name and password, so reconnecting to my CC account took just a single tap, but it is another minor annoyance... except for when it's a big annoyance. Every so often I'd see a dialog telling me my Creative Cloud session expired and I'd have to reenter my user name and password.

Requiring an Adobe login makes sense because Ink and its companion apps use Creative Cloud as a conduit to keep your files up to date across all your devices. The constant requirement to re-login, however, doesn't make for a user friendly experience.

Get used to this screen: You'll see it a lot in Line and SketchGet used to this screen: You'll see it a lot in Line and Sketch

The forced login also comes with an inexcusable fail for Adobe: Without an Internet connection you can't sign in, which means you can't use the apps -- something I found that out when I tried to use Sketch in the mountains without Internet access. There isn't any reason why these apps should require Internet just to draw; this is why apps save files locally and sync when they can. If I were rating these apps independently of Ink and Slide they'd earn only a two-power-button score based on that alone.

I was also disappointed with the palm rejection feature in both apps. When it was on, I had trouble getting editing gestures for undo and zoom to work reliably, and I routinely found myself tossed out to the app switcher view. I ended up turning off palm rejection and pulled out my trusty home made iPad palm rest. Adobe can win back my trust in the feature with a future update.

Adobe Line and Adobe Sketch work without Ink and Slide, too, although they're more useful with the stylus and ruler combo. The apps include a software version of Slide which makes it easy to try out its features without investing in the hardware. The software-based Slide is also handy if you leave the real one behind when you're away from your desk.

I have plenty of complaints about Line and Sketch, but overall I'm pleased with both apps -- especially considering they're version 1 releases. I expect both will improve over time and will turn into go-to apps for plenty of artists and designers.

Next Up: Is Adobe Ink and Slide worth the price?

The Bottom Line

Adobe's Ink isn't just another pressure sensitive stylus, and Slide isn't just a gimmick accessory. Together they toss out the notion that styluses are just simple pointing devices for our iPads and usher in the idea of styluses as interactive accessories.

The design is great, they're both comfortable to hold and easy to use, Ink offers good battery life, and Slide doesn't even need batteries at all. The pair are durable and I'm not worried about either breaking in my bag, especially with Adobe's smart move to include a carrying tube for Ink.

Adobe Line and Adobe Sketch are great apps for showing off Ink and Slide's features, and once the APIs to incorporate support into other iPad apps are available the pair will become even more useful. Both perform great on an iPad Air, but marginally on a first generation iPad mini. In other words, the newer your iPad model, the better off you'll be.

While exporting options seem bountiful, they're actually fairly limited: no vector export option, and the only online service Line and Sketch support is Creative Cloud.

Ink and Slide are Adobe's first attempt at hardware, and it's clear the company spent a great deal of time working out how to make the best stylus they could. The end result is a stylus and ruler combo that looks good, feels good, and works great -- as long as you use compatible apps.

The real test is whether or not I'll keep using Ink and Slide, and the answer to that is yes. Absolutely. Ink and Slide have earned a place on my short list of go-to styluses, and they set a bar I hope other companies can reach.

Adobe is gunning to be the Apple of the stylus market, and they're off to a great start. As long as you're OK dropping $199 on an iPad stylus, Ink and Slide won't disappoint.

Product: Adobe Ink and Slide

Company: Adobe

List Price: $199



Great design, comfortable, durable, includes stylus carrying case. Customizable stylus light color is a nice touch. Creative Cloud makes moving drawings between devices easy.


Limited support outside Adobe Line and Sketch, poor app performance on original iPad mini. Stylus tip feels like plastic on glass. Routine re-logins for Creative Cloud are a big annoyance.