Not Slating The Slate – Is this the Best Drawing and Note Taking Tablet for the iPad?
Before we get going, see that music player to the right? Well if you can, that’s some of my music, if you don’t mind I’d be grateful if you’d have a listen, if you like it you can download a lot of my recordings for free. OK… Let’s get on with the review then…
ISKN are a French company that have recently brought out a digital / analogue drawing / note taking tablet called The Slate. The Slate allows you to draw on paper with conventional mark making tools whilst simultaneously creating a digital “version”, (as in not an exact copy.)
This is not the first to come about, there was the Wacom Inkling which used a clip on device that could go on a standard note pad along with a special pen, (its accuracy was a bit questionable) and currently there are products around such as the Equil, and of course the well-established Lightscribe range of pens.
On the other end of the spectrum you have purely digital devices, the best of which are either things like the Wacom range of digital tablets and screens, the Apple iPencil on the iPad Pro, the Samsung Note devices, copious stylus facilitated computers like Microsoft’s Surface, plus of course a load of third party styluses for many devices. And of course one can always just draw something and either just scan it or photograph it, but that’s quite a bit of hassle if you want a high quality digitised rendition, especially for lots of pages of work. I mention all these alternatives first because I think to understand both the Slate’s strengths and weaknesses one must see the alternatives that create the context within which it is placed.
OK let’s do a little bit of normal review stuff first.
The Slate is a typical looking black plastic tablet, very much like the smaller Wacom devices. It has little markers on it to help align the paper. Around it’s edges it has a mini USB type interface for, well, interfacing and charging, a slot to put a micro SD card in so you can store more images whilst operating it in screenless mode, (It comes with 2Gb of memory which is enough for around 50 images apparently), then there is a button for turning it off, connecting to a device (Bluetooth mode), and for working without a device (Screenless mode). There are also buttons for creating “new pages” in the internal memory and another for “new layers”.
It comes in a sexy pullout box, although the plastic inside that held the device in position was a bit tight, so I ended up yanking it out in a less than romantic gesture. Also I noticed the packaging was a bit mixed design wise. It was obviously well thought out but for me the graphics felt cluttered and a bit tacky, but it doesn’t reflect upon the product in any way. But in a world of Apple minimalistic packaging, and given most people buying it at this time will be iPad users then for me it kind of jarred a little.
Something else I’d like to mention here is that I thought I was getting a slate with a pen which had a removable magnet and holders to keep the magnet in place but instead I got a pen with a fixed magnet ring, I have now ordered the separate magnet rings, but just in case you are going to order one make sure you pay attention to what it is you’re getting.
I also noticed on another review that there was mention made of other colour pens being available from the ISKN website, but when I clicked on the link in the article I couldn’t find any such pens. Maybe they will be back another day. ( http://www.gadgetreview.com/isketchnote )
Once out of the box it took a few minutes to download the app, which you will need to link up the Slate and IOS device, I don’t think you can just link it up via Bluetooth and then use it with any drawing app, although in time with the API being available to App developers I imagine you’ll be able to link them whilst using some other apps.
It’s quite fun once you get started, there’s an animation of a pen on the screen that follows the movements of the stylus. You have to position a piece of paper or pad on to the Slate using the markers to position the paper. My Slate came with 4 clips that can be used to hold the paper in place. If you don’t have any paper at hand, you can use some of the blank pages in the manual, don’t forget to read the manual first though, it’s quite clear and easy to follow.
When I first started using it I found I had the device upside down, it’s designed so that the logo on the slate is in the same position relatively speaking as the iPad front camera… I had it round the other way so my picture came out upside down at first. Well we all make mistakes.
In terms of drawing there is no lag and the accuracy of stylus positioning is very good. I still found I looked at the screen at first, as I would a conventional tablet, but depending on what you want to do it may be better to focus on the paper. I also managed to get ink on my screen when I went to use the provided ball point as if it were an iPencil. A bit like dunking your paint brush in your tea instead of the cleaning water I guess.
So in terms of hardware it’s all pretty good.
Imagink is the app you must install if you want to use the Slate (well at least for now). As drawing programs go it’s not very sophisticated but it’s certainly usable. I’m not going to go in to much detail but one thing I found quite interesting was that in airbrush mode you could hold the pen away from the paper and just like a real airbrush the density of mark is affected by the distance between the stylus and the paper. Of course when doing that, unless you were to actually use an air brush, no marks will appear on the paper as they do on the screen, it’s a sort of Theramin for artists.
Now let’s start to look at some of the more complicated issues.
Straight off I’m going to say that as a digital drawing stylus this can’t compete with a Wacom or iPencil, this is mainly due to its inability to record pressure sensitivity. The realistic subtleties of using an iPencil in Art Rage or Art Set when using a pencil tool for instance are just not available with this hardware or app. However, if you want to draw as if you were using a pen then you will get variations in line thickness due to different speeds of movement (Imagink will record thinner strokes when you move the pen more quickly and thicker strokes when you move it more slowly). But…. Well let’s just go to the next point.
Not An Exact Copy
Due to the variation between what happens on paper and screen you do not get exactly the same drawing on the device as you do on paper. For me this was a serious drawback however for many people that variation may also be seen as a bonus. It’s as if it offers possible unplanned opportunities via this discrepancy. One could argue that if you just want an exact carbon copy then just use a camera or scanner. Needless to say, if you’re considering getting one of these you may want to weigh up whether you require an exact carbon copy or not.
There will be many more advantages and no doubt some criticisms that I won’t have even thought of when writing this, so if you’ve got any to add please feel free to leave them in a comment. In the meantime, here are some of the advantages that came to my mind.
I’m sometimes in places where electronic devices such as phones or computers are not allowed, so having this would allow me to draw or write on paper and then transfer it to a device later. Of course, I could just draw or write on paper as normal and scan it later, but using the Slate in screenless mode would probably be a lot less hassle, especially if there were many pages to transfer. One of things I noticed was that outside of going to third party apps the facility to convert handwriting to type is not only missing in the supporting apps but is very advanced in other competitor’s products software, such as Livescribe. Hopefully this might be in the offing in future incarnations. The slate isn’t primarily marketed as a note taking device but it is mentioned in the marketing, so this issue should be of some concern to Iskn.
For those who take notes, if you’ve tried doing so on an a digital device it’s not as easy as it looks so if you’re in a meeting or lecture etc… With the Slate you can jot things down on paper, essentially it’s a belts and braces system. Obviously the dedicated note taking products might be better, but this might mean those who want to use it for art can also use it for note taking. While one could argue that it’s not as good because of its limitations in terms of not using the same pen, having the option to use different mark making devices may, as pointed out earlier, offer some interesting creative opportunities. I mention it again because I think that it’s this issue that should be at the centre of one’s choice to get this.
While on the subject of portability, (we were talking about portability weren’t we lol) although it’s not a big tablet, it would require either an Oxford Pocket Dictionary sized pocket or a bag to carry this around in. I was wondering if a smaller, notepad sized device might also be a viable product for the future… Just a thought.
One of the ways Imagink outdoes the draw and scan traditional approach to digitising drawings or notes is that the app can output pages in a number of standard file formats, including SVG, which allows you to manipulate it later in vector graphics apps so has a potential resolution that just can’t be attained using standard bitmap images. Being able to create vector graphics almost straight from the page will definitely be of interest to those wanting to take their initial ideas in to deeper levels of the creative process. This is definitely a big selling point for designers. One of the big findings from a recent “Design Tools Survey” was that basic pencil and paper was seen as one of the main approaches that designers work with, even in today’s digital era, especially as the preferred brainstorming method.
I’ve spent a few hours doing some drawings so as to give you an idea of how different the Slate and paper versions are. I came out of this initial process feeling a bit torn between wanting the digital image to be an exact copy of the paper one, but quite liking the unexpected results of the digital one. The more I’ve played with it the more I’ve come to the conclusion that designers are going to like it for the ability to take an idea sketched out on paper in to a vector graphics environment, but for artists who wish to record their work accurately it’s going to be a bit frustrating, unless, like me they like the possibilities that come about because of the differences. Anyway here are some of the images from today.
The image above is a scan of the paper version of example 1
The above image is a photograph of the paper version taken in low light of example 1
The image below is the image of example 1 as it appeared on the screen
The next three images demonstrate an attempt to use the pencil tool in the supplied app. The first image is the screen version and shows variation in the pencil size, opacity, hardness and colour. In my opinion it was quite pencil like, however it meant adjusting settings which is not necessary if you use dedicated pressure sensitive styluses. Even so I was quite impressed. What’s also interesting is how different the paper version is to the screen one.
The image above is the screen version of some “pencil” tool drawings.
The image above is an iPhone photo shot in low level light of the paper version of my “Pencil tool exercise”
The image above is a scan of the paper version of my “Pencil tool exercise”
The next set of images show what happened when I used screenless mode. The digital image came out as if I’d used a felt tip pen. I thought it might be worth considering having some preset tool buttons on the next incarnation that would allow a user to define
different mark making tools when working in screenless mode, or possibly a way of setting the drawing tool after the drawing was done. I also noted that transferring each screenless image was quite time consuming (maybe around 7 minutes). The image below shows a low level light phone photo of the paper version of the screenless image
The image below shows a scan of the paper version of the screenless image
The image below shows The Slate’s output of the screenless image.
Before ending there are several other points to consider when comparing this to other digital drawing options. First, you’re not restricted to using single sheets of paper. In fact you can use a notebook that’s as thick as three-quarters of an inch. You’re also not restricted to using proprietary paper (As with Moleskine Smart Notebook powered by Adobe’s Creative Cloud) or pens. If you have a pen you like using you can just slip one of the rings on it and it will work on The Slate, but remember, it probably won’t look the same on the screen.
As you can see it’s not a straightforward product to review. I get the feeling that this technology will find it has uses in other fields too, for instance as an alternative human interface for gaming or controlling other types of devices, or maybe in a field of business where both paper and digital records need to be kept, for now though drawing and note taking is the main focus. History has seen that technological advances cause artistic developments, and in its own way The Slate will also be a part of this process.
Please feel free to add your comments (all comments go through an approval process so please be patient) I’d be interested to know what other advantages, appliance of or criticisms you have of this device.
Thanks for reading
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25 thoughts on “Not Slating The Slate – Is this the Best Drawing and Note Taking Tablet for the iPad?”
Simon, thank you for your thorough and honest review of the product. I would just like clarification on one point of the review.
I am an engraver. I use my Corel Draw program to create vector images. When I scan in a bitmap image I need to re-draw it or manipulate it through the software in order to create a vector file. My main question is: Can I draw on paper and have it created AS a vector file or is it just manipulated through software to become a vector file?
I don’t really know sorry. By the way I’m pretty sure there are a few vector graphic drawing programs for tablets such as iPads or android devices, have you ever seen any of those?
With the Imagink app you can export directly the drawings in PSD or SVG. So you can have directly a vector image.
Test the last version of the App Imagink with the new Slate !
Jean-Marie, engineer in iskn
Hi Jean Marie
The email links on your website don’t work very well, please try them out to see what I mean. Also do you want to supply me with a Slate 2 and Tip so I can do an updated review?
Hey Robin, I’m an engraver also. Watching as many videos as I can to see what the slate is capable of before purchasing, one thing I’ve noticed is there are no good videos of anyone making a vector design. Doesn’t look like shading is very good, but I bet this would be great for filled vector designs. (Drawing and scanning has never worked well for me.). If you’ve purchased, let me know how you like it!
- Nina Bice
What if I don’t have any apple products? Would I still be able to download the images created in screenless mode?
I think it works on PCs now. Sorry about the delay.
You can import files created in stand alone mode (screen less mode) in your Pc or Mac computer.
- Christopher Kelley
I was wanting to buy this for my daughter, she is a drawer and i think she would really like this. what do you think, think its a good christmas gift?
Not sure really, it’s ok but the results that appear on the computer are quite different, so it depends on whether she would prefer the results to be the same. If so then maybe she would be better off with a standard drawing tablet, hope that helps.
Perhaps you can try the new Slate with the last app version and last update of the Slate.
it really improves the result.
Thank you Jean-Marie, will do.
I’ve heard people have been frustrated that there is a monthly app/or membership fee to transfer their digital work out into their own devices. Is that or was it ever the case?
I don’t think so ?
Thanks for this thorough review. I think I’ll wait a bit longer before investing in this. They seem to have a ways to go still. But promising for the future.
I’m Italian and I just found out that is not send in Italy, you have alternatives? or a way to have it sent?
I am pretty sure that they can send it to Italy. Here is a link to their website maybe you should contact them directly, hopefully they can help.
I need to be able to export to DXF format to convert to another device I use. I want to be able to use my doodlings as quilt patterns for my computerized quilting machine, but it uses a proprietary iqp format. Is there any converter program which will convert the imgk format to dxf?
I don’t really know about that sorry, maybe someone else here can help you
- Jessie Ona
Hi, I recently have gotten a iskn Slate and wanted to know if I need paper at all to draw. Did you try that out?
I suppose technically you could draw with no paper but you’d then be using it as a normal drawing tablet but without pressure sensitivity. Once they add pressure sensitivity to it I think it will be a much better product.
I really wish this review was published before I purchased my wife’s slate. The difference between what hits the paper and what shows up on screen is just too great for any kind of detailed art. You get stray marks all over the image if the pen/pencil is too close. When i write with it, I often find that the trailing ends of my letters are missing. It doesn’t seem to matter that my pen has kept contact the whole time, or that the light on the slate stays purple until the correct moment. Calibration helps, but not enough. On many occasions when recording directly to the device, it has decided to stop responding to any contact for 20 seconds at a time. When it picks back up, it’s no longer recording to any file/page. The overly simplistic light and button scheme on the device just makes it that much more aggravating. Under certain circumstances I can see why an inexact copy is fine, maybe even preferable, but the constant threat of not having it recorded just makes it a total waste. Why drag the thing around if you are just going to have to scan your drawing anyway?
I’ll keep updating the software and the slate’s firmware, to see if anything improves, but at this rate, I’m guessing it’ll see less than another hour of use in its lifetime.
For me, as I don’t worry about having a paper version, I prefer my ipad pro with an ipencil using Artrage. I like the idea of a bridge between real drawing and dugital, but the Slate isn’t there yet, it really needs pressure sensitivity and maybe a much better porttable interface, e.g. a small screen to the side that gives more detailed feedback etc. By the way I published this over a year ago, sorry you didn’t see it first.
you forgot about the subscription, without those 3 bucks a month there is not ink to text or svg option whatsoever… oh, cheapest cartridges are 20 bucks on Amazon (for 3 units)
I am not aware of their subscription options. Sorry ?