Finger-painting for grown-ups, historic documents on your phone, and better media players – we point out some clever uses for a touchscreen.
Autodesk Sketchbook Mobile & Mobile Express
A tablet-type device ought to be a natural for anything you might otherwise use paper for – note-taking, magazine-reading, and so on. Now, thanks to Sketchbook Mobile the same is also true of art, whether it be a line drawing, 'watercolour' or 'pastels'.
Of course, software such as Autodesk (formerly Alias) Sketchbook has been around on Macs and PCs for years. Many users loved it, but some artists and others found the transition to digital hard to make, not least because you don't work on the drawing surface itself, but typically on a separate digitiser tablet or graphics pad.
With tools such as Sketchbook Mobile, which is now available both on Apple iPad and iPhone ($2.99) and on Android ($0.99), all that changes. Smartphones and tablets have touchscreens, so there is no need for a separate graphics pad and pen (unless you want one, that is – pens suitable for modern touchscreens are available online).
Yes that's right – it is finger-painting for grown-ups, although perhaps I should say it is finger-painting all grown up, as it offers dozens of brush options from pencil to airbrush, multiple layers to the drawing, customisable colours, and lots more.
If you're used to drawing with a pen – whether digital or ink – finger-painting might take a little getting used to. It quickly becomes quite natural though, and of course the multiple levels of undo and redo make corrections reasonably simple.
One neat feature is 'symmetry', where everything you draw is mirrored. By rotating the device, you can flip from vertical to horizontal symmetry. You can also zoom, pan and erase.
Having multiple layers lets you work on different features of a drawing separately. The free version, Sketchbook Mobile Express (SBMX) gives you three layers, while the paid-for Sketchbook Mobile (SBM) allows up to six.
One use for layers is sketching on top of a photo - SBM lets you import a photo from the device's memory or direct from its camera and work with that.
While SBMX only allows you to save in PNG (portable network graphics) format, SBM also lets you export your masterpiece as a JPEG or a Photoshop file for those with grander ideas. It is also possible to send your file straight to email.
Obviously, the bigger the screen, the more of your artwork you can see and the more natural it is to draw, as there is less need to scroll around the page, so SBM is going to be rather more versatile on an iPad or one of the raft of Android tablets now hitting the market. Even on a phone though, this is a neat tool to have, especially given the availability of the free version.
Anyone wanting a free alternative to Microsoft Office – whether it's because you still haven't come to terms with the taskbar ribbon, because you prefer FOSS (free and open source software), or simply because it is too expensive – now has a new option to consider in LibreOffice
Well, it is sort of new, but it also looks an awful lot like the existing open-source challenger, OpenOffice – or, as Oracle prefers it to be called, the OpenOffice.org Productivity Suite. That is because LibreOffice is an enhanced version (a fork, in open-source parlance) of OpenOffice's latest beta release. The first stable release of LibreOffice – numbered 3.3 to keep in synch with OpenOffice – came out on Windows, Mac and Linux in January this year.
If you have not yet tried the alternatives to Microsoft Office, this could be an excellent time to do so. As well as word processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation packages, LibreOffice includes maths and drawing packages. All work much the same way as the 'classic' Microsoft packages, so if you object to the changes made to the user interface in Office 2007 and 2010, you should be quite at home. Two notable absentees, however, are equivalents to Microsoft's Outlook and OneNote.
So what does LibreOffice bring to the party? Well, it can read Microsoft Works and Lotus Word Pro documents, plus SVG vector images. There is also an 'experimental' mode which allows you to try out unfinished features.
The real benefit though is vendor-independence. Many open-source advocates were immensely disappointed when Oracle bought Sun Microsystems and discontinued OpenSolaris, and the unhappy voices got louder when Oracle went on to sue Google for alleged breaches of some of Sun's Java patents.
Now the dissent has spread, with several key people behind OpenOffice moving to LibreOffice and its publisher The Document Foundation (TDF). Almost all of TDF's steering committee members are European, by the way – OpenOffice traces its origins back to StarDivision, a German software house bought by Sun in 1999.
Linux distributors are already adopting the new Oracle-less package, with Novell, RedHat and Ubuntu developer Canonical among those saying they will include LibreOffice in their upcoming operating system releases.
Free or $14.99
If you have ever arrived at a meeting to discover you left some key bit of information on your desktop PC, you will know the value of remote-access software. Not too surprisingly, there is now a range of tools to do the job, from the open-source VNC via proprietary tools such as GoToMyPC to Microsoft's RDP, which is included in many Windows versions.
Thin-client specialist Wyse Technology has now extended those same capabilities to smartphones and tablets, with a versatile app called Pocketcloud that can connect to VNC, RDP and VMware View virtual machines. It runs on Apple iOS devices – iPads and iPhones – and on Android.
PocketCloud is not cheap, but there are free trial versions available; these only allow one host to be set up, and omit other features such as pinch-zoom and VMware support, but they will be enough for some people.
Set-up is relatively simple. Both versions support auto-discovery, where a small background program on your PC or Mac allows the devices to recognise each other over the Internet without needing to open a port through the firewall. Initially we had problems connecting to VNC using auto-discovery, but it was easily solved via the support forum – the PC needed VNC set to allow loop-back connections.
Alternatively, you can set up a connection manually. The only server options are Windows and Mac OS X, but setting the VNC server type to Windows also worked fine with a Linux server.
Once you're in, you see your desktop on the mobile device, either full-screen or zoomed in. You wouldn't be advised to do any serious work at this resolution, but it is enough to email yourself a file, say. One neat feature is the super-pointer, which takes a little getting used to, but allows instant access to many key features.
Treasures of the British Library
Is it an app or is it an e-book? It's both, really – 'Treasures of the British Library' is a multimedia guide to some of its most important items, as displayed in the Sir John Ritblat gallery, including 250 high-definition images, text, and over 40 videos.
Much of the content is fascinating. For example, it includes images from a handwritten manuscript of 'Alice in Wonderland', Nelson's battle plan for Trafalgar, Galileo's sunspot letters, Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks, and an original 1215 Magna Carta.
Of course, it is no substitute for a visit, but it's good for a casual browse – something to have at hand when you need an intellectual diversion, say.
On the down side, most of the images do not look their best on a relatively small smartphone screen – there is also a £3.49 HD version available for iPad, by the way – and it could do with better proofreading (Fleming apparently discovered an 'antisceptic' with 'anitbacterial' properties).
The user interface is idiosyncratic, often disabling screen rotation. In addition, it would not allow us to download the whole 1.1GB app plus content in advance, requiring on-demand downloads instead.