Review: Crayola ColorStudio HD and Griffin iMarker pair up for coloring time

When Griffin and Crayola announced their collaboration back at CES in January, the idea of a combined stylus and drawing/painting iPad app for kids -- with the power to distinguish between finger touches and the tip of the stylus -- sounded fantastic. The flexibility of the iPad for keeping kids engaged and entertained, especially on long trips, is remarkable; something like the iMarker could supercharge it substantially.

We were curious, though: how (and how well) would it actually work? Now shipping in both the App Store and at Best Buy, the iMarker and ColorStudio HD combine a well-designed, kid-friendly app with an innovative stylus technology, but is the bundle US$30 worth of fun? And does it meet the demands of both parents and kids?

There are plenty of painting and coloring apps already out for iPad, so let's talk about what sets this package apart: the hardware. Griffin's iMarker stylus -- a black and silver unit labeled as "Assembled in China; Designed in Nashville" -- is different from other capacitive pen-like accessories, because it's powered (by a single AA battery) and because the free ColorStudio HD app can differentiate between finger-touches and the stylus tip. The trick, apparently, is all about speed. A small electric motor in the iMarker 'buzzes' the electrostatic tip, making and breaking contact extremely rapidly; you can hear this vibration in action if you hold the stylus close to your ear, although it's not particularly audible at arm's length. There's also a lighted oval on the side of the stylus to let you know it's on.

Since the app is watching for a vibrating touch, it can tell when you're using your finger to operate in-app controls like crayon color selection or brush size and when you're using the pen to actually draw. It sounds technically complex, but like all good iPad-related products, in practice it "just works" -- even for small kids. I found initially that it took a somewhat firm press of the stylus to get it to register on the screen, but a check of the Griffin FAQ for the product suggested that I'd get better results by removing my iPad from its case. That worked well, and the pen became somewhat more responsive when I was holding the back of my iPad in my hand. (Back-case skins or front screen protectors will also decrease the pen sensitivity.)

With the distinction between pentip and fingertip being handled in software, it feels very natural to switch back and forth from app controls (color/brush selection, undo, email/save, etc.) to drawing with the stylus. If you leave the stylus at home, however, the activated version of the app (you unlock the full feature set by drawing a pattern with the purchased stylus) lets you switch into fingers-only mode at will. Annoyingly, the iMarker comes with a protective cap that doesn't fit on the back end of the stylus, so you have to tuck it away somewhere else or risk losing it.

Crayola's app delivers plenty of drawing fun for kids. It's got a wide array of pre-designed animated coloring pages, a 'free draw' mode and a section for kids to assemble their own coloring pages from resizable/placeable clip art. The animated pages are clever, with several 'hot spots' to trigger sounds or actions, and repeating elements that move smoothly across the page; foreground items can be colored in separately from the background scenery. Budding artists can select from a full palette of Crayola crayons, markers, pencils and paintbrushes, along with an eraser, three brush sizes and a paint-can 'fill' mode which can be applied repeatedly to an area for different effects.

The current version of the app gives kids an assist in staying 'inside the lines' as they draw, which isn't to the liking of all parents; Crayola & Griffin say that a future version will provide an option to turn the line-respecting feature off, helping kids to learn that on their own.

If you download the app without owning the stylus, you're able to play around a bit in a few of the coloring pages, but you don't have access to the full suite of options without the hardware unlock. One wonders if Crayola will offer an in-app purchase for the full experience at some point, or stay with the stylus as the key to the kingdom. There are lots (lots) of other drawing apps with a kid-friendly bent, and none of them come close to the $30 price point of the iMarker.

Considering the full experience of the iMarker/app combo, I have to say it works as advertised; from the perspective of a technology fan, the sensing trick is undeniably cool. As a parent of young kids, however, I'm less convinced that the iMarker is going to resonate with its target market: iPad owners with coloring-age children.

When I demoed the system for a mom friend, her first reaction was "I have to carry another thing with me? The whole point of the iPad is that it's self-contained, not burdened down with lots of accessories." She also had pointed critiques of everything from the pen color ("Finding a black stylus in my purse is tough, it should be Crayola-colored") to the sensitivity ("I've just gotten the boys to understand not to press down hard on the screen") to the conductivity suggestion of taking the iPad out of its case for drawing sessions ("You think I'm handing an unprotected $600 device to a three-year-old? Not likely"). The longer we talked about the product, the clearer it became that there are some challenges for the iMarker out there in the real world.

While Crayola and Griffin have done some remarkable work with this first version of the app/stylus combo, I have to say it's not for everyone -- if you tend to be anxious about your iPad or are looking to keep your carry-junk to a minimum, you might want to skip it. If you do have the cash and the curiosity about a legitimately different way of interacting with your iPad, then by all means see if there's a demo station at your nearest Best Buy or Apple Store. The ColorStudio HD app may begin to wear thin after a while, but the free drawing mode remains accessible even once the coloring pages get stale.

One thing to keep in mind for the future: if the iMarker catches on, there will likely be additional applications and tools that take advantage of the pen-sensing functionality in the future, or other pro-level peripherals from Griffin that use the same approach (perhaps with pressure sensitivity emulated by speeding up/slowing down the contact pulse?) for more sophisticated artwork. That would be something to see.