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.