What's not to like about an app that can grab a web page and let you save, organize and mark it up, then share it in more than a half dozen ways? Ember is a powerful but simple application for saving and sharing web pages, images or just about anything you can see online. There's a lot to love in this focused app from Realmac Software.
Once upon a time Realmac made an application called LittleSnapper, designed to grab web pages and the like and store them in a digital scrapbook of sorts. The app had some problems, and I never really quit using Skitch for marking up images and pages. Enter Ember, the successor to LittleSnapper, and a digital scrapbooking app that pretty much nails it in every way.
Ember isn't iPhoto or Aperture, however. Think of Ember as a place to store photos, bits of the web or perhaps any visual projects you're working on, and realize Ember gives you several simple ways to annotate those images and share them with others. Use cases aren't just for designers, however. Anyone who has to bat ideas containing visual components around with someone else will find Ember useful, that includes wedding planners, architects, stage designers and so on.
Ember provides a plethora of ways for you to add images to its library. I've always been a fan of drag and drop, and Ember handles it flawlessly. You can also click the camera icon to take a full screenshot, a timed screenshot (fullscreen only), grab just a portion of the screen or just a window. There's an RSS reader built in, so you can quickly browse image-intensive sites. Ember provides a few examples for inspiration, and in my testing the way Ember pulls graphics from RSS is quite good.
Ember provides a browser within the app, which can make it easy to grab a page directly, but I found the extension (available for Safari and Chrome) to be the easiest to use, as with one click a panel opens up and allows me to name, tag, rate and sort a clipping before continuing. There's even a lovely animation as Ember processes the page before storing it in the library for you.
Storing and sorting in Ember itself is fantastic. I'm not sure which elves had to die for this magic, but Ember manages to make an educated guess about some of your photos, and automatically puts some into the Web, photo, tablet and phone collections. These are default, and of course you can add your own collections (aka "albums"), but the intelligent filtering was cool. It wasn't perfect, but I could tell there was some thought put into this feature that only becomes apparent when you start using it. Now if I pull over a bunch of screenshots and product pics, I'm less worried that I'll lose interface photos in the mix.
To add more functionality to the library's automatic sorting, you can rate and tag your photos, and as mentioned sort them into custom collections. One of my few complaints about Ember is that getting to tags for an image requires clicking the i (for Inspector) button, as they cannot be accessed via right-clicking the image. Ratings can be accessed via right-click, however.
You can show/hide your collections, and search and sort via tags, to an extent. Better yet, there are "smart collections" which is like a smart folder in OS X, or mail rules in Mail.app. Using a set of criteria, your Smart Collections can automatically sort by web address, rating, tag, title, date or other criteria. If you work on a number of projects at once, this is a lifesaver. Ember's parsing of metadata in photos (and sites) is a real help here as well, and a lot of your sorting will be done for you if you use these folders.
I wasn't seeing much of a way to track design iterations per se, but you can set up Smart Folders to do this in a way.
Editing and marking up images
Ember is not a photo editing suite. Its tools are limited to cropping, rotating and adding some text or hand-drawn lines in a variety of colors. This brings a clarity to its purpose, as Ember is about intelligently storing images and sharing them with others, including any notes you may have. To that end there are layers, but only for the purpose of these notes.
I do wish Ember provided just a few more drawing tools, however. I would immediately replace Skitch with Ember if it had built-in items like an arrow and box tool, not to mention the other callouts available in Evernote's software. For such a polished app, scribbling with my mouse seems inelegant.
That said, you can easily hide annotations, and each item you draw on a photo is an individual element. So at any time you can go in and move things around, edit or delete them.
Ember really shines when it comes to sharing photos with or without notes. Although my GIFs were converted to JPG (sorry, no dancing Batman for you, Messages or Tumblr), gives you 9 ways to share easily. There's AirDrop, Email, Message, Export (as a JPG, PNG, PDF or Ember document), Facebook, Twitter, Cloudapp, Flickr and Tumblr.
No Pinterest? No animated GIF support? No companion iOS app? These are all possible futures, I guess, but by and large I didn't miss them.
Should you buy?
Ember is nearly perfect for me, although I would like to see more built-in note features (arrows, other callouts). Support for animated GIFs would be nice, but aside from fun Tumblr fodder, that's not really a killer feature for me.
OK, Ember is $49. While that may sound like a lot in today's $.99-or-GTFO world, it's pretty reasonable for a powerful design tool. If you find yourself constantly ping-ponging files between stakeholders -- be they clients or brides-to-be -- you'll find Ember is incredibly useful for keeping track of and sharing iterations in design.