Paper by FiftyThree review: an instant iPhone classic


If the (extremely vague and unconfirmed) rumoursare true that Apple was forced to cut short its iPad Pro demos due to time constraints, WIRED would bet any money that Paper by FiftyThree was one of the victims forced to yield to Microsoft and Adobe’s corporate muscle.

If so that is a massive shame. If not, Apple is crazy to have ignored them. Because if there is one app that defines why a stylus is a sensible — even a potentially glorious — input method in the 21st century, and if there is one app that shows why the iPad remains the king of the tablets, it’s Paper.

Put simply, Paper by FiftyThree is one of the best apps on the iPad. Ostensibly a simple note-taking and drawing app – you can scribble, write, put together simple diagrams and now annotate photos and screenshots – Paper is quietly evolving into a work of some slight but real genius. With flowing ink and paint performance that seems to baffle Wacom, Samsung and Microsoft, a design so simple it borders on insulting, in a good way, and the ability to meld social sharing and collaboration in a way that is intuitive and inspiring, not baffling, it’s shockingly great.

Now it’s on the iPhone too. And the result, of course, is fabulous; a pocket drawing and notes app that puts the user first, makes sensible use of a smaller screen and only requires a few more pieces in place, like a good phone stylus, to make a watertight argument for being a default install on the iPhone as well as its larger (and now much larger) iOS sibling.

Where once Paper was organised around ‘notebooks’, each with multiple pages, the app is now more simply based on ‘spaces’, stacks of cards comprising text, scribbles, artwork, photos and combinations of all the above, that expand out into re-arrangeable grids when touched. By default your spaces are private, but they can also be shared as pictures, PDFs or presentations. You can also browse through Mix, FiftyThree’s social network of editable drawings, remix or add to images and re-upload them or just keep them as private documents.

Your tools comprise a simple mix of a blending colour palette, pencils, pens, highlighters and a watercolour paintbrush, as well as a cut-paste tool, a blur tool, a ‘smart shapes’ tool to enable you to draw quick diagrams and a highlight tool to draw focus to specific areas of photos. It’s a straightforward selection, with no mysteries or real surprises.

The trick, as ever, is in the tuning. Each of the tools is better and more subtle than it sounds, with the fountain pen able to counter-intuitively provide greater control at slow speeds, and thickened lines when you speed up, and the layering of ink-on-paint-on-highlighter building up in clever, wonderful ways that are intelligent but not realistic enough to be frustrating. And combined they are more than the sum of their parts, able to unlock creativity and experimentation, but not hold you back from completing specific tasks either.

On the smaller screen you are obviously more limited in the types of sketches you can easily produce, but the app seems honed for the iPhone and iPhone 6 Plus display and not simply ported straight over. The addition of photography and notation turns the app into a scrapbooking companion almost instantly, recalling Microsoft’s fascinating and aborted Courier project – which is not an accident, given its lineage.

The only issue that remains in place is the stylus. In the past FiftyThree’s own Pencil drawing device was hailed as the best available for any iOS tablet. Clearly that’s not true anymore with the advent of the iPad Pro’s specially-designed screen and Pencil accessory. But even before Apple’s Pencil was unveiled, FiftyThree’s equivalent’s age was showing. Though its thick, angled edge is able to create pleasing shading and pencil effects, it’s ultimately a difficult-to-use and imprecise tool compared to that available for the Samsung Note 4 or the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. On the iPhone it’s simply too big. Either FiftyThree needs something better for the small screen, or Apple needs to make a stylus-compatible iPhone, which it decided not to this year.

That aside, Paper remains an absolutely fantastic app, whatever screen you use it on. Does WIRED wish it was also available for the Note, the Surface and every other device in the universe? Yes – and unless Apple is just going to go ahead and buy the app outright, we’d encourage FiftyThree to make the switch. Until it does, the iPhone suddenly became the best note-taking device you can put in your pocket, even without a decent stylus. Paper is just that good.

About the author

Adeline Darrow
By Adeline Darrow


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