Review: Griffin Crayola ColorStudio HD
When Griffin Technology announced its collaboration with Crayola for the Crayola ColorStudio HD ($30), we were genuinely excited. Working together, the companies had developed something we'd never seen before -- a kid-friendly, battery-powered iPad drawing tool called iMarker, a digital alternative to traditional magic markers, crayons, and even paintbrushes for children. Even more promising was the ColorStudio HD application, a "magic coloring book" that used music and animations to bring traditional coloring books to life. It only took minutes to understand just how cool an accessory-aided drawing app could be for kids.
Now that ColorStudio HD and the iMarker are actually in stores, we have mostly good news to report. Griffin’s and Crayola’s total package does, in fact, break new ground when considered either as a whole, or on the merits of its separate pieces. Judging by our testing experiences since our review unit arrived two weeks ago, kids are going to really enjoy ColorStudio HD using iMarker—and parents are probably going to hope for other reasonably-priced apps in the series, should Griffin and/or Crayola ever release them. But there’s a fundamental question that parents will need to answer up front: is there really a benefit to paying $30 for a package like this given the huge number of inexpensive, great kids’ drawing apps in the App Store?
Our answer is a nuanced “yes.” Start with the special feature of iMarker—the reason why this rubber-tipped, silver plastic-capped black tube of an accessory requires the one included AA battery it ships with. Using iMarker, unlike typical iPad styluses, a child can touch the iPad’s screen without accidentally making marks in the coloring book. As long as iMarker is powered on, and ColorStudio HD’s “Finger Mode” is off, only iMarker interactions will draw lines and do fills in the coloring book; fingers can still be used to activate buttons and menus.
Using iMarker is simple. You start by unscrewing the battery compartment with a small Philips-head driver, popping the battery in, and sealing the unit back up. Press the silver power button on the bottom and you’ll see a glowing Crayola logo cycle through colors on the accessory’s side as a high-pitched, low-volume chirp is emitted—the most obvious ways for a parent to realize from a distance that the iMarker’s been left on.
While this isn’t the best-looking accessory Griffin’s ever designed—the seam of the battery compartment is ever-visible and slightly creaky, while the silver paint on the marker was peeling off within days—it feels great in a kid’s or parent’s hand. At 5.5” long, it’s bigger than the typical iPad stylus, and therefore easy for a child to wield much like a traditional marker. The oversized rubber tip feels pretty resilient, too, by contrast with the smaller and thinner ones found on other styluses; iMarker’s silver cap appears to be there mostly for decoration, but can protect the tip during travel, too.
Griffin’s ColorStudio HD app is where the magic happens. There are sections that let you draw freehand with the iMarker, or create your own coloring pages filled with black-outlined objects from a library of backgrounds, small pieces of art, and music. You can save, print and share your images, even over Facebook. But the real star of the show is the collection of 30 fully-developed, animated coloring pages Griffin includes from the onset.
These pages actually move, such that a forest scene includes a leaping deer, flying birds, and scrolling clouds—each at a pace that lets kids color a little before they move along. A pause button stops the animation if you’re tired of chasing the animal, or keep on missing the edges of a rocking chair as it sways back and forth in an attic with a hiding monster. Kids can fill the pages up in silence or turn up the volume to listen to nicely composed, themed music while they’re drawing.
Aided by a feature that optionally helps kids stay within the lines by making an intelligent determination as to what part of an object is being filled, then only allowing the fill within that part until iMarker is lifted, this element of the ColorStudio HD experience is indeed actually pretty close to magical. It goes so far beyond traditional coloring books that it’s easy to imagine that children at some point will never totally understanding the appeal of plain paper coloring. Different fill options range from thin pen-like tips for precision drawing to an instant-fill dropper that floods an entire portion of an object with a color.
But there are a couple of hiccups. First is the rest of ColorStudio HD’s user interface, which in its current form is a little too complex for the youngest kids who would enjoy the app. Griffin has created an an absolutely beautiful peacock-like tool to let kids fan through a collection of different colors, and then several collections of different types of markers, brushes, and pencils to draw with. It looks great in screenshots and animates wonderfully when you interact with it. Yet our nearly three-year-old tester didn’t grasp using it as easily as Darren Murtha Design’s Drawing Pad for iPad, which uses a simple tray to present a similarly broad array of colors and drawing tools. There are just a few too many small buttons to figure out in Griffin’s interface; parents will need to walk kids through the options for a while. An update with streamlined controls would make the app better.
The other hiccup is the iMarker accessory. It’s obvious why Griffin wanted to make this accessory rather than just trying to sell an app on its own, and in the grand scheme of things, $30 isn’t a crazy price for a stylus and app combination when many companies are selling simpler styluses alone for $20 or $25. It’s equally obvious that iMarker does exactly what it promises to do, eliminating errant touch interactions during coloring. We can’t fault it in those regards. On the other hand, we did notice that kids initially tended to push down harder on the iPad’s screen with iMarker when they didn’t understand why it wasn’t drawing with a feather-light touch. Additionally, with Finger Mode activated, it was sometimes easier to draw in ColorStudio HD using a non-iMarker stylus—or a fingertip—than it was to use iMarker. And the accessory is not, strictly speaking, necessary here; it adds cost and a trip to the store (online or bricks-and-mortar) that needn’t be there. The catch is that you can’t unlock all of the features of the free ColorStudio HD app unless you use an iMarker to perform a one-time zig-zag gesture on the introductory screen. An obvious compromise would be to offer a finger- or stylus-ready version of the app at a discount, but then, that might not happen.
So are ColorStudio HD and iMarker worth considering? Yes. In its current form, the application is very good—brilliant in concept, solid in execution—and should Griffin streamline it to make it even easier for young kids to use, it’ll be great. iMarker does what it’s supposed to do, enabling kids to draw on the iPad screen without letting fingertips get in the way, though it’s a little less than perfectly designed, and not strictly necessary unless finger-based inputs are really a concern. Based on our experiences with ColorStudio HD, we’d definitely like to see more drawing apps from Crayola and Griffin; this is a good start, and hopefully the beginning of broader partnership that will see even more ambitious creative apps for kids in the future.