At AppStorm we pay very close attention to the App Store. We monitor the introduction of new apps in much the same way that a trader keeps their eyes glued to the markets. We know what’s going up, what’s going down, as well as what’s desperately in need of a bug-fixing update.
As a result, I’m able to inform you that the general trend among vector drawing apps is downsizing. Rather than competing with Adobe’s mighty Illustrator, apps such as iDraw, Artboard and Sketch offer something a little simpler, more compact and more reasonably priced. Happily, from the app buyer’s perspective, the growing number of apps in this niche is creating intense competition, which, in turn, is having a positive effect on quality. In fact, vector artists are spoilt for choice right now.
Yet somehow, still more contenders are finding the room to squeeze into the ring. One such app is Bluetail. It wants to undercut the undercutters, offering a stripped-back, no-nonsense workspace at a rock-bottom price. But does Bluetail fall on the side of value-for-money simplicity, or does it creep into ill-equipped incapability? Time to find out.
Pragmatic minimalism is a beautiful trait. So many apps aim for it, but few totally succeed in achieving it. Whether or not the developer, Iconshots, was aiming for it, their app certainly delivers it.
Only three, modestly-sized windows constitute Bluetail‘s basic interface, each of them kitted out in black trim, and all of them floated, ready and waiting to be placed anywhere. The tool palette is clearly modelled on the corresponding layout in Adobe’s creative products, but Bluetail‘s version has a slicker, smoother, more refined look to it. Similarly, Photoshop and Illustrator users will feel a high level of familiarity with Bluetail‘s layers palette, but there’s a certain pleasing clarity here which is missing from Adobe’s UI designs. The canvas itself provides little more inherent visual stimulation than a grid and some measurement rulers. Content, for once, actually is king.
It would be unfair to expect an app in this price range to rival the big boys in terms of scope of functionality. Although Bluetail‘s feature set is unspectacular, all the fundamentals are present, and they are delivered with a great deal of competence.
The Tool Palette
The tool palette will hold no surprises for the seasoned vector artist, but let me give you a quick runthrough.
The Pen tool, used for the creation of Bézier curves, is always my first port of call when testing vector apps. The apparently simple task of drawing a curved line so often causes instability and judder. Not so in Bluetail.
The Line and Pencil drawing tools — used for straight lines and freehand illustration, respectively — offer similar experiences. The irritation caused by Bluetail‘s insistent shifting to the Selection tool after the creation of every mark on the virtual page is an unfortunate blip for what are, otherwise, two more nicely produced tools.
Six shape forms are on offer in Bluetail – circular, rectangular, triangular, pentagonal, star- and diamond-shaped — and each is a separate, independent tool, instantly selectable from the palette.
The other two main functions are the Poly Pen and Easy Pen tools. The former offers the creation of multi-straight-sided custom shapes; the latter simply offers the creation of straight-line paths without the irritating shifts to the selection tool.
The final two icons, which control canvas zoom, may seem insignificant, but they actually indirectly expose Bluetail‘s most prominent weakness – no equivalent keyboard shortcut is on offer for the zoom controls, or any of the other controls. For some users, that might be a killer, which is a shame given that otherwise, the tool palette is a neat little package.
Fill, Stroke and the Rest
Of course, shape drawing isn’t much use without a bit of colour and definition. That’s where the Shape Style menu comes in.
The Fill tool works in the manner you might expect. Shapes can contain a colour, a gradient or an image. Gradients can be linear, radial or angled, and can be saved to the provided favourites gallery for later quick access. The opacity of all fill types can be adjusted, too. Happily, a fill layering system is also included. An apparently infinite number of fill styles can be combined and blended, meaning very complex looks can be achieved.
The Stroke menu is equally capable. Lines can be filled with a colour or a gradient, and may be any width between 1pt and 32pt. Lines and the joins between them can be bevelled, rounded, or angular, and solid, dashed, or dotted. The only disappointment here is the slight deficiency of line style options. Double solid and double dashed lines will be missed by those who create a wide range of visuals, particularly in the web design sphere.
The remaining features are somewhat miscellaneous. Paths can be turned into pointers via the Arrows menu, the width of shape boundaries can be adjusted under the Polygon and Star Sides section, while the Rounded Rectangle slider performs the task you would expect.
It’s also worth noting that, away from the styling window, shape transformation is available, although it is rather basic – dimension adjustment and shape flipping are the only two options.
Bluetail‘s main Layers palette – quite separate from the multiple fill layers placed in shapes – can, once again, be described as unremarkable. The side-effect benefit of this is visual simplicity, with the only notable controls relating to opacity and blending. Opening the blending drop-down reveals an unusual peak of Bluetail exuberance, with 15 different blend modes on display, ranging from multiply and screen, to hue and saturation.
Given that the recurring theme in Bluetail is ruthless simplicity, I was expecting a rather cut-back array of preferences. I actually found no preferences at all. Instead, a Page Inspector is provided, and this can be opened via the Window item menu.
From here, the grid overlay can be toggled and adjusted, the canvas you’re working on can be resized and re-coloured, and the margin rulers can be toggled too.
The trend for simplistic vector drawing apps, as mentioned in the introduction to this review, is welcome from my point of view. Pro-level apps such as Illustrator can be used, in the right hands, to produce wonderful things. However, few of us have that kind of skill, and fewer still actually need or want to produce such masterpieces.
For vector wizards, Bluetail is a limiting app which will only cause frustration. But for the rest of us, it is a simple, user-friendly way of creating some shapes and styling them as required. And if that sounds like a match for your vector needs, you won’t find a better option, at this price, than Bluetail.