A big part of design is inspiration. Graphic and web designers don’t work in a vacuum, they browse around to see what’s come before, and use other designs as references and starting points. Collecting these little pieces of inspiration and reference can quickly crowd your browser’s bookmark folder or your computer’s pictures folder, so the developers of Sparkbox sought to create an easy tool for capturing and organizing these images. Let’s find out if Sparkbox can really help organize your digital inspiration!
Sparkbox has two main functions: collecting images, and organizing them. Let’s take a look at the collection process first.
There are a couple of ways to get images into Sparkbox, you can of course drag and drop images from elsewhere on your computer, but the idea is to keep your downloads folder empty, so the focus is on capturing images directly. If you’re snapping pictures from a webpage, you can use either the app’s built-in browser, or use a Safari plug-in to send any site to the app for clipping.
Sparkbox’s built-in browser is pretty rough around the edges, and is about as minimal as a browser could be: it’s pretty much just an address bar. Notably absent is any kind of navigation: no forward or back button (you have to right-click to navigate) and no bookmarks. Once you’re on the page you want to grab an image from, you have a couple of options.
You can grab an entire webpage (not just the visible portion ) by clicking the camera icon beside the address bar, grab a screenshot of a specific area by selecting the option from the menu-bar icon (which is a bit of a pain), or click the ‘thumbs’ button to view all images (both images in the HTML and background images) on the page. The ‘thumbs’ feature is pretty handy, especially when you’re trying to figure out how something was done on a webpage (“Is that a background image or some really clever CSS?”) or when you want to grab a bunch of images from a page, like from someone’s Dribbble project, or from a showcase blog post. You can filter by images, background images, and image size (though I found these a bit glitchy).
Snapping From Elsewhere
You can grab screenshots to add to Sparkbox from any app through the menu bar. The menu bar icon gives you the options to get a screenshot of the entire screen, a portion of the screen, or an application window, just as you would using the built-in Mac screenshot features. I find it odd and a bit irritating that there are no keyboard shortcuts for this, and I’m really hoping for future versions to include this. It would also be cool if Sparkbox would just grab any screenshot you take using the system keyboard shortcuts while it’s running.
Once you’ve got your images into Sparkbox, you can organize them any way you like. Adding tags, changing names, assigning star ratings, and marking items as favourites are easily accomplished from the Organization tabs (‘Categories’, ‘Tags’, ‘Favourites’ and ‘Colors’), and you can create categories and smart folders for your images. Bring up an information panel on the image with Cmd+I and zoom in and out using pinch and spread multi-touch gestures. In addition to organizing by tags, categories, and favourites, Sparkbox also lets you filter through your images by color, similar to the color-sort feature in Dribbble. Though the selections might seem a bit inaccurate at first, you can adjust the variance and minimum color levels from the Settings gear icon.
When you select an image, you can zoom in and out using your pinch and zoom to get a closer view. When you zoom in further than the size of the viewport, you get a map to help you navigate the image. This can be helpful when zooming in on an entire webpage, but it’s frustrating that you can’t scroll around the image like you’d expect to be able to.
You can add comments to specific areas of the image by selecting ‘comment’, then dragging on the area you’d like to comment. The developer says they’re planning to add more editing tools in future versions, but for really marking up images to share with people, I’m happy to use Skitch. You also can add a description of the entire image from the info panel, and edit tags. You can move between images using arrow keys or the thumbnails at the bottom of the screen, as well as by swiping (but the swipe gestures will feel backwards if you’re using the ‘natural’ scrolling in Lion).
Sparkbox has one very obvious competitor in LittleSnapper, the much-loved screenshot manager from Realmac. I’ve used LittleSnapper before, and while it’s an impressive application, it does have room for improvement, and the $40 price tag is a bit steep. Though Sparkbox lacks many of LittleSnapper’s impressive features (better browser, editing tools, cool screenshot features), I find Sparkbox has a more intuitive basic interface, easier image organization, is less resource-intensive, and has a much more palatable price tag ($20). There’s no doubt that at the moment LittleSnapper has more features and is much more refined, but Sparkbox is a very new app that could become a serious competitor.
Sparkbox is brand new and obviously a bit rough around the edges, but has a promising future. The developer has given me a few clues about future development, including:
- support for more image formats (including .psd, .eps, .ai)
- improvements to the websnap feature
- image editing features
- iCloud integration
- integration with services like Dribble
- an iOS version
I’m hoping future versions also include some refinements to the interface and complete keyboard shortcuts, and also hope the Mac app doesn’t take a back seat to iOS development.
Sparkbox is only in it’s infancy, but I think it has a lot of potential to be a powerful tool for designers, and serious competition to LittleSnapper. Sparkbox definitely has it’s shortcomings: the interface is a bit clumsy at times, the browser is feature-less, and the websnap feature needs a lot of improvement. Despite these shortcomings, Sparkbox has a lot to offer designers looking for a simple but powerful organization tool, and I’m looking forward to big improvements in future versions.