Review: Realmac Software Ember
In the days that Macs featured rainbow-colored Apple logos, there was a handy tool that lived in the Apple Menu—the Scrapbook. The idea was that you could use it as a place for images, text, sounds, and other content that you could later paste in documents. Unfortunately, with the transition to OS X, Scrapbook didn’t make the cut. Realmac Software has sort of resurrected the idea with Ember, a $50 Mac app and free iOS app combo.
Ember on Mac
Ember has its roots with LittleSnapper, a Mac application focused on taking and collecting screenshots. Realmac Software added features, redesigned the interface, added an iOS companion app, and relaunched the whole combination as Ember, hoping to be a scrapbook for everything. Some have described it as a personal version of Pinterest, and the analogy does have some value, but there are some serious productivity uses of having all sorts of items available whenever you need them, or organizing bits of content around a particular project.
Ember can store content locally on devices, but it also integrates with iCloud to share content among devices. On the Mac, the interface is much like iPhoto and prior version of iTunes—a sidebar to the left, content to the right. The interface is clean, simple to use, and there are a number of ways to categorize content. Opening a snap presents it in the full width of the window, and there are some basic editing tools, including crop, rotate, and annotate. The third one gives you the option to doodle and caption your snaps in a nondestructive manner. With the newest version, you can also blur or pixelate content—great for developers and software reviewers. A share button allows you to share your snaps to a number of services, including AirDrop (if your Mac is so equipped), email, iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, CloudApp, Flickr, iCloud, Tumblr, or a simple image export.
In addition to local content, Ember also allows you to subscribe to select content through RSS feeds. A few are included so you can see how it works, and it shows you unviewed items. Finally, there is a built-in browser, which can be handy if you’re a full-screen app fan.
Speaking of web browsers, Ember offers browser extensions for Safari and Chrome allowing you to snap content directly from your browser of choice. After clicking the button, you are presented with a pop-up to enter some metadata, and the page is snapped and added to your Ember library. Snapping web pages actually gives you an image of the entire page, not just the contents visible in your browser window at that particular time.
With the update to 1.3, Realmac has added a number of enhancements, demonstrating that they’re not content on resting on their laurels and growing the capabilities over time. The release notes claim “over 50 other tweaks and enhancements” and one notable one is the ability to back up the library to a specific location—good if you don’t use Time Machine.
Ember on iOS
While it is not as powerful as its desktop sibling, Ember on iOS is a handy way to collect things on the go, either as screenshots or photos, and later sync back with its desktop counterpart. Ember doesn’t offer many of the advanced organization and editing tools, save for the optional in-app purchases. In theory, it really is intended as a good collection or quick viewing companion for on the go. If you look at it from this perspective, it serves its purpose well, and works quite nicely.
One notable feature of using the two applications in tandem is that Ember recognizes iOS screenshots based on dimensions and files them appropriately. We think this is rather slick.
Some may argue that there are services and tools that are free, but many are ad-supported or require some sort of proprietary account. Ember on Mac’s screenshot and annotation tools are quite handy and worth at least a third if not half of the price of admission alone. As more people are concerned with where their data is being stored, Ember offers a good alternative using familiar places like local storage or iCloud.
Unfortunately, Ember seems focused around image files. While this isn’t bad, we would like to see support for other file formats, even rudimentary ones like text files. This could make Ember a full-blown replacement for tools like Evernote.
While $50 is arguably steep for a piece of software, at least to those who complain about $5 iOS apps, it does fit in line with a lot of other polished productivity tools. From a review standpoint, we would think Ember would have a bigger audience at a $30 price point, but developers do have to put food on the table. The universal iOS app is free and offers much of the same functionality, although some of the new headlining features that are in the Mac version require in-app purchases on iOS. Annotations are $5 and Screenshot Auto-Import is $1. While you can live without these, or use the functionality on your Mac, having the option to add them is nice (especially if you’re filing content while mobile). Fortunately, Realmac Software does offer a free trial of Ember for Mac, so you can see how it fits in your workflow. If it is a tool that you’ll actually use, it’s a great product and well worth the money. If you can’t get into a routine of using it, it might be money better spent elsewhere.
The One-Sentence Verdict™
Ember combines a good interface, handy organization, and flexible options to provide a place to keep all sorts of content you might need.
Pros: Well-designed interface, iOS version free, excellent organization, iCloud synchronization
Cons: Mac version may be considered a bit pricey for some, would like to see other content types