Apple’s got a brand new app out, which doesn’t happen often: Freeform is available now for iOS 16.2, iPadOS 16.2, or macOS Ventura 13.1, and is described as a “flexible canvas” that you can use in pretty much any way you see fit. The emphasis is on sharing and collaboration, but you can use Freeform—essentially a blank digital whiteboard—on your own as well as in groups.
Here we’re going to guide you through some of the basics of Freeform, to give you an idea of what the app is capable of and the different ways that you might be able to make use of it. The interface is laid out slightly differently on phones and tablets compared to desktop, and there’s extras like Apple Pencil support, but Apple has worked hard to make the Freeform experience very similar no matter what device you’re on.
The basics of Freeform
Open up Freeform for the first time, and you’ll be met with a slightly daunting mass of white space, just waiting for your input. The Freeform canvas can combine text, images, videos, audio clips, web links, shapes, sticky notes, map locations, documents and more besides, organized in whatever way you prefer, and you can of course create as many pages as you like—there’s no paper to run out of.
Freeform is impressively intuitive and versatile. You can just drag a file in from Finder on macOS, for example, which can then be quickly previewed with a double-click. Videos and audio play right inside the app, so you’re not bouncing between different screens or waiting for something to load. Each element can be moved, resized and rotated, and layered on top of other objects.
Apple has deployed built-in alignment guides (shown on screen as gray dots), so your boards don’t look too chaotic, and certain items can be locked into place if required (particularly helpful if you start inviting other people to share your Freeform creations). The boards can expand to be as big as you want, so you’re never going to run out of room, and there are simple-to-use zoom and selection tools included, too.
If you’re on an iPad or an iPhone, you do get access to more drawing tools: These freeform pens and brushes aren’t available on macOS, and you can either use your finger or an Apple Pencil to make your scribbles. It’s a shame that these sketching options aren’t available on the Mac, though with the lack of a touchscreen, it’s perhaps understandable—you can of course still see these drawings if you’re using the desktop app; you just can’t create them.
Using Freeform to collaborate
Collaboration is one of the strengths of Freeform, and you can invite up to 99 other people to work with you on a board. This takes the potential of the app up a notch—you can use it for anything, from deciding on your company strategy over the next 12 months with dozens of colleagues, to planning a wedding with a few close friends and relatives. Everyone gets access to the same features and the same tools, and you can highlight each contributor in real-time with color-coded cursors if you want.
To invite someone else to your Freeform board, you use the tried and trusted share option—then it’s just a question of picking the people you’d like to work with. Changes are synchronized and displayed in real time, and you can make changes to who has access to your Freeform boards whenever you like. The navigation pane gives you access to your recent boards, your shared boards, your favorite boards, and a list of all your boards.
As you would expect, Freeform works very nicely and neatly with other Apple software. For example, you can drag a Freeform board into a conversation in Messages to instantly invite all of the people in that chat thread to collaborate. Activity updates on the board will get posted to the same conversation thread, so you’re able to see who’s doing what without necessarily switching between apps.
If you prefer some face-to-face interaction—perhaps the canvas has just gotten too chaotic and you need to impose some order—you can start a FaceTime call between all the collaborators on a board, with video boxes appearing in the corner of the screen so you can keep an eye on your digital canvas at the same time. When it comes to exporting your boards, they can be saved as PDFs and sent to other apps where needed.
The possibilities of Freeform
We like the flexibility and the ease-of-use that Freeform offers: It’s hardly the most innovative of apps (a lot of functionality is duplicated in Apple Notes, for example) but its appeal lies in just how unrestrictive it is. Most of the time, it just works, as with most Apple apps, and it can do an impressive number of tasks (like media playback) without any extra help.
All that said, it is a work in progress. It’s not always obvious how to do something—like rotation or layering—and the macOS app is currently clunkier than the mobile versions. Freeform works best with an iPad and an Apple Pencil, which is how we suspect most people are going to use it. There’s clearly room for improvement, and if you’re already happy with a different digital whiteboard app, Freeform might not have enough to it to convince you to switch.
The ways in which you might use Freeform are just about endless, whether it’s planning out the structure of a video game you’re working on, just trying to remember what you need to buy from the grocery store, working on offense plays for a basketball team, or simply doodling and playing around with creative ideas in the hope that inspiration will eventually strike.
What you might not know is that Google offers something similar in the form of Google Jamboard, one of the company’s lesser-known products. A lot of the same features are included, plus some extras: You can combine text, images and sticky notes, for example, and there’s even a virtual laser pointer. It fits in neatly with other Google products (like Google Meet), but right now it feels like Apple’s product is slightly more advanced and more useful as a whiteboard tool.
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