Napkin 1.5 Review: The Best Annotation App for Mac

Ever since I received my first personal computer — a 2011 13” MacBook Pro — I was intrigued with the capabilities of this machine. I quickly grew to love graphic design and image manipulation. While before I was told I’d have to shell over multiple thousands of dollars for a piece of software like Photoshop (this was before Creative Cloud), I quickly found Pixelmator, a native image manipulation tool for Mac that used the Core Graphics and other native APIs to integrate with OS X in a way Photoshop never could. The best part? It costs only $29.99.

I started using Pixelmator for anything I could. Mockups, image editing, graphic design, vectors, illustrations. It became my ultimate creative hub for any type of media that didn’t move1. But easily the most frustrating part of using Pixelmator in my daily workflow is using it for annotations. To quickly add text to an image and censor sensitive information, I’d have to open it in Pixelmator, create a new layer, add text, create a marquee selection on another layer and dig for the Gaussian Blur menu amongst a myriad of menu bar items. While Pixelmator was perfectly usable, it took to long and took a long time to export to an image file to send straight to a client or co-worker. And if, God forbid, I had to add another image to annotate in the same document, I’d have to resize the canvas and mess with image resolutions. And I don’t want to spend time doing that. I realized that while Pixelmator can be used for anything, that doesn’t mean I should.

I then looked around for the perfect annotation app. I tried out Skitch for a while, but it was still too fiddly, and a recent update completely crippled the usability. I didn’t like the menu bar app, or the file system, or signing up with my Evernote account constantly. I wanted a quick fix that I could be over with in minutes.

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Enter Napkin for OS X. Developed by the illustrious Aged & Distilled, Napkin is described by its creators, Guy English and Chris Parrish, as an app to “say it with a picture, skip the thousand words”. There’s more to Napkin that’s worthy of praise than the all-star team behind it. While several people may recognize Guy English from his numerous podcasts, his blog Kicking Bear and as an organizer of the Çingleton conference in Montreal, and Chris Parrish from his podcast, The Record, and as recipient of an Apple Design Award, the success of Napkin isn’t at all based on the creators’ fame.

Within a month of testing, it’s become (to my surprise) my favorite image annotation tool. Napkin had less features, is less established and costs more than Pixelmator, but the blend of efficiency, simplicity and intuitiveness has led me to placing Napkin on my Dock — something I admittedly don’t do with a lot of the apps that I review.

The idea behind how you use Napkin is simple. A co-worker at your web design studio sends you a mockup his made of a client’s site. You’re ready to send it off to your client, but you notice that a couple of links on the navigation bar are misaligned. Determined to create the best impression on your client, you drag the mockup onto the Napkin icon in your dock, and it opens instantly. You waste no time, and quickly draw an arrow on your trackpad (Napkin automatically detects shapes). You click the ‘text’ icon on your toolbar, and a text box is added at the end of the arrow, in focus. You add a comment, drag the ‘.png’ button to the body of an email and send it back to the co-worker. He corrects the error and sends it back, and you send it straight off to your client.

It took me exactly 20 seconds to annotate an image in Napkin and send it back, instead of what would have been 15 minutes of struggling with Pixelmator or Photoshop.

Speed and simplicity are one of the main selling points of Napkin. Developers English, Parrish, and Unterberger made Napkin natural to use for the type of work you use it for. Some of the ‘features’ I’ve come to enjoy the most are basic, but are left off by some of the most formidable competitors to Napkin. I love being able to simply start typing to insert a text box, shaving seconds off using the app. It’s also very intelligent; after drawing a shape like an arrow, typing places a text box at the most logical position, the origin point of the arrow. Start typing after placing a shape and Napkin places text in the center of the shape you pick, á la Pages.

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In the same vein, Napkin allows easy exporting. As I’ve said, exporting from Pixelmator or Photoshop takes a long time, with fiddly options for customizing the final output for which I couldn’t care less when dealing with annotations. Napkin removes every single step in this mind-numbing process: drag the “.png” button on the top-right to anywhere in Finder, your Desktop or a Messages compose window, and Napkin auto-exports a PNG with dimensions cropped to the content in your Napkin window, which allows me to touch on another part of my workflow before Napkin that it now omits: fiddling with file dimensions. After opening an image with Pixelmator, if I needed more space for annotations, I’d have to change file dimensions to create room for more call-outs or arrows, often misestimating lengths, and having to go back to fix up dimensions. If you do it enough, it can drive you crazy. Napkin dynamically adjusts the dimensions of the image based on what content you add, which is a great omission which makes Napkin a joy to use every day.

Napkin 1.5 builds on an already great application. In addition to the amazing features it already packs, such as adding shapes, call-outs, text, shapes and arrows and camera features, the newest version also adds the ability to censor certain areas of images.

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The new censoring tools in 1.5 are awesome, with more options than you’d expect. Once you drag or open an image in Napkin, double-clicking opens a new panel for the redaction mode. You can start dragging with your trackpad to redact portions of the image you don’t want, as you’d expect, but you can also change the style of the redaction, with options for black-out (the least attractive), pixellation (the most common option) and blurring it out, a somewhat more elegant option.

If you’re a pro user, who has little time but a lot of work, it’s a good idea to invest in these kinds smaller applications that allow you to fine-tune the tiniest details of your workflow, and Napkin is a great annotation app for this; indeed, it is what Pinpoint (formerly Bugshot) is to annotation for iOS.

At a time when software is defined by the length of feature lists, Napkin offers a simpler and gorgeous — yet still uncluttered — way of quickly getting your message across in a visual way.

Napkin is available on the Mac App Store for $39.99.


  1. Lack of support for GIFs and videos like in Photoshop are the only things missing, in my opinion. 
Zaid is the editor-in-chief of Yellow Signal, and identifies himself as a millennial, and leads a busy life balancing clients, making apps, and attempting to do homework. When he’s not checking RSS feeds, listening to podcasts or tinkering with his blog, he’s writing here on Yellow Signal or reading something that catches his eye for a few minutes.