Review: ChemDraw on the iPad

Note: For the purposes of this review, PerkinElmer provided me with a copy of ChemDraw for iPad (SL). I already owned a copy of the standard version, but many of the features that are most relevant to my chemistry are currently in the site license version. These features will eventually be in the version on the App Store. That said, I received no financial recompense, nor has PerkinElmer had any input in this review, other than Philip Skinner responding to my pestering questions via Flick-to-Share.

Chemdraw for iPad ($10 in the App Store, available for free via many departmental site licenses):

Pros: Easy to use, versatile, fast; sharing options are robust and easy to use; interfaces well with the desktop app

Cons: Sometimes crashes on older iPads; missing the tools that would be needed to make polished figures for a paper; interfacing with desktop app requires intermediacy of email app, creating some redundancies

Recommendation: Will be of varying utility from person to person, but definitely recommended, even if just to be able to receive documents from other people. The “living documents” feature that arises from frequent use of the Flick2Share function is very useful and clever, particularly for collaborators who are geographically isolated. Luckily, the app is available free through most site licenses for the desktop app, but if you don’t have access that way, the $10 is likely well-spent.


Welcome to the future, folks. ChemDraw, the desktop computing program that took us from stencils to mouse-clicks nearly thirty years ago, is now available on iPad. I’ve had the app since it came out, but hadn’t been able to make particularly good use of it before some of the new features available on the Site License version of the app. Philip Skinner from PerkinElmer offered to give me a trial version of that version, and so a perfect opportunity for a review presented itself.

Before going further, I think it’s important to identify what this app is meant to do, as what your expectations are will dramatically affect whether you find this app to be a good investment. From the PerkinElmer website,

ChemDraw® for iPad® provides all the tools scientists need to capture and share chemical inspiration and innovation whenever they want and wherever they are. [snip] [R]esearchers can quickly sketch them with ChemDraw® for iPad® as ideas take shape and share them with colleagues and save them for later elaboration and processing.

I point all this out because I think this app is doing a phenomenal job of being ChemDraw on-the-go, despite being an imperfect figure-generator on the iPad. You are not going to make manuscript-quality figures with this app, but what you will be able to do is start them in pretty fantastic detail, share that start, and touch it up at your desk with the desktop ChemDraw.

So, to test this premise, I did exactly that–for the past month or so, whenever I knew I had a document that was going to be needed later in the day, I tried to start it on my bus ride to work and transfer it to my desk for final touch-ups. In addition, I tried to use it as an idea repository, something that I normally do in a notebook, or in digital form like this:

IMG_0268

While that is useful to me, it isn’t necessarily inherently obvious to the intended recipient. However, CD for iPad let me send this instead:

photo

Much better, right? Moreover, that “share” button in the top left lets you peg it to your intended recipient in PDF, PNG, or CDXML format, even if that recipient is your own email. Obviously, the “export via email to CDXML” function is the single most useful thing about this, though I wish there was some integration with the desktop app so that you might be able to send it over directly, similar to the manner in how the Papers app by Mekentosj syncs PDFs once you get onto the same WiFi network as your computer with the desktop app. For now, though, this is orders of magnitude better than scrawling in a notebook, or even using a stylus-based app on an iPad.

That is, of course, assuming that drawing structures is fast and easy. While I can’t draw structures as quickly on the iPad as I can on the desktop (there are a lot of shortcuts that just aren’t possible on the touch interface, sadly), I will say that it’s as fast, often faster, and infinitely more legible than on a pad of paper or drawing app, particularly on bumpy Illinois roads. Rather than simply describe it, I went ahead and recreated a figure from one of my recent papers in the iPad app to show you what it looks like.

IMG_0258

Upon opening the app, you’re greeted with the above screen. On the right you have your drawing and manipulation tools, and the top you have your document creation, sharing, and manipulation tools. It’s all very clean and the buttons are easy to hit, even with big fingers like mine. Drawing is a breeze, and manipulating the resulting structures just takes a bit of playing with the selection tools. Pro-tip: for the selection, you can’t just touch a nucleus and start dragging; you have to deliberately select, move, then deselect each nucleus. It takes a little getting used to, but it actually ends up preventing more annoyance via fat-fingers than anything else.

IMG_0260

Once you’ve put down a few structures and typed out some captions, you might not notice that the “chemical formula” mode is not the default, and so enabling it just requires you to select the text and use the little palette tool to enable it, as shown in the image above. Here you can also change the color of a caption; sadly, it changes the entire caption’s color, not letting me get my advisor’s trademark color-coding of various nuclei. After a little bit of tweaking, I arrived at this:

IMG_0261

Which I then used the share pane to send to myself, yielding this in CD14:

on desktop

It’s strange that it put the structures there on the page, but if this is what I had in hand upon arriving to work, I could have a workable figure in 30 seconds. What’s notably missing from the app (as far as I can tell) are alignment tools, distribution tools, and selective coloring. Again, as a tool for on-the-go, that’s totally fine, but it won’t replace your computer when the time comes to put the manuscript together.

So, what else is of note? Well, for one, organometallics, particularly metallocenes, are enormously easier to draw.

IMG_0270

IMG_0264 IMG_0263

Stamping down a ferrocene is easy, then adding on nuclei takes just a few taps of the very colorful and fun periodic table picker. Yes, those are phosphorous-34 nuclei, because why not–tapping the P repeatedly cycles through its various isotopes, even the crazy ones, which I love. One complaint: you can’t pick the heaviest elements. C’mon, guys, how hard would it have been to let me sketch an imaginary Uut complex? 😉 These metallocenes are pretty easy to decorate, but if you want their eclipsed orientations (I may well be the only one) you’re out of luck. Again, save it for the desktop tweaks.

Making metal complexes from these is pretty straightforward, but you would do well to turn off “valence errors” and “misc. errors,” as shown below, because these show up all the time in metal complex drawings, but here they make it difficult to see the nuclei in question. While they’re just annoying in the desktop version, they’re detrimental here, so just turn them off if you’re an inorganicker.

IMG_0266

I went ahead and sketched the laughable molecule shown here, and discovered that there isn’t a way to control the point of attachment of templates added to existing structures, so if you want them to connect anywhere but at the default, draw them separately, add the bond, then use “clean up” at the top to make it look nice again.

All told, it took maybe a minute and a half to make this picture, so I figured it was time to send it:

IMG_0267

You see some of the standard options there, but worth mentioning here, specifically, are:

Flick2Share: This feature is awesome; using your PerkinElmer account, you can tap through your contacts and literally just swipe up to send them the file. It arrives on their end fully editable, savable, etc. I had a great time with this, pegging questions to Philip, who could show me what to do right in the file (thanks, Philip!) and swapping notes with collaborators, wherein we tracked the progress of a synthesis by passing the file back and forth with annotations. Smooth as can be, and potentially very useful in the classroom. I’ll try to update with some pictures of this in action soon.

Moxtra Meet: This is a feature that is really nice, but doesn’t play well with my older iPad. It’s essentially a Google Hangout that lets you all share a cast Chemdraw screen. I didn’t get a lot of time to play with it before it crashed on my original iPad Mini, but it’s a great idea at least, given that Go2Meeting and such restrict you just to Safari for web meetings.

So, there you have it. As a brainstorming app, ChemDraw for iPad is phenomenal. As a way to scribble down and idea and use it to then make a figure, send it to a colleague, and collaborate is something that I am very much in favor of. It isn’t a replacement for the desktop app, but I don’t think it was meant to be. The app is user-friendly and stable (a few crashes on my iPad Mini, but the app reloaded my work-in-progress perfectly every time), and definitely worth $10 if you’re the type to get ideas at any time and need ways to make sure they get down and would like to see them then get out to other people in your group.

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7 comments on “Review: ChemDraw on the iPad

  1. Philip Skinner says:

    Fantastic and very thorough review, many thanks.

    wrt “I wish there was some integration with the desktop app so that you might be able to send it over directly” probably the Dropbox integration is the closest to that capability, you can open from and save to Dropbox from both CDSL and the desktop app so it is a convenient fileshare.

    • MB says:

      That’s a good point; as someone who doesn’t make regular use of Dropbox, I hadn’t thought about that. I still think some direct communication between apps would be nice (Flick2Self, maybe?), but I realize that feature may be difficult to implement for a number of reasons. 🙂

      • Philip Skinner says:

        An interesting idea – FlickToSelf. You can do that already – between iPads (if you are fortunate enough to own multiple ones). I’ve also set up different FlickToShare accounts for the App store app and the SL app.

        I think the gap would be the lack of the same notification system on PCs (Macs also?). But a good suggestion I will take to the product team.

  2. Anonymous Illini says:

    As one of the last who did not benefit from ChemDraw for thesis preparation, the thought of being able to use it on an MTD bus is beyond comprehension. I sat on MTD buses for many hours, but never put that time to any good use. WiFi, tablets and ChemDraw are 3 things that would have made my Champaign-Urbana experience immeasurably better.

  3. Valens says:

    You seem to have the “Metallocenes” and “Stereocenter” templates; did you add them via iTunes?

    • MB says:

      I believe when you download it via the site license, they come pre-installed. I’ll ask Phillip if that is true of the iTunes version as well.

      • Philip Skinner says:

        There are two versions of the App. The one reviewed here is ChemDrawSL which comes for free if your institution has the appropriate site license of ChemOffice. ChemDrawSL has additional features relative to ChemDraw for iPad which is available through the App Store for $9.99.

        If you want metallocene and other templates I recommend you check with your site admin for whether you are eligible for the site license of ChemDrawSL.

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