PC Weenies Mailbag: Manga Studio vs Sketchbook Pro: Which to choose?

Mailbag
Welcome to the first (of many, I hope) PC Weenies mailbags. I hope to run these every Friday or so – but that’s really up to how many emails I get…

Got an art related, Mac tech related or PC Weenies related question? Hit me up and I’ll do my best to answer it within the blog. Today’s missive comes from Matt Mesarch, who writes:

Hi There,

I hope you don’t mind a software question!

I’ve loved to draw for years. And I recently considered buying some software that would allow me to ink/color drawings, create a comic using panel templates, and possibly incorporate using a pen tablet at some point in the future.

I’ve been trying to find reviews from people who have used both Manga Studio Debut and Sketchbook Pro. And I noticed on your website that you have used Manga Studio (the “Pro” version) and Sketchbook Pro. I was wondering which program you would recommend.

Is either one more flexible, easier to use, or in general more capable of being used as a standalone product?

Can you use the same pen tablet with either piece of software?

Is there another software product that you would recommend over either one of these?

Right now I’m considering buying Manga Studio (probably the debut version, in order to save money) or Sketchbook Pro. I would appreciate any advice or suggestions you might have!

Sincerely,

Matt

Great questions, Matt! Thank you for writing in.

Since you didn’t specify which version of Manga Studio, for the purpose of this discussion, I’ll assume it’s Manga Studio 5 (MS5). Manga Studio 5 comes in two flavors: Debut and Pro. Currently, only MS5 Debut is available for purchase now. MS5 Pro is expected late this summer. Aside: I’ve used Manga Studio Pro EX version 4 for the past year or so. The MS4 interface is a bit kludgy and cumbersome – particularly if you’re coming from Photoshop or Painter. Coupled with woefully sparse documentation, I never really ventured into using MS4 EX Pro as anything more than a glorified inking tool.

So the real question, I think, boils down to: How does Manga Studio 5 Debut compare to Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro 6 when it comes to making comics? Read on to find out…

At their core, both Manga Studio 5 ($79.95 full version, $49.95 upgrade) and Sketchbook Pro 6 (retail cost $57, average price $37) are solid drawing / sketching apps. Both allow you to pick and thoroughly customize your digital pencils and pens. Both work splendidly with a Wacom tablet. Both support layers (and layer modes) and both allow you to output your files as PSDs (Photoshop’s format) for further processing.

If I had to choose only one tool, it would be Manga Studio 5. In my experience, MS5 provides a more natural and more responsive feel when it comes to making lines / strokes when compared to Sketchbook Pro. This becomes particularly evident when freehanding long, sweeping curves with an accurate level of precision.

MS5 also features a few killer features for comics artists that Sketchbook simply doesn’t offer. First and foremost, you can easily tone your comics pages directly within MS5. (Toning refers to half-tones – those little dots you see when you look closely at images printed on newsprint, or old comic books – similar to the image below.)

quick toning exercise

MS5 includes several built in comic panel layout templates. There is a much greater degree of control in customizing brushes within MS5, as compared to Sketchbook Pro.

As a bonus, MS5 also has several built-in male and female 3D models you can articulate within the tool that you can use as references for your sketches. Plus, nearly every tool can have a custom keyboard shortcut easily assigned to it. I’ve mapped several of my Photoshop keyboard shortcuts over to MS5. It’s a stark contrast to Sketchbook Pro, where the included keyboard shortcuts are limited at best. Even more disappointing: there are no options to modify or re-assign keyboard shortcut keys. (I prefer Command+ for zooming in and Command- for zooming out, but that’s not possible within Sketchbook Pro. Instead, users must use SBP’s HUD interface instead.

In my opinion MS5, out of the box, does a better job of being a stand alone comics-making tool than Sketchbook Pro. That said, I do use Sketchbook Pro for one specific task – namely character design. It’s much easier for me to quickly conceptualize characters using Sketchbook Pro’s symmetry tools (see figure below).

creature design using Sketchbook Pro's symmetry tool

Also, Sketchbook Pro’s built-in rulers and french curves make it easy to create crisp lines without too much fuss. Also in Sketchbook Pro’s bag of tricks are instant access to built-in Copic colors. The interface for SBP is minimal, which is nice – because it gets out of my way when I’m drawing. On the flip side, MS5′s layout resembles that of Photoshop, in that your drawing canvas is surrounded by a swath of palettes.

Bottom line: for making comics, I’d go with Manga Studio 5 Debut. Sketchbook Pro is a good, supplemental tool to have around, but unless you have a need for its custom design tools, Manga Studio 5 should be all that you’ll ever need.

-Krishna

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About the author

Krishna Sadasivam creates custom comics and illustrations for organizations, magazines and companies. A champion of comics advocacy, Krishna speaks, blogs, and writes articles on illustration and sequential arts techniques and the importance of the comics medium in both education and brand awareness. His clients have included Microsoft, Mashable, Other World Computing and EE Times. His work has been featured on many notable websites, including TechCrunch, Gizmodo and CNET. His portfolio can be found at krishnadraws.com.

These beautiful and intelligent people wrote

  • John BungerReply
    January 4, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    I recently bought Sketchbook Pro 6 for $30 shipped. If $ is an issue, it’s a good place to start. I do plan on getting Manga Studio 5 eventually, however.

    • Krishna M. SadasivamReply
      January 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

      Good point, John. Both are good tools for drawing – it comes down to which features are most important for the end user.

  • ChrisWatkinsReply
    January 5, 2013 at 10:20 am

    I haven’t seen the UI for MS5 yet, but comparing 4 to Sketchbook Pro–as limited as the Sketchbook feature set may be–it has a much friendlier UI for the tablet drawing environment. Wouldn’t it be neat if they merged the streamlined UI of Sketchbook with the line quality and feature set of MS? :) Thanks for sharing your exploration, Krishna. Have they made any improvements in the MS5 UI, and can you now resize the dimensions of an existing file? (A personal pet peeve I have with MS.)

    • Krishna M. SadasivamReply
      January 5, 2013 at 10:26 am

      The UI has been vastly overhauled in MS5, Chris – and much improved. I’m using more of the program now than I ever did with MS4. There’s also a “Resize Canvas” option in MS5 – making it easy to change canvas sizes on the fly. Ideally, I’d love a tool that combines the best of Sketchbook Pro and Manga Studio5. But until that happens, I’ll use both, as my needs see fit.

      • David BarrackReply
        January 7, 2013 at 2:51 pm

        The UI is overhauled in MS5? It must be my unfamiliarity with MS4 but it looked almost identical to me, even down in the guts. For instance setting up a keyboard shortcut in both MS4 and 5 requires you to pop open a menu item then go hunting for the function you want in a multi-tabbed interface. I was hoping they’d make stuff like that more friendly. That’s also my general complaint with the MS series. The UI feels like it was designed by engineers, not by people who use the program to draw.

        Oh, and the EX version of 4 and presumably 5 does have a mirror ruler as well as several other tools along those lines.

        • Krishna M. SadasivamReply
          January 7, 2013 at 8:24 pm

          To be clear, MS5′s user interface makes finding items much easier. The layout of tools feels more logical. While it’s not going to win Mac design awards for the polish of the interface, items are much easier to find compared to MS4. I’m using much more of MS5 because tools and options are easier to find.

  • NateReply
    March 21, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    wow, dude, you missed out. MSEX4 has a huge learning curve but it’s symetry ruler and persp rulers and special rulers are top notch. Add to that 3d modeling, customizable brushes, bad azz stock brushes and killer pencil tools (if you get the settings right), it rocks. Can’t wait to get MS5. And I love using MS because I can get rid of all my windows and just draw: simply hit the TAB key or map it to a button on your tablet: you can even scan in your fav papers or artboards to use as backgrounds/page templates.

    • Krishna M. SadasivamReply
      March 22, 2013 at 10:02 am

      What really hurt MSEX4 for me was the lack of adequate documentation. The included PDF document was worthless as each screenshot image was pixelated. So, it’s not that I didn’t want to take advantage of its features, but they weren’t intuitive enough for me to discover.

Tell me what you think!