It’s not every day that Apple releases a brand new app, but you’ll likely notice a new icon in your library after updating to iOS and iPadOS 16.2 or macOS 13.1. On Tuesday, Apple launched the Freeform app, which its press release describes as “an infinite canvas” for “creative brainstorming and collaboration.” In short, it’s a virtual whiteboard you can use with friends — so we tried it out to see how well it handled that task.
Apple announced Freeform during its WWDC keynote earlier this year, showing off the ability to add photos, files, drawings, links, notes, and more to a virtual canvas, either by yourself or with others. Of course, Freeform also integrates with other Apple apps — the app has buttons that let you launch a discussion on what you’re working on with other collaborators via iMessage or FaceTime.
I’m happy to say that Freeform gave me a pretty good first impression. Changes generally synced between devices and accounts in almost real time, even when I was on cellular, which is an important thing to nail for an app focused on collaboration. I was also surprised at how often I quickly found the features I was looking for. I was able to move images I had inserted to the back layer so handwritten text would appear over top of them, and I could add descriptive text to elements that VoiceOver would read out loud. You can also copy and paste styles between text boxes or premade shapes and lock things that you don’t want to accidentally move around.
There were a few reminders that this software was just released. On both macOS and iPadOS, I had to go into settings and manually turn on iCloud syncing for Freeform (something the app helpfully told me to do, though one of the error messages was a little vague). It also took a moment for the app to actually show up on my iPhone after I updated; I had to launch it through the App Store a few times before it showed up in my App Library or Spotlight. That’s not to endorse the Freeform experience on the iPhone; it’s definitely designed with big-screen devices in mind, though the handheld version could probably get you by in a pinch.
I also managed to knock my devices out of sync, which took them a little while to figure out, and the collaboration features sometimes told me that nobody else was viewing the board, even though somebody definitely was. It’s also worth noting that all these problems cropped up in a document shared by two people — Apple promises you can have up to 100 users on the same board, which I imagine would be extremely chaotic.
It’s probably too early to say whether Freeform will become an essential part of workflows, like Notes, or if it’ll be more like those Apple apps that barely anyone remembers, like Clips or iTunes Movie Trailers. I will say that I don’t see myself ever sitting down with someone else to create extremely detailed works of art like Apple shows off in its press images, but I’d at least consider using it as a virtual notebook if I had an iPad and an Apple Pencil of my own. That’s at least more than I can say for certain other apps meant to foster real-time collaboration.