Review: ChemDraw for iPad

August 22nd, 2013

chemdraw_squareA long time ago, the people at Perkin-Elmer gave me a free download of their not-yet-released ChemDraw app for the iPad. The product eventually launched and I never got around to reviewing it because I was tied up with other things.

I did play around some after downloading it, but my big question was always, “Why bother?” That is, why would I bother drawing structures with a bare-bones version of ChemDraw on a tablet when I could just use a souped-up version of the program on my laptop? Drawing structures with your fingers is kind of hard, the screen is limited in size, and you have to e-mail the structures to yourself for use elsewhere. So, at first, I was not impressed.

Fast forward to the second week of July when Tara and I took a trip to St. Louis to pick out an apartment and meet with prospective grad students. I had a free morning one day, so I came to campus early and sat in on an organic class taught by my colleague Mike.

What was one of the things Mike was doing? You guessed it: using ChemDraw for iPad.

I had only thought about the uses of ChemDraw to research chemists, but it’s actually a really neat tool for teaching. First, the iPad can be connected to the projection system in our lecture rooms, so you can jot reactions down on the tablet instead of using chalk. One of the advantages of this approach is that you can save screenshots and post them online afterwards, so students needn’t worry about copying everything from the board.

That’s not a big deal by any means—chalk is fine—but what is much cooler is how the app can be used as a tool for studying stereochemical assignments. There is a feature in the app that automatically labels carbon stereocenters as R or S and alkenes as E or Z. Thus, making a practice problem for yourself is as easy as toggling the setting off, drawing a molecule, trying your hand at making the assignments, then toggling the setting on to check your answers. Very neat:


On top of that, students can draw nice, clean structures to pose questions about reactions and mechanisms to their classmates or teachers. That’s not bad at all for $10, especially when you consider that a single copy of ChemDraw Standard costs $170. (And our textbook costs $240.)

And, of course, there are things for both students and researchers to appreciate. You can use the tablet to draw a structure and have the app spit out its formula, mass, and mass-by-atom percentages. This feature should be handy for students in orgo labs. You can even use these functions to (improperly) handle solvates when you are desperately trying to get your elemental analyses to pass.

If there is one thing that is especially annoying/limiting about the ChemDraw app, it’s that there’s no tool that lets you draw text or formulae directly onto the screen. I’m hoping Perkin-Elmer fixes that in the next version, but overall, it’s worth the $10.

Disclosure: ChemBark was given the application for free (a $9.99 value).

Other reviews: In the Pipeline, Chemjobber, Chemistry World, Andre the Chemist, Macs in Chemistry, Chemistry and Computers

Edited to add (7 Sept 2013): The latest edition adds a bunch of new features, including text boxes (see below).

25 Responses to “Review: ChemDraw for iPad”

  1. Nick Says:

    “You can even use these functions to (improperly) handle solvates when you are desperately trying to get your elemental analyses to pass.”

    Sure…..but who does THAT?

  2. Ian Says:

    I’ve been using Notability ($2.99) for taking notes, writing lectures and sharing them. While the structures drawn in it aren’t as pretty as in ChemDraw on iPad (which I also have and don’t really use!), I find that the flexiblity for incorporating text and other media (even voice recording!) into the note far more useful.

  3. Bob Says:

    A tip for the young professor: get your university to fund a site subscription for ChemDraw/ChemBioOffice. You and your students probably don’t pay for individual copies of MS-word or math-intensive packages like Maple, so why should a standard chemistry package be any different?

    If you peruse the link below you will find institutions with more or fewer resources than your own, so this will negate any administrative claims of ‘only the rich can afford site licenses.’

    disclaimer: I don’t work for the company. I just know my life got a lot easier when our school went in this direction. Students deserve full-feature software, and schools should be making these resources available to them.

  4. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Bob: I’ve been trying. I think we’ll get there, but I’ve put that battle on the back burner and am just getting copies for the lab. While the software is certainly useful for research, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that ChemDraw is the industry standard for drawing molecules and we want all of our chem majors to be comfortable using the program so they can get jobs, etc.

  5. isotopeeffect Says:

    I’ve found it convenient when sitting in talks, although the interface is still a bit clunky. Perhaps that’s just me needing to get used to it. What I like most, in contrast to Notability or other drawing programs, is that the app outputs a .cdx document that proper Chemdraw can open. The reverse works too; I can work on figures and such when I get the inspiration. It’s integrated with Dropbox so I can essentially keep the same file synced between iPad and desktop.

  6. Ars Chemia Says:

    I’m still waiting for the Android version of the software. Given that Android tablets are now apparently more plentiful than iPads it, hopefully, won’t be too long.

  7. Bob Says:

    @Paul: hopefully you hired into a department with a supportive chair. These are the sorts of battles they can wage for you and spare you the aggravation!

  8. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Bob: Yes, and we’ve got a fantastic chair. I’m sure that we’ll figure it out soon, but my head is spinning from a bunch of other stuff that needs to get done. The simplest solution at this point was to get the individual license, declare victory, and move on.

  9. a Says:

    Ipad not having a file system=fail.

    I used an ipad for note taking with vast numbers of notes and the efforts I had to take to simply back up my damn images means I will never use it again unless I have to. Apple has a disgusting habit of not making computers any more, but making media devices.

    Media device= no control for you, exists to sell you software and ‘apps’, auto-updates can break any app at any time.

    Maybe this is a sacrifice worth making for some, but it’s miserable for me.

  10. z Says:

    Regarding the use of the ChemDraw app for teaching, can’t you also do all the things you described using the full version of ChemDraw on a laptop? Connect to a projector, capture screenshots, toggle stereochemistry labels on and off, etc? I guess it’s easier to carry around your tablet instead of your laptop, and the program is cheaper, so those are clear advantages, but if it’s still easier to draw things using the real version, which advantages end up winning out?

  11. Philip Skinner Says:

    @Z One advantage is price. Another is that students are increasingly going tablet only as much as hey can. Another is that the iPad is more fully immersive. And finally, the click2share tool allows for immediate passing back and forth of structures – awesome for setting test questions and receiving responses real time in the classroom.

    If you happen to be at the upcoming Indy ACS there will be a paper presented on this use case.

    Disclaimer – I do actually work for PerkinElmer.

    @Paul – I do agree with the suggestion to work out a site license. We are always happy to help make the case – especially to reduce piracy concerns on campus.

  12. Paul Bracher Says:

    @z: Those are the two main advantages I see as well: cost ($10 vs. $170) and portability. I like things that allow me to substitute lugging around a tablet instead of a laptop.

  13. old biddy Says:

    @Paul: Keep on trying for the site license, but go for the bare bones ChemDraw instead of the ultra. We used to pay about $30/student per year and got the ultra. That wasn’t great but was ok. Then it went to $55, and then we were quoted $70 since the university bookstore had taken over the site license management and was taking a surcharge. Never mind that it was actually cheaper for people to just get their own licenses individually. Ultimately the department struck a deal to get a ChemDraw basic site license for a minimal cost and give it out free.

  14. Teri Says:

    With havin so much written content do you ever run
    into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement?
    My site has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my permission. Do you know any techniques to help protect against content from being ripped off? I’d really appreciate it.

  15. sach Says:

    @Ars Chemia: “I’m still waiting for the Android version of the software.”

    Me too! and not just because there will be another version of ChemDraw (CD) for yet another tablet. Android is Linux, and Cambridge Soft (CS) has been insisting on refusing to release a Linux version of CD. I don’t really understand the reason why. Especially since it runs on Mac and Mac OS is pretty much just a hamstrung clone of Linux. It should be relatively easy to make a Linux version, yet it does not seem to be a priority for CS. Many of us chemists using Linux are forced to run a Virtual Machine with Windows just to run CD.

    The rising android market could prompt some incentive to consider the standard Linux market too. I hope so at least.

  16. nobodyknows Says:

    in my opinion they should give a little love to the main application as chemdraw is increasingly awful to use.

    there has been little (or no) innovation during the last few editions. everything they seem to do is giving it a new splash screen once in a while.

    long standing bugs are never fixed (like font handling in postscript or garbled graphics when copy/paste is used e.g. with coreldraw), modern windows features (file open dialogue) have not been implemented, there is no pdf support, no support for simultaneous saving of cdx/export file…no interaction with commercial databases (that i was aware of)…

  17. bad wolf Says:

    CambridgeSoft got bought by Thermo Fisher a few years ago. Remember the ads in the back of C&EN and the big booths at the ACS meetings? Things of the past. So, if you think an even bigger company which views this as just another acquisition is going to be much more responsive about Linux conversions or updating features, i guess we’ll see.

    (Personally i was hoping for an iPhone version but iPad only is all they’ve done–and all i expect from them.)

  18. bad wolf Says:

    Woops–sorry, that should be PerkinElmer. Sorry, Phillip Skinner (above).

  19. Philip Skinner Says:

    @bad wolf – you beat me to the correction. Yes, PerkinElmer acquired CambridgeSoft, ArtusLabs and Labtronics a few years ago to create a dedicated Informatics branch covering from research through development to QA/QC.

    You are correct – we don’t do the back page C&EN ads any more. But that isn’t because PerkinElmer isn’t interested in the product any more. we just don’t find those effective. I do need to correct you on the lack of ACS booths though, we haven’t missed an ACS since I joined CambridgeSoft. In recent years we have tried to bring more scientific content to those events through papers and posters. I personally presented at San Diego along with others, we had 4 talks in Philly, another few in NO and have 3 coming up in Indy – see here for details:

    It is true that it isn’t all about ChemDraw, but it hadn’t been at CambridgeSoft for many years either. We see chemical drawing as only part of the story. Accurate chemical understanding is key to interacting with other systems, be them a Registration, content database, inventory, ELN or data analytics tools such as Spotfire – which is now of our portfolio too. Part of the ongoing enhancement of ChemDraw has been continuing to understand the underlying chemistry not just the representation – there are large classes of molecules that ChemDraw understands and doesn’t just draw that are not understood by InChI, SMILES or even .mol.

    @nobodyknows Everyone has a list of the features they would like added – and these have to get prioritized and some people end up disappointed. But the suggestion that ChemDraw has lain fallow imo is unfair. Recently, in addition to improving the chemical understanding I mentioned above, we’ve added a superb biopolymer toolbar, that allows direct pasting of FASTA strings, and rapid creation of peptide and nucleotide sequences, DropBox integration, reaction mechanism arrows, biochemical and biomolecular pathway drawing tools, additional bond types, improved templates, a gel drawing tool (to complement the TLC drawing tool) and more. We have been posting some HowTo videos on and on our YouTube channel And yes, we do have integration with commercial content databases through the ChemBioFinder HotLink tool.

    So, is ChemDraw the only thing we are interested in? No. But it is an important piece of what we see is an end to end solution, across multiple products, that we can deliver to all scientists across all disciplines.

    Finally – if you feel that you don’t have a voice – then participate. You can engage with us on Twitter (@ChemDraw, @PKI_Informatics and with technical support @PKI_InformatxTS), Facebook – or please come to our UserGroupMeeting – it is being held specifically for end users to interact with each other and with our product managers and other staff.

  20. Why not? Says:

    @Philip Skinner — I’m not sure how many chemists will use the cute hamster and lemur templates. I know it’s called ChemBioDraw for a reason, but is the market for this software really that much bigger for biologists?

  21. Philip Skinner Says:

    I’m not a big fan of the hamsters and lemurs that are extensions of the templates. I was referring more to the DNA strand, lipid bilayer, transmembrane and so on tools in the BioDraw toolbar (View/Show BioDraw Toolbar). Though they contain less underlying knowledge than the chemical representation, they do allow you superior tools beyond simple rescaling of clipart for drawing pathways. For example the DNA helix tool has controls to allow you to alter the strand width, the helix width, the distance between the strands and the and the pitch of the helix.

    For some examples of the tools as used, you can got to File/Open Samples. If you resave those examples as .cdx rather than .cdxml they will become editable

    I can’t speak to the market for pathway representation – but enough scientists need to combine representation of molecular pathways with chemical structures and we have a lot of organizations that like this element of the tool. I offer it merely as one example of how there has been innovation of the product beyond new splash screens over the last few years.

  22. Jessie Key Says:

    The app has just been updated. Much more functional now. I’ve posted a quick review:

  23. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Jessie: Yup! I downloaded the update yesterday. They’ve added the ability to label things with text and some more options for sharing/sending the structures you create. I also think they added the orbital shapes. All great improvements!

  24. Paul Bracher Says:

    Here is a full list of updates from Perkin-Elmer:

    ChemDraw for iPad 1.0.2 Features
    – Text capability to annotate structures and reactions (single-most requested feature in product reviews)
    – Adjustable arrows (another top requested item)
    – More sharing capabilities including DropBox, Twitter, Facebook, and Moxtra
    – Group Flick-to-Share (based on our summer pilots and geared toward educators)
    – Orbitals, brackets
    – Two categories of templates (structures)
    – Enhanced periodic table keyboard capabilities including an ability to quickly type a chemical formula
    – American Chemical Society template
    – Simplified Chinese language support
    – Korean language support

  25. Paul Bracher Says:

    This thread is closed to further discussion due to problems with comment spam.