Manga Studio 5 Review

When Smith Micro contacted me about reviewing Manga Studio 5, the latest version of the Companies flagship comics and illustration creation app, I said yes right away.

As many of you may already know, Manga Studio is by far my favorite app for creating comics and illustrations. I was eagerly looking forward to the coming update to EX 4 and was amazed at the offer from Smith Micro and the chance to get my paws sunk deep into the latest version.

I've been using Manga Studio EX 4 for a few years now ,having started with version 3 of Debut, and I have come to love it. And believe me, I've put EX 4 to work for me extensively. With EX 4 I illustrated two 150 page graphic novels. With EX 4 I created numerous illustrations for Clients and for myself. So you can see, I've come to rely on the app in a huge way and eagerly awaited the arrival of version 5.

And let me say, I have not been disappointed.

From the very moment you install Manga Studio 5, you get the feeling that this is a totally different application (assuming of course, that you own EX 4 or Debut and have had a chance to explore its features).

For starters, there's a new and very welcomed application icon which is by leaps and bounds much better then EX 4 or Debuts icon. The installation process also seemed smoother for version 5 compared to what I remember from EX 4 or Debut. And there's also a new verification step in the installation which Smith Micro has adopted from Adobe.

My initial feelings after installing version 5 and eagerly launching it for the first time were mixed. I'll try my best to explain what I felt.

The UI (User Interface)

First of all, the UI (User Interface). I'm a huge UI buff and one of my few complaints about Version 4 was the horrible Windows-like UI (sorry Windows Users). In a Mac environment I am used to Apps that take advantage of OS X's easy on the eyes yet elegant UI. So using EX 4 in OS X just felt out of place. After a while I learned to just ignore it. Besides, EX 4's features and capabilities far out weigh any ugly UI. In essence, you learn to live with it.

Version 5, on the other hand, comes with a redesigned UI. From my understanding, this has to do with the fact that the app was based on a different app then EX 4 called Clip Art Studio. Let me say that while version 5's UI is a welcomed departure from EX 4's UI, it's nowhere near the elegance of OS X. It's better, but it can be much better. And this is where my mixed feelings began.

Version 5's UI is much nicer and cleaner, but I will be honest and say I was expecting a fully OS X ported UI. Still, while I didn't get what I was hoping for, I did get a compromise in the new UI and a better one then EX 4 at that.

When I said that version 5 felt like a whole new different app then EX 4, I wasn't kidding. The UI has changed so much that it will throw a lot of long time EX 4 and Debut Users off for a bit. It sure threw me off. And I will say that I found certain things about version 5 annoying at first but, once I got used to how things work, I came to like them better then EX 4.

One of the biggest things I've heard coming out of first time EX 4/Debut Users, and was a contributing factor in my abandoning the app for an entire year after buying it, is that there's a learning curve to Manga Studio. And Version 5 is no different. Basically, if you want to use this app, you're going to have to invest some time in figuring things out. Even if you're a long time EX 4 User, you're going to find a slight bump on the road towards using the Version 5.

The good news is, that while EX 4 had a Users Manual that was hard to read because it was never saved out in a higher resolution, Version 5 also has a Manual and this time it's easy on the eyes.

I'd like to stress that while there is a learning curve, if you're a long time EX 4 User, you'll be up and running a lot faster then you were able to with EX 4.

I guess you can say that the Developers had the word "simplicity" in mind while developing Version 5. They must have because Version 5 not only looks much more simpler then EX 4, it also feels like it too. The initial feeling I get when using it is that it feels "lighter". It's hard to explain, but it does. Almost like what took me 2 or 3 steps to do in EX 4 now only takes one simple step.

But don't let the "lighter" word throw you off into thinking Version 5 is cheaper or less powerful then EX 4, because nothing could be more farther from the truth. Smith Micro says that Version 5 has "98% of the features of EX 4" (keep in mind that Version 5 is the "debut" version of the update and we still have yet to see what's coming for the EX version of 5 in the Summer!). I'm going to go ahead and add to that 98% comment by adding, and then some.

Dock able Palettes

Click on the above button to hide/reveal the pallets. New in Version 5, all palettes are dock able!

Better Icon

There are a ton of new things that Version 5 is able to do that I longed for in EX 4. Things like spring loaded keys.

Smith Micro took a page from Adobe and added spring loaded keys to Version 5. I came to become familiar with spring loaded Keys with Adobe Photoshop CS 6 and came to love the feature.

Basically, for those who don't know what they are, in EX 4, and like almost every other drawing app out there, certain keys are assigned to specific tools. For example, hitting the P key once in Photoshop or Manga Studio will switch from your current tool to the Pen tool. Hitting it twice will switch you to the Pencil tool. Hit the M key and it will switch your current tool to the Marquee tool. The B key will bring up the Brush tool. You get the point.

This is great for quickly changing back and forth between tools using your computers keyboard versus going to the Tools Palette and clicking on the tool you need every single time.

But what about when you need to use the tool briefly and change back to the previous tool? That's where spring loaded keys come in. Just like in Photoshop CS 6, in Manga Studio Version 5, you can now hold a key and keep it held down to use the tool of your choice, and once you let go of the key, it will go back to the previous tool you were using. This makes working in Version 5 and switching between tools much more efficient.

Here's another example that serves to show how much more improved Version 5 has become over EX 4.

EX 4, like Adobe Photoshop, has the Rotate Canvas feature to help you rotate the canvas as you draw for a more natural experience. I'll admit that while I love this feature in Photoshop, it was kind of annoying to use it in Ex 4. And the reason was because of the lack of spring loaded keys support. Now, if I want to rotate my canvas, all I have to do is hit the R key, hold it down, rotate my canvas and let it go once I'm done.

And while we're on the subject of keys, unlike EX 4, Version 5 now let's you change which keys correspond to which tools and even let's you change up modifier keys.

Layer Modes And New Paint Brushes

To say that Version 5 Developers were listening to and taking the Users seriously in their feature requests wish list, is an understatement. Manga Studio has been often referred to as being built by and for Comic Artists and that's exactly how EX 4, and now Version 5, have always felt to me. It's rare when you can say about an App that it has everything you need without the fluff.

A lot of Manga Studio EX 4 Users use the app for its brush engine to ink comics and have completely over looked the fact that you can also color in Manga Studio. Starting out in EX 4 I was iffy about using the App to color my work. My choice was always Photoshop and without a doubt, when it came to coloring, Photoshop was just way ahead of the game compared to EX 4. One of the advantages Photoshop had over EX 4 was Layer Modes.

Notice, I used the word was.

Version 5 introduces the ability to set layer modes! Talk about flipping exciting. Because of the lack of this feature in EX 4 I always found myself going back and forth between EX 4 and Photoshop. Those days are starting to come to their end. As a matter of fact, I predict that as the App matures beyond Version 5, a day will come when I no longer will have a need for Photoshop.

Version 5 is greatly improved in the area of color. Not only have Layer Modes been introduced into the app, there's a new brush engine that's sure to please a lot of Artists who love to give their creations a painterly look. Personally, I haven't gotten into these new brushes and may not anytime soon but, it's good to know that they are there if I ever want to dabble in a painterly look for my work.

Customizable Command Bar

Use the Command Bar to perform quick tasks like saving out in jpeg or exporting as a flat or layered Photoshop (.psd) file. The Command bar is customizable as well!

I can Haz 11 x 17 Page Size!

Finally! True custom page creation without any fuzzy limitations.

A Better Inking Brush Engine Then Anything That's Come Before

On the subject of brush engine, it is clear that EX 4 had the best brush/ink engine of any App out there.

But notice again, I used the word had.

In all honesty, Version 5 of Manga Studio puts EX 4’s brush engine to shame. While I used to enjoy inking in EX 4, I often felt that it didn’t feel as natural as I wanted it too. Version 5 has completely changed that feeling and now sports a better brush engine which feels a whole lot smoother and natural. Even when using Vector layers to ink. Oh, and about vectors, also improved somewhat from EX 4. Although don’t expect Adobe Illustrator levels of vector editing. But still a much needed improvement.

There is so much more to cover regarding the changes in Version 5. All in all, as a faithful User of Manga Studio since version 3, I thought version 4 was the best the App would offer. I'm glad to say that I was wrong. Version 5 is a solid powerful upgrade to EX 4 and here's the thing I want to stress. This is ONLY the "Debut" version of Version 5. Summer will bring the EX or Pro version, if you will, and I suspect that Smith Micro has saved the best for last.

In closing, I highly recommend an upgrade to Version 5 from EX 4.

Manga Studio Version 5 is avaiable for Smith Micro Customers at their website here.

Eric Merced is an Illustrator, Comic Book Artist and Cartoonist based in New England. Visit his website at for more of his work.

If you'd like to find out about hiring him you can email him at