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What is Freeform, and why should it be your next creative brainstorming tool?

Apple has added a new brainstorming tool to MacOS, iOS, and iPadOS. It's ready to empower you with a flexible canvas on which to see, share, and collaborate on ideas.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Reviewed by Min Shin
People collaborating with laptops open
Compassionate Eye Foundation/David Oxberry/Getty Images

At some point in your life, you've probably used a whiteboard or even a chalkboard as a means of brainstorm ideas. 

You've scribbled words, drawn pictures, and connected dots in order to help bring those moments of brilliance to fruition. 

For many, a whiteboard is a crucial tool for collaboration (if you're not in Apple's ecosystem, here's how to use Google Jamboard). 

Apple knows this and has finally integrated such a feature into its three operating systems. That feature is called Freeform and is built into the latest releases of MacOS, iOS, and iPadOS. 

If you're a visual collaborator, you'll love this app.

Also: The best collaboration apps 

Freeform promises to be the exact whiteboard app you've been looking for, as it removes the need to use a third-party service. As you work with Freeform, the canvas expands as more content is added. This infinite canvas gives you unlimited flexibility as you collaborate with other brainstormers. Freeform also features:

  • A variety of brushes.
  • Support for Apple Pencil.
  • Support for PDF, photos, videos, audio, documents, links, sticky notes, shapes, diagrams, and more.
  • Drag and drop from other apps.
  • Quick Look gives you a preview of your content without leaving the board.
  • Content can be locked in place.
  • Collaborate with up to 100 users.
  • FaceTime is built in.

Freeform is free to use and is installed on the operating system by default.

Also: How to take notes on your iPad with an Apple Pencil -- 3 very simple ways

I will warn you, however, that Freeform is currently problematic and until Apple resolves an issue I'll explain below, you'll find the app less than effective. I also have a suggestion below for what to try if you encounter this problem. 

What is Freeform, and why should it be your next creative brainstorming tool?

Requirements

In order to use Freeform, you'll need one of the following versions of your Apple OS:

  • MacOS 13.2
  • iOS 16.2
  • iPadOS 16.2

For syncing your boards across your devices, you'll also need iCloud syncing enabled (more on this in a bit).

1. Enable iCloud syncing

When you first open Freeform, you'll be prompted to optionally enable iCloud syncing. For that, click Go to Settings, click Apple ID, and then click iCloud. In the resulting window, scroll down until you see the Freeform icon and click the ON/OFF slider until it's in the ON position. Because this app is so new, on my MacBook Pro it was listed as Unknown. When prompted, click Merge. More on this issue in a moment.

The Freeform listing in iCloud Sync Settings.

Enabling Freeform for iCloud sync.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

Note: Enabling iCloud Syncing not only allows you to access your boards across devices, but it also makes it possible to share boards. Without enabling iCloud Syncing, you cannot share boards.

2. Close Settings

Once you've configured iCloud Syncing, close Settings and you should then find yourself on the main Freeform window.

3. Start creating

The first thing you might want to do is click on Untitled in the top left corner and give your board a name. 

Also: The 5 best note-taking apps for iPad

After naming your board, you can click any one of the elements at the top of the board to start adding sticky notes, shapes, images, links, text, lists, and more.

A sample Freeform board.

Creating a board in Freeform is quite simple.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

You might find that the drawing tool only appears on devices with a touch screen. So, if you're using a MacBook or iMac that doesn't include a touchscreen, you won't be able to use the sketch tool. This does limit what you can do on a non-touchscreen device, but if you don't need the sketch option, you'll find plenty of elements that can be added and manipulated.

Sharing a board

This is where things get dicey. Even with Freeform iCloud Sync enabled, my machine restarted, and though other apps were syncing fine with iCloud, I was unable to share a board. After a quick bit of research, it seems this is a known issue. My gut tells me it has something to do with Freeform being listed in iCloud Sync Settings as "Unknown."  

Upon upgrading MacOS to 13.2, there's a little thing called the "Terms of service agreement" for iCloud that you must agree to before any syncing can occur with your devices. To agree to those TOS, open Settings and click on the notification under Update Apple ID Settings. 

Also: How to easily transfer files from Android to MacOS

You should be presented with a pop-up where you can scroll through the terms and agree. Once you've done that, the iCloud Sync Settings will automatically switch from Unknown to Freeform. Disable Freeform, re-enable it, click Merge, and sync should start working. If not… Apple, are you listening?

Work out those kinks

Hopefully, once Apple irons out the Freeform syncing kinks, this app will help you take your collaboration to the next level. At least you can kick the tires of the app now, so you'll be ready for it when it comes time to collaborate.

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