Given that we’re in the embedded UI/UX development space, a question that often comes up is: How does Storyboard Suite from Crank Software compare to Qt? The quick answer is that there’s no comparison – Qt is a large C++ library of functionality that includes many things and designed to let you do many things, while Storyboard is a purpose-built platform for fast UI development and highly optimized performance. Not to mention that Storyboard also integrates with Qt, so it’s not like the two are mutually exclusive.
Yet, the popularity of Qt is hard to ignore so it’s worthwhile to go beyond the quick answer and explain exactly what makes Storyboard different.
We’ll take a look at a number of factors, including embedded UI design, programming, and performance, plus provide some real, clarifying examples. As always, feel free to comment or ask questions below – we want to make sure you’re getting as much information as possible to make the right choices.
We’ll cover the following topics, starting with 1 to 3 in this post and leaving the rest for next time:
- Designer workflow
- Resource usage and performance
- Platform scalability
- Application architecture
- Testing your UI
- Time to experience and overall costs
If you’re a designer, it’s safe to say that you would rather focus on creating the best user experience than figuring out Qt object properties, sizes of data types, and build specs. Storyboard makes sure both designers and developers are supported with tools and workflows that are familiar and require little effort to learn.
To make the UI design process as powerful and as painless as possible, Storyboard gives the designer these tools:
By allowing designers to work within Adobe Photoshop, import the results, and run on the actual hardware, Storyboard eliminates the compromises traditionally made when converting from design to code. If you have a button coloured, shaded, and cornered just as you like it, it’ll look exactly the same in Storyboard.
Qt, in contrast, forces designers to think and act like a developer, requiring them to not only understand markup language and text editors but also use widgets that have the same look and feel as every other application written in Qt. Qt widgets are customizable, of course, but that incurs time and cost and it would be nearly impossible to find a designer willing to do it.
Plus, custom widgets aren’t as easily maintained as using the Photoshop re-import and graphical compare tools in Storyboard. These let you iterate designs, compare differences between versions, and select the objects you want, all within a visual, WYSIWYG interface. This reduces the time and frustration of going back and forth between designer intent and developer reality.
Qt does have a visual layout and form designer called Qt Creator, which some say eases the UI design process. The key thing to think of here is that Qt Creator is an integrated development environment (IDE) first and foremost, offering pre-packaged UI elements and requiring that you operate like a developer – quickly moving from the visual interface into text editors, properties, and C++ code. Qt Creator does ease UI layout for a developer but it doesn’t provide nearly all the design, layout, and animation capabilities that a designer needs to create amazing UIs.
The look of a UI is half the story, the other half is adding animations and behavior. Those familiar with Qt will know that animations are specified in code, such as object states and transitions defined through the methods and properties of the QML language. The typical workflow involves coding up logic in an editor, testing the changes, and iterating until you get the experience you want.
In Storyboard, animations are added using an animation timeline similar to what you would find in any video editing tool. This makes it easy to manipulate what the animations are doing and see the timing relationships between elements. Storyboard also provides an animation recording capability, letting you drag, drop, and change the state of objects in the visual editor for playback at runtime. It’s the next best thing to a digital camera!
Storyboard uses Lua scripts for more sophisticated object behavior and such things as event handling between the front and back ends of the application. Lua is very popular among game developers and has simple semantics that are easy to learn (read Learn Lua in 15 minutes by the makers of the Corona game SDK).
So, would you rather work with the true image assets, animations, and behavior or an abstract source code representation of your UI?
Resource usage and performance
In other words, we’ve spent the time to ensure that the Storyboard engine runs fast and that your application consumes the least amount of resources – the golden ticket when it comes to embedded computing. Storyboard also has a plugin-based architecture, meaning you can configure the app even further to reduce memory consumption.
Qt has a large memory footprint and, typically, pulls in many framework libraries to bloat application size further. While it does offer hardware-based graphics acceleration, support is limited to a few platforms and sometimes relies on software fallbacks to get things done, which is less performant and offers little insight into performance characteristics.
Now you might be thinking that Qt is also tunable, letting you customize build configurations, how libraries are linked, memory allocation, and so on (you can read how to do it on Qt’s site here and here). While this is technically possible, you do need two things to succeed:
- Knowledge and experience with QML, C/C++, compilers, and target-specific performance measurement and testing
To give you an idea of the time needed, read the two pages from the Qt site and estimate how long performance tuning will take for your app.
Or, download the free version of Storyboard Suite now and get a highly optimized runtime specific to your environment without any effort.
Beyond performance, there are two more things to consider when talking about how well a UI framework suits your chosen operating system and hardware platform. Will the app actually run? How difficult will it be to move the app onto different platforms?
Out of the box, a Storyboard app runs on a variety of platform types, from high-performance, multi-chip microprocessor (MPU) boards to single-chip, resource constrained, microcontrollers (MCU). This is possible due to the optimized, platform-specific architectures and Storyboard engine discussed earlier. You can try running Storyboard at both scales yourself, with this MPU demo image and this MCU demo image (you can run these directly on the target, without downloading Storyboard).
Running Qt on an MCU board is possible but it would take some time and knowledge to tune it effectively for the processing power and memory available. Lower-end MPUs also struggle due to resource limitations, leaving mid- to high-end systems as the range where Qt can run with less tuning effort.
Platform portability and support are important, as today’s product may be running Linux on an MPU but tomorrow it could be ThreadX on an MCU, as production scale and costs increase. Qt is a rather large library with many dependencies, so you should consider its suitability for not only your current hardware but future plans as well.
This covers the designer’s workflow, performance, and scalability. There’s a lot to digest, so we’ll return shortly with the second part of this post, discussing architecture, testing, and overall time to delivering your best UI experience.