So I’m looking through the program options and wondering what the things that advanced/premium has over essentials that I would actually need.
Depends on your needs. Essentials is very, very basic, and even bitmap painting is missing, as is the exposure sheet, effects, paper-based scanning tools, and much more. Check this thread as well: https://forums.toonboom.com/harmony/general-discussion/difference-between-three-versions-harmony
In my opinion it is way too expensive compared to what competing applications offer for much less and even free. Compare the open source (and free) OpenToonz, for example, which is on par with Advanced and Premium in regards to production features. Get Moho Pro for excellent cut-out animation, and you’d save yourself money to boot in exchange for a far more advanced toolkit.
Anyway, Essentials is overpriced, in my opinion. If you’ve set your sights on Harmony, get at least Harmony Advanced. But again, it depends on your needs, of course.
Essentials is mostly for hobbysts who are looking for a software to learn, I wouldn’t say is less advanced than moho, I’d say is about the same in terms of features, but many people prefer the way you do cut-out in moho. I find Moho to be a bit lacking for drawing and frame by frame animation.
The big difference between Essentials and Advanced are the bitmap brushes and the variable witdth for the vectors.
The big differences between Advanced and Premium are the better support for 3D and the node view, which is used for advanced rigging and effects setup, it’s one of the best tools Toonboom has to offer.
Of course all personal opinion to follow:
The biggest attraction to Harmony (before the 3-tier Harmony) when I was using TB Animator Pro (discontinued) was the Curve Deformer. AP had the node view but the additional node effects in Harmony were also attractive. Animator Pro was a more robust option to Harmony than Harmony Advanced is to Harmony Premium. I do not consider Essentials an intro for anyone unless you need to start getting accustomed to the interface and are in the process of acquiring Premium and just do not have access to a copy of Premium yet.
Could a hobbyist be satisfied with Essentials? It is doubtful. They have dreams of doing great things too. They face multiple limitations and given the price it could be quite an aggravating disappointment. A lesser number of features does not equate to a simpler process in this case. Sometimes more features lead to an easier process. Bottom line, Essentials offers a limited experience with limited results.
Essentials really should be replaced with an unlockable path to Premium. Meaning, you purchase the Essentials tier renamed something more appropriate and have the ability to pay later to unlock Premium features as you need them.
That is why I compared the cut-out animation of Moho with Essentials: Moho Pro’s cut-out tools are light-years ahead. Drawing tools are okay, and Moho isn’t really suitable for any serious frame-by-frame. But as a companion tool for cut-out rigging, it’s rather splendid, and in ways preferable even over Harmony Premium because no scripting is required to achieve some quite advanced rigging.
And yes, not having access to variable width for vectors in Essentials is… pretty damning. Even Animate CC has this now.
I only use harmony essentials because it’s the cheapest. If you have the money, then DEFINITELY get advanced or premium. essentials is way too overpriced for what they give you, I only got it because I only know how to use toon boom, and my old copy of animate was having problems for some reason.