I’ve always wanted a tablet I could use for illustration. I bought the second generation iPad, hoping it would do the trick. I picked up all the art apps, and a range of styluses – from the Adonit Jot Touch Pro (my thoughts here), to 53’s Pencil – with 53’s Paper.
Paper was by far the best app for the iPad, because it threw precision out the window, and accepted what the iPad is – a sketchpad rather than a professional illustration tool. When I saw the iPad Pro come out, I was skeptical.
15 minutes trying it out in the store had me intrigued – so last weekend I picked it up. I was more than a little nervous. At $949 for the 128Gb iPad Pro, and $99 for the Apple Pencil – this could be a very expensive paper weight.
After a week I’m hooked. This, finally, is the device that makes drawing on a tablet painless.
Here’s what I picked up:
- 128Gb iPad Pro with wireless (I didn’t get cellular – if I’m sitting down, there’s wifi. I don’t need a monthly plan for something I don’t use when I’m walking)
- Apple Pencil – there’s a wait for it online, but check your local store, they may well have it.
- Apple keyboard – not reviewed here, because I’ve hardly used it (which I guess is telling all on it’s own)
Quick verdict: Is it any good?
I would have settled for the iPad Pro being a really nice sketching tool – but what I’ve discovered is that the iPad Pro, the Pencil, and Procreate, get me 95% to a final illustration, and quicker than I would get there on my desktop.
In many respects, this is better than working in Photoshop on my Mac. I never expected to say that. The last 5% is due to the pieces that Procreate doesn’t do, that Photoshop does – text, labels, some of the more advanced features. So that’s software, not hardware – and I expect the app store will get a lot more firepower very quickly once developers really get to grips with the Pro.
This is a serious piece of kit that will find a central place in an illustrators workflow – but it will not replace a desktop.
How does the larger size affect the iPad Pro?
The iPad Pro is big, but treads lightly. It’s not bulky, and when drawing I can easily rest it on my lap and hold it up with one hand, whilst drawing with the other. I’ve used this for drawing solidly for 2+ hours in coach, and didn’t have any tiredness, or muscle pain. I couldn’t even say that about the iPad 2 which somehow felt more cumbersome than this.
The screen is beautiful, crisp, and bright. The thickness of the glass is basically unnoticeable. This is a lovely refinement for general use, but it’s key for illustration. If the glass has a visible offset from the screen, then your drawing precision changes with your viewing angle. Not here, the pen tip looks like it’s right on your illustration.
It does take a while to charge – no great surprise given that a lot of the extra size is given to a larger battery. Many reviews say that this can last for days. I don’t agree. Using Procreate and the Pencil (which uses Bluetooth, and increases screen sampling rates) the battery dropped to 20% over the course of the day. If you’re using this heavily, you’ll be charging this every night – but that workflow is fine for me. The one hardware niggle I found was that when I leave it plugged in overnight it sometimes requires a hard restart to wake up. That’s surprising, but may just be my one.
Is the Pencil a good stylus?
I’m a stylus snob. I’ve used a bunch – from the different Wacom styluses, to the Pencil by 53, and the Adonit Jot Touch Pro. The Pencil is very different from all of these. The others are all somewhat chunky. Wacom styluses have a wide textured grip, the Pencil by 53 is a thick carpenters pencil design, even the Adonit has a textured grip. The classic styluses also have buttons – to allow for right and left click mouse options.
The Pencil by Apple is shaped exactly as it is says it is – like a simple pencil. The shape and size are exactly what you’d expect, and the material is a smooth plastic. No buttons, no textured grip. This makes it very easy to manipulate, but it does lack a little bit of grip. I’ve found my hand sliding along it whilst drawing. However, that’s actually not a bad thing. There’s a limit to the pressure needed to make a mark on the iPad, and I’d rather my hand slipped along the barrel of the pencil, than apply too much pressure. It’s a small thing, and has been easy to get used to.
The pencil has a good weight to it, and a good balance. If anything its slightly weighted towards the back, which makes it sit well in my hand. To charge, you slip off the ‘eraser’ end, and there’s a lightning connector that hooks straight into the iPad. You can get a decent charge in 15-30 seconds, and fully charging doesn’t take that much longer. There’s also an adapter that allows you to hook that to a USB cable for more standard charging options. But I’ll just lose that – so I’ll keep charging mine straight off the iPad.
I’d expected the back end to double as an eraser – a hangover from using Wacom’s and 53’s Pencil. No luck here, the back is just the back. The tip is about 10mm of more textured plastic. It slides over the iPad screen easily, with none of the scratchiness of the Adonit’s metal tip – but with proper precision. The tip is hard – you know exactly where it is at all times. This is what differentiates it from the soft foam tips of existing styluses. This is the kind of precision I expect from my Wacoms, and this delivers that.
Unlike the Wacom, the whole 10mm tip has a little sideways give in it. This becomes interesting when you tilt the Pencil over and shade as if you were using the side of the lead. I assume that whole 10mm length has some interesting lateral sensors in it, as that change of use creates a very different brush size and application in Pencil adapted applications. It generates a broader mark, with a direction to it – just as with the side of an actual pencil. When shading, this is a very natural action to take, and it Just Works.
Does the Apple Pencil work as a precision stylus?
My bugbears with styluses are:
- jittery pressure sensitivity, so that you can see the linewidth change as you press harder, rather than having a smooth response to pressure
- offset between the line and the tip
Apple has created a stylus with none of these problems, which places it squarely at the top of my list. This is as good as my Intuous in terms of responsiveness – and better than the Wacom Cintiq I tried. I’ve been told that you can calibrate the Cintiq to get past those issues, but here I don’t have to calibrate anything. It just works. I can’t find published specs on levels of pressure sensitivity of the Apple Pencil – but given the smoothness of the response I’d bet money on at least 1028.
The lack of lag is a minor miracle. Previous styluses using bluetooth connections have been plagued with visible lag between large sweeping line movements, and the screen response. Here Apple has weighted the deck in their own favour. When it’s taking data from the Pencil, the iPad samples at 240 times a second. This is compared to 60 times a second for finger input on previous iPads. The result is a seamless drawing experience.
Previous styluses have been good. But this does it right. There’s no learning curve, you don’t have to ‘get used to it’. It just works – which is exactly the praise I want to give to a stylus.
Can the iPad Pro and Pencil create professional grade art?
This is the big question. Either this is a sketching tool that I can use before bringing it into Photoshop to create a final map – or it’s a professional illustration device. At 1/3 the price of a Cintiq this is either a very expensive sketch pad, or a very cheap professional grade tablet.
In truth – it’s a little bit of both.
The limitations come from a combination of hardware and software.
The model I’m using has 128Gb of space, and all iPad Pros have 4Gb of RAM. This means I can create a letter page full colour map in Procreate with 59 layers. More than enough layers for a professional map at 300dpi. However, for larger maps I run into hardware issues. A 24″ by 26″ poster map would be impossible – but then my laptop with 16Gb of RAM and an external hard drive for swap is stretched when it comes to those maps. So what I’m really saying is that it isn’t a professional desktop computer.
That may sound flippant, but it’s important. A Cintiq is an accessory that you plug into whatever desk setup you have, so it’s only limited by your hardware. This is a self contained package, so you’ve got what you’ve got. This will inevitably lead to a shorter shelf life for the iPad Pro, than a Wacom tablet, where you won’t wear it out, and you’ll upgrade the computer every few years.
On the software side, I’m still trying out Procreate. It’s great, and covers an astonishingly large amount of what Photoshop can do. It’s also a one off purchase – rather than Adobe’s infuriating CC monthly license. From talking to other illustrators it continually comes off as the best tool for the job on tablets. I can set up an RGB canvas quickly, pick from a wide array of dynamic brushes, and import any image file. So I was able to immediately replicate my standard workflow.
In addition, touch is a native feature of Procreate, so pinch to zoom and rotate is instinctive, lag free, and clearly the right way to work. Whereas on my laptop, I hardly ever use my Intuous touch features, on the iPad I do it all the time. And zoom – all the time, to just the right level of detail for the feature I’m illustrating. I didn’t expect to find a workflow on the iPad that was better than my laptop, but there it is.
But, as with the hardware, the iPad Pro is also limited by the software that’s available on the platform. And though Procreate is good, there are a range of features it doesn’t have (or I haven’t found them yet if they do):
- Text. Maps are infographics. And I have to export my maps to Photoshop on my laptop before I can add all that data. That’s not ideal.
- Layer masks. The layers in Procreate are solid, and the blend modes are so close to Photoshop it’s uncanny. But I use layer masks all the time – and on folders full of layers too. It allows for non-destructive layer work, whereas in Procreated I have to just erase. So – no folders, clipping masks, vector masks. It’s a bit of a pain.
- Duplicating a layer. I’m sure this must be possible, but I can’t find it for the life of me.
- Layer effects. There’s no outer glow, drop shadow, bevel or emboss (not that those are a great loss – but it makes a lot of simple tricks very hard to replicate)
- Selections. In a lot of my work I pre-select an area (cave floor, sea, land), and illustrate with that hard edge pre-selected for me. No luck in Procreate.
- Vector curves. The pen tool in Photoshop has become a staple of more precision work, but Procreate is solidly a raster tool.
These are all nice to have’s – and to be honest, all fall in the more post-processing side of my Photoshop work. The ease of use of Procreate on the iPad Pro more than outweighs the pain of these missing pieces. And, as the iPad Pro takes over every graphics department, I’m sure these features will be added.
On the other hand – what can Procreate do that Photoshop cannot? I never expected to be writing this list, but here it is:
- pinch to zoom, pan, and rotate. I thought this would be a Nice to Have. It’s actually an amazing tool for speeding up work.
- Video replay. This is great. It’s a fun feature, that actually makes for a fascinating look at how you work. And for creating quick video tutorials, this is amazing.
I’m sure that some of my ‘you can’t do this’ list is possible – if you know how, let me know. I’m equally sure that I’ll find more things I can do in Procreate that I couldn’t even attempt in Photoshop.
But the real clincher? It’s faster to illustrate on the iPad Pro, with Pencil, using Procreate, than it is to illustrate on a 16Gb Macbook Pro, with a Wacom Intuous, in Photoshop. That’s astonishing – and places this as a core piece of my professional illustration workflow. It does not replace my laptop – as mentioned, there’s a ton of key pieces that the software and hardware can’t do. But I’ll now create maps first on the iPad Pro if I can, and then do the final polish on my laptop. I never expected that to be the case when I picked this up.
So yes, the iPad Pro, the Pencil, and Procreate, are a suite of tools that belong in a professional illustrators arsenal.
Should I pick these up if I’m a hobbyist illustrator?
This is a tricky one. This is a lovely piece of kit – and arguably it’s even better for hobbyists than for a pro. The limitations above tend to be issues that only really come up with commission work. The only drawback I see is the price – but that’s a big drawback. The iPad Pro is priced as a high end laptop – and that’s the kind of money that doesn’t generally get spent on hobby equipment.
If you have the money to spend, then this is a great piece of kit. If you’re stretching to buy this – I’d be cautious. That said – this does many many things that aren’t art. I hear the app store is for more than just illustration apps. The hardware packed into this iPad means that you can run Excel, Powerpoint, and a host of video editing or streaming movie apps. There’s also a bunch of fun games. I’m not going to review those – there are plenty of great reviews out there that discuss those aspects. Go read them, add my thoughts on the art side to the mix, and make up your mind.
But to my mind, the iPad Pro deserves the Professional label – this is a serious piece of hardware for illustrators, and it’s been a long time coming. And if you buy it, buy the Pencil. Without it you’re not doing the iPad Pro justice.
iPad Pro Software Roundup
After writing this review I got a number of recommendations for software for the iPad Pro. Here’s a quick roundup of the apps that I downloaded, and a summary for each.
This is an interesting one. It turns the iPad into a mirrored screen for your Mac. You download the software for your Mac, and install the app on your iPad. You can connect your iPad to the computer via a USB cable, or over wireless. You can use the iPad Pro as an input to your Mac. To get it up and running, you need to have the Astropad app running on both the Mac and the iPad.
The Pencil does work with the iPad Pro. You need to open up the preferences panel of Astropad on the iPad to get the pressure sensitivity working. The pressure works well. Unsurprisingly tilting the Pencil doesn’t make any difference to the line width.
But – this won’t work for art. There’s lag. Bad lag. When drawing on the iPad, and rendering a line into Photoshop on the Mac, I can see about an inch clear space between the Pencil tip and the cursor. I’ve connected over wifi, and wired directly to the Mac. Same performance in both cases – same lag. With that delay I need to adjust to it, and work around it. That’s the opposite of the behaviour I expect from a tablet.
Astropad costs $19.99. Don’t buy it. If you want to turn your iPad into a graphics tablet, save the money, and save up for an $80 Wacom.
ArtRage is a great app. If you haven’t tried it out on the iPad, or on the Mac, you’re missing a trick. It’s the closest to a natural paint simulator I’ve come across. Currently, the Pencil works as a basic input device, but it has no pressure sensitivity yet. The guys at ArtRage are working on it, and as soon as they get Apple Pencil’s in New Zealand (yes, really), ArtRage will get Pencil support. In the meantime, enjoy the awesome finger painting options of this great app.