iPad Pro and Apple Pencil Review - Mad ramblings from comic creator Ben Bishop

This guest review is written by Ben Bishop

I’m going to tell you a story with this review… Very stream of consciousness, very opinionated and probably very long… If you’re reading it I can only assume you care what I think, but if you just want to know what drawing tablet I suggest you spend your money on, scroll on down to the bottom and take a look at my final thoughts…

For everyone else, our story begins on a cold September day in Maine in my studio, sitting in my underwear, watching Apple’s keynote presentation…

When the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil were first announced, I was suspicious whether or not they would be something I would want or need. I was concerned about Apple’s first foray into the digital drawing world and I expected it would suck. Man, was I wrong.

I had been hoping for a very long time Apple would start making a drawing tablet, but was always told by people more tech savvy than myself that we are such a small niche market that they would never bother. Guess they were wrong, too.

When the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil were first announced I was definitely wary about the obvious stuff... Pressure sensitivity, pen detection/hand deflection, and, of course, the lack of full programs that you would find on a desktop computer as opposed to simple apps on an iPad.

At the time of the announcement I already owned a giant Wacom Cintiq 24HD which was attached to a 27 inch Imac in my studio, as well as the new i5 Wacom Cintiq Companion 2, so even though this was pretty much the announcement I had been waiting on for years, I didn’t think it would be something I would even bother getting… That was until the Wacom Cintiq Companion 2 became the most frustrating and boorish piece of technology I’ve ever tried to use, mainly, but not limited to the fact that it’s Windows based. This is a review of the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil from the perspective a comic artist, not a slam piece against Windows or Wacom ( I love Wacom…) BUT this leads me into the #1 PRO on my pros and cons list for the iPad Pro…

It’s Mac.

If for nothing else, the ease of use on the iPad Pro — simply because it is not Windows based — blows the Cintiq Companion and Surface Pro away. It’s not just because it’s the newest and hottest thing and I feel obliged to think it’s the best.

For many years before I had my big Cintiq 24HD at my desk I was using the very first AXIOTRON MODBOOK. If you don’t know what that is it’s basically a white Macbook that this company Axiotron ripped the screen and keyboard off of and put a Wacom tablet where the keyboard used to be and voilà! The first and only Mac drawing tablet.

I loved it. I did all my work on that for years. It was big, heavy and got hot to the point of it actually melting and warping the battery and burning people, but it worked, and I drove it into the ground.

After getting the Cintiq Companion I actually contemplated going back to the Modbook because, even with all of it’s faults, the Modbook just worked.

The preference between Mac and Windows is just a personal preference so take what I’m saying with that in mind. If you’re more comfortable with Windows then maybe the Cintiq Companion will be fine for you ( though it is also twice as expensive than the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil ). If you’re familiar with Mac or are willing to consider it, then let’s look just at the aesthetics for a second.

As a portable machine meant for drawing remotely on the go I personally want something that’s not bulky or heavy or a pain in the butt to pull out of my bag on a whim and sketch something out. Here is the iPad Pro next to the Cintiq Companion 2 (I have a cover/stand on the Companion, which is a brilliant piece by a great company called FlipSteady.)


As you can see the Cintiq is quite a bit larger than the iPad Pro. Obviously, as artists we want a big screen to work on though, right? That’s why I’ll always use a giant Wacom Cintiq at my desk when I’m home. You can’t beat having all that screen real estate while you’re drawing. But wait…



This is the iPad Pro on top of the Cintiq. Its active screen area is almost exactly the same as the Cintiq only without all that extra trim around it. So you can see with both machines you’ll get almost the same amount of drawing area, but one is going to take up a lot more room in your carry on bag.


...A lot more room. That’s the iPad Pro width compared to the Cintiq companion. As you can see the iPad Pro is much thinner, making storing it in your bag, pulling it out and putting it away much less of a chore. I have traveled with the Companion, and never enjoyed the process of taking it out of my bag, booting it up, hoping Windows didn’t have some mandatory hour-long update to install before I could work, and so on. It never felt easy or convenient. I never got excited about using it. Not to mention these are the power cords for each.

Power Supply


Guess which is which? In addition to the larger Cintiq drawing tablet you also have to carry around this brick with 2 separate cords just to charge it. To make matters worse, the Cintiq loses its charge fast. Not taking this cord with you is out of the question. In fact, many people’s Cintiq Companions (including mine) have charging issues where they won’t even turn on unless plugged in, only to find out somehow the battery completely drained while it was off. ( I’m guessing it’s due to a little orange light that is ALWAYS on on the side of the computer… )

I know some diehard Windows people are going to go wild in the comments about how I’m just an Apple zombie or something, but I’m just trying to show you the physical differences between the two machines. One is clearly more of a hassle to be mobile with than the other, and that’s essentially what this thing is for, art on the go.

So I’ll go ahead and counter some of the points I’ve made… “But Ben, the Companion is a FULL computer, the iPad only runs APPS, of course it’s bigger and needs a bigger cord, apples and oranges man.”

Alright, I hear you. That thought crossed my mind as well in my moment of doubt against the iPad Pro after the keynote announcement… And then I realized that didn’t matter. Here’s why…

This is the iPad Pro, the Apple Pencil ( which is somewhat magnetic, though the negative reviews apparently didn’t realize this ) and my Macbook. As you can see it’s incredibly easy for me to hold them all in one hand, and in fact it’s STILL barely, if at all larger in width than the Cintiq Companion…



What does that matter? Why am I showing you this? Well because with this simple setup I’m able to work in full Adobe Photoshop or any full desktop program for that matter, on the go anywhere I want… Wait whaaaaaat?


Astropad — Using iPad Pro with full desktop software

Using an app called ASTROPAD, I can connect to and mirror any Mac via WiFi or USB. That means anything you can do on your full computer you can now do on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. This is similar to how a regular Cintiq acts when hooked up to a computer, but for a much lower price and with all the benefits of the iPad itself. The Astropad app is amazing. It’s not just a screen mirroring app, this one is made for the artist.


You can see along the left edge a number of express keys which you can set to your most used functions. You can call up the SHIFT, CONTROL, OPTION, and COMMAND key as well, useful when right clicking or selecting multiple things at once. Everything you do is also being done on your computer, the iPad Pro is just a window, a beautiful, Retina display, pressure sensitive drawing window.

That means if I want to print I just press print and my computer communicates as usual with my printer. Or if I’m looking for a file, I can search the huge amount of stuff on my computer and not worry about whether or not I uploaded it on a file server or emailed it to myself to open on a different device. The Astropad app is very affordable, only $19.99 and free on any number of computers. I have it on my Macbook for when I’m out and about, and even installed a program on the laptop called INSOMNIAX which lets me close the Mac without the computer going to sleep, allowing me to actually keep my laptop in my bag while working on the iPad Pro. I also have Astropad installed on my desktop Imac for use when I am home and on the couch downstairs hanging with the family… But still working. I can literally continue on a document I was working on in my studio from anywhere in the house on the iPad Pro. I can’t say enough good things about the Astropad app. The resolution is great, images and text look 100% as crisp as they would on your actual computer, it’s great. The best part is, I’m not even using the iPad Pro version of it, they are still working on that, so I expect it will only get better when it’s released.

So what if you don’t care about full programs and don’t have 19.99 for Astropad or a Mac with Photoshop on it? You probably want to know what you can do with JUST the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil right?

Well, I’ll tell you, if you’re a comic artist that might be all you really need. I’ve been doing a lot of my comic and freelance illustration work with an app called Procreate and I love it.


I think it’s the closest thing available ( so far ) to Photoshop. Using this App the Apple Pencil is astonishingly wonderful. There is zero latency, the pressure sensitivity is incredible and the built in brushes will make you want to just go wild.


You can upload and alter your own brushes.


You can use layers…


You can merge layers simply by squishing them together.



You can add layers, hide layers, and even change layer qualities ( Multiply, Screen, Overlay etc. ).


You can select areas, free transform them, resizing and moving, copy paste cut… You name it. I have been able to do my comic pages and freelance Illustrations almost completely in Procreate without issue.


Using the iPad Pro’s new multitasking split screen feature is awesome for looking up reference while you draw. If they were listening and I could ask them to add anything, it would be the ability to add text, and a magic wand tool. If those features are in there I haven’t found them yet.

Between Procreate and Astropad I have been able to draw and create on the go from anywhere I please. So that combined with the portability, comfort and ease of use with the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, I now have ultimate freedom to continue the work I normally do at home in my studio anywhere else, even if it’s just the couch downstairs.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So that’s my story. I love the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil for use with comic creation and illustration. I don’t think they are perfect, that’s silly, technology is always improving, and again this is the first of it’s kind from Apple. But as a portable drawing solution I would say it’s the best out there.

When I’m home and in full work mode I will still go for my giant Wacom Cintiq 24HD, simply because it’s massive and makes more sense. I wouldn’t want to take that on a plane with me, the same way I don’t want to only work exclusively on the iPad Pro.

If you have a big chunk of money and are looking to get a digital drawing tablet and want some advice it’s as simple as this… First, do you want something for working at home or is portability more important to you?

If you said home, I suggest you save up and buy the biggest Wacom Cintiq you can. The screen size will change your life and Wacom knows what they are doing when it comes to drawing tablets, you won’t regret it. BUT if it’s more important for you to be mobile, I would absolutely go for the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil. It’s a beautiful and responsive machine that when using the right apps performs just as well as you would ever hope it to.

If you love Windows and want an all in one machine, then ok, get the Cintiq Companion… You’ve seen the size comparisons and heard ( some of ) my issues with it, but when when you’re drawing on it, yes of course it works wonderfully and the pressure sensitivity and responsiveness is just as good as the iPad Pro and Pencil. ( Though depending on how much you have going on in the background, the lines can tend to lag on the companion as with any computer. ) Never experienced any lag on the iPad Pro though...

I leave you with my suggestion list for the iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, Astropad and Procreate App as far as the things I would like to see improved in future versions, as well as some additional photos I took for you to check out.

MY SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE THE iPad PRO AND APPLE PENCIL…

  • I’d love either Apple or a third party to make a hard felt tip for the Apple Pencil. Right now it’s a plastic material with a very slight tooth, more comparable to the plastic nib on a Wacom stylus. I always have used the hard felt nibs and would love some of those. This does feel more glossy, plastic on glass, then I would prefer, but it hasn’t been an issue. I, like most artists, am just very particular and set in my ways. Hard felt tips please.
  • Though the Pencil is somewhat magnetic, as you can see in my photos, I would love it to be more magnetic. Right now it’s alright, it hangs from the magnet inside the butt of the pencil. Until Apple improves on that, I’ll be using this awesome rubber magnet sleeve from www.moxiware.com, a good enough solution for now.
  • I have no doubt they will add this, but I am very much in the habit of flipping the Wacom stylus over to erase while I’m working… It’s not a huge deal that the Apple Pencil doesn’t have it yet, as Astropad has a quick express key to click between the eraser and brush very easily… But I would still like it on the actual Pencil.

Video below is of Moxiware

MY SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE THE ASTROPAD APP…

  • Let me choose between which computer I want to connect to without having to quit out of one of them manually. Meaning it would be great to have Astropad running on my Imac and Macbook and choose which one I want to use at any time rather than running upstairs to disconnect the Imac.
  • Allow me to call up on onscreen keyboard like what we have on the iPad. Right now I’m using the onscreen keyboard of the Mac itself, but pecking the pen to type is no way to live. Also, I have heard from others who have the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard that keyboard shortcuts don’t work through Astropad, that would be an awesome fix.
  • Lastly, the colors seem a little desaturated when using the app. This isn’t a huge deal to me because I’m mostly doing comic layouts, but I would love the ability to accurately color and paint as well. I’m confident this is something They’re looking into.

MY SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE THE PROCREATE APP…

  • Allow for text input. ( If it’s there I haven’t found it yet. )
  • I would love a magic wand tool to be able to color flat an image and then select each section. ( Again, if it’s there I don’t know where. )
  • A shift key type solution would be great. I hold down shift in Photoshop to draw perfectly straight vertical and horizontal lines when I create panel borders in my pages. I know you have the quickline tool ( which is awesome. You can draw a willy nilly line and just keep it held and it will become perfectly straight. ) BUT that doesn’t give me absolute horizontal and vertical lines.
  • Speaking of your quickline feature, it would be amazing to be able to draw a circle free hand and have it convert to a perfect circle, similar to how the new Adobe Comp App works.

Well, that’s about it. Please check out my quick video demo using Astropad with Full Photoshop and the Procreate app in this video below:

Here are some more photos. Thanks for reading!


iPad Pro and original iPad. Fun fact, I think they weigh the same amount…


iPad Pro and New Macbook.


iPad Pro and a magazine, about the same size.


MAGNETS, how the heck do they work?


Miracles…


Using full Photoshop on the iPad Pro with Astropad wirelessly transmitting to my Imac and Wacom Cintiq 24HD.


If portability is not something you need, I can’t recommend enough getting a giant Wacom Cintiq for home...


Astropad allows you to hide your express key shortcuts at any time.


In Astropad, adjusting how much of your computer screen you see on the iPad is simple.


Astropad even lets you use two finger zooming and scrolling WHILE you are using the Apple Pencil. It pixelates only when it’s zooming and becomes crystal clear again the moment you release. Again, something they are likely working on for the iPad Pro version of the app which is coming soon.


Top: Cintiq Companion stylus
Middle: Cintiq 24hd stylus
Bottom: Apple Pencil.

The Wacom pens feel lighter and hollow, while the Apple Pencil has the weight of a real pencil, I like the weight. they also have buttons on the side which are equally as usable and convenient as they are aggravating when you accidentally hit them. I would say they are more useful than annoying, I have mine set to right click which speeds things up quite a bit. Apple could utilize this same type of function with their Force Touch feature, pushing down the tip of the Apple Pencil extra hard to right click would be cool. I believe some apps already use that feature.


DIS-A-SEMBLEDDDDDD! Here is the Apple Pencil, exploded view. That little rectangular piece actually comes with it for charging. That was nice of them. I would have expected Apple to charge another $30 bucks for that.

Charging the Pencil in the actual iPad is as awkward as it looks, but the good news is it’s darn fast. I charged from 3% to 35 in 3 minutes and it only dropped the iPad power 1%... So at least you won’t have to look like a dork for more than a couple minutes. Also the pencil charge lasts a LONG time. I used it pretty vigorously for 4 full days before I had to charge it.

I’m not affiliated with or sponsored by Apple, Wacom, Windows or any other company for that matter. These are just my honest thoughts about my experiences using all these different machines and which I think work best. Thanks!

Ben Bishop (website | Twitter | Instagram)

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