This review is written by Jason Venus from Drawmill Animation.
I have been a digital artist for the past 20 years since the purchase of my first ever computer, an Apple Power Mac 7200. I have used Apple Mac computers most of my working life, although I am equally at home using Windows based PC’s. I just prefer Macs as they don’t seem to get in the way of my creativity. Currently I am ‘Head of Creativity and Overseer of fun stuff’ at Drawmill Animation. Yes that’s my official title and kind of sums up the ethos of the studio, we are a small animation studio creating silly cartoon animations for anyone silly enough to pay us.
What I use for drawing at work
Within my current arsenal of digital drawing tools my main workhorse is the Wacom Cintiq 22 inch display. I use this daily in the studio and its beautifully responsive, and above all, does not put any obstacles in the way of my creativity. When working from home I use the Wacom 13 inch HD Touch, although a smaller screen size it still packs the same resolution of the the bigger 22 inch at 1920x1080. Both these devices set a very high benchmark in terms of usability and quality.
So it is safe to say I am very familiar with the whole Pen and Screen technology and I have been waiting for an iPad that I can embrace as a true artist's companion. Until the release of the iPad Pro I have been using an iPad Air which I found quite limiting from a creative point of view. Although I have seen some amazing art created on iPads, for me it just never hit the mark in terms of usability.
The 3rd party pens with their stupid fat round rubber tips, had no real feel to them, I never felt fully in control, and it all just felt a bit gimmicky. On my previous iPad Air, i purchased the Bamboo stylus and used this in conjunction with their Bamboo Paper app. The biggest problem i found with the Bamboo stylus was the lack of pressure sensing which made it impossible to create a natural looking drawn line, making everything look a bit too neat and clinical. The Adobe Draw app has brushes that would attempt to artificially create varying line thickness, but again, this never felt like it was something you had control over. Plus the rounded tip always felt more like guess work on where to position the tip to get any level of accuracy.
The first thing I noticed when unboxing the iPad pro, is how huge it feels compared to my previous iPads. Now I know I should have been prepared for this, having read all the technical specs and watched all the videos. And having a bigger screen was actually one of its appeals, but for some reason I still expected it to feel like an iPad. That convenient piece of tech you could walk around the house with, casually surf the internet while watching the TV. It seems the iPad Pro is a very different beast. It no longer feels like a ‘go-anywhere’ convenient personal device, instead, at times feels no different than carrying around a small laptop, especially when combined with the Logitech Keyboard Cover.
Once I got over the surprise of it’s size, I was pleased at how lightweight it feels. That additional size certainly didn’t pile on too many pounds and the iPad Pro feels lovely to hold. Having now lived with the iPad Pro for some weeks I can honestly say it has become an invaluable tool. The processor speed and responsiveness are spot on and I have never experienced any lag when drawing with the Pencil.
On several occasions when using the Adobe Draw App I found that the edge of my palm resting on the screen would register as a brush stroke in addition to the Pencil. I understood the ‘Palm Rejection’ technology within the new Pro was designed to remove this, but I found this to not always be the case. I usually wear a glove when working on screens, so hoped this would minimise the screen from detecting my palm, but with too much pressure applied it would still register as a brush stroke. This seems to happen only occasionally, so I have learned not to apply to much weight on the screen when drawing. I am unsure if this is software or firmware related so will wait and see if this is something that can be patched or whether it is something I will have to continue to live with.
Using desktop software
A large amount of my time is spent using Toon Boom Harmony, a 2D animation software with similarities to Adobe Flash but with more advanced animations tools. Toon Boom Harmony and it’s powerful storyboarding software ‘Story Board Pro’ is used by many of the big animation studios, such as 20th Century Fox, Nickelodeon and Disney TV. There are currently no native apps to run these programmes but I discovered recently an amazing piece of software called Astropad which is installed on your Mac along with an app that runs on your iPad. This allows you to run the iPad as a second monitor, connected to your main mac via a local WiFi connection. This took less than a minute to setup and works amazingly well. This is especially useful for anyone wanting to use their favourite software like Photoshop or like myself when using animation Software like Toon Boom. I am sure more developers will be creating cool new ways to make better use of the iPad Pro’s capabilities, but for now, Astropad removes many limitations and allows the iPad Pro to be a true graphics tablet. On the down side, which I stress is surprisingly minimal, there is a small amount of latency. Unlike using a Wacom which is directly inputting into the computer, Astropad is relying on your wifi connection. So if you are moving the Pencil very quickly doing quick strokes it can run a bit behind, but this is very minimal and doesn’t detract from what you are drawing.
Now let's talk about the Apple Pencil, this pen is not cheap, but then this is Apple so this comes with the territory, but anyone familiar with Wacom products will possibly be able to relate to this. I was honestly expecting more, now I don’t mean in terms of usability, I’ll come to that later, but more in terms of the product itself. With Wacom pens you get a stand and spare nibs, and with something like the Wacom 13HD a quality compact case, ideal for the artist on the move to protect their investment.
With the Apple Pencil, you get the box it came in, which shortly finds it’s way into the waste bin, a silly little charger adaptor which I am sure to lose and one spare nib. Now keeping in mind one of the main benefits of using an iPad Pro with Apple Pencil is it’s portability, it feels a real shame they haven’t put more thought into how the two devices can be transported together. It also astonishes me they do not even provide a cap to fit over the Pencil's’ nib to protect it when not in use.
When on the move, I am constantly thinking about where to place the pencil, it’s super smooth rounded body allows it to easily roll off uneven surfaces. The thought of the Pencil bouncing onto the floor with that expensive nib technology haunts me as i find myself constantly looking for a safe resting place to lay it down, and unlike the Wacom pens there is no pen holder. When using the Pencil, it’s movement feels very accurate and importantly it never felt like there was glass separating the Pencil from the ‘paper’. The sensitivity of the Pencil is also very impressive and seemed capable of detecting even the lightest of strokes. I wouldn’t say it was not as sensitive as the Wacom screens, but it’s pretty close.
Using the Pencil with drawing apps
I have several apps that I have experimented with, such as Graphic, Adobe Draw and Adobe Sketch; each offering their own benefits and pitfalls, but I will avoid going into my opinion on these and stay focused on how the pencil feels and performs. The Pencil is well balanced and feels lovely to hold. At first I thought the really smooth shinny Pencil surface was going to be off putting, but the more I used it the more it became natural to hold and work with. I did find myself quite often (and still do) flipping the pen around to use the top end as an eraser, so find I have to remind myself this is not a Wacom pen, but old habits die hard.
Pairing the Pencil to the iPad is quick, you simply plug in the Pencil to your charger port and a message will ask you to pair to the device via bluetooth. This took only seconds to do and worked seamlessly. The Apple Pencil is slightly longer than a Wacom pen and heavier, neither detracts from it’s usability and lives up to it’s name of feeling and looking more like a pencil than a pen. The charger port is hidden within the top end of the Pencil and can be charged by plugging this into the iPad itself. I read that around 15 seconds of charging will power the pencil for 30 minutes. This sounds great but as yet I have found no way of being able to find out how much battery life is left in the pen, perhaps it’s a mute point as the charge time is so quick it doesn’t matter. But still, the Apple geek in me would love to have seen some little green lights somewhere showing the charge.
The feel of the nib on the surface of the iPad Pro was a real concern, I know Wacom screens pride themselves on having a paper like feel when drawing and I was worried the iPad would have that slippery glass feel, which can somehow disconnect you from what you are drawing. Happily any concerns I had about the feel have been removed, largely I think this is down to the nib on the Pencil itself. Drawing is smooth with just the right amount of friction to feel like you are actually drawing onto something rather than just waving a pen around in thin air.
Although I mentioned earlier I was not commenting too much on the apps themselves, I did find using the Adobe Apps connected via the creative cloud to my main studio computer a dream to use. I was able to sketch and draw on the iPad Pro, send the files via creative cloud and continue working on the studio Mac. I know this is not groundbreaking, but for some reason with the iPad Pro and Pencil it all just felt more integrated and seamless and I always felt in control of what I was drawing, rather than working within any limitations of the technology.
As a side note I also purchased the Logitech Cover keyboard. Apple’s own keyboard was not available at the time, so opted for this as the next best thing. And whilst having the keyboard is very practical, it is far too clunky and adds too much weight to the iPad Pro, and I found myself ripping it off in frustration. So I am waiting to see what the general feedback is about Apple’s own Keyboard cover, which looks lighter and less clunky. Alternatively I may eventually resort back to a normal, thinner cover that is less obtrusive.
In summary the new iPad Pro along with the Apple Pencil are a joy to use, drawing is lag free, the iPad is light and responsive, and integrating into my creative workflow was effortless. On the down side, whilst the technology is great and works really well, this is always limited by the apps available. Using software like Astropad really opens up the potential of the iPad Pro as it allows you to access your desktop apps like Adobe Photoshop. For me personally, being able to use Toon Boom Harmony for my animation whilst away from the desk, albeit remaining within the same WiFi network, is a real plus. There are certainly some improvements that Apple could have made, such as designing a better way to store the Apple Pencil with the iPad so I would hope to see some innovation regarding this as thees two products develop.
If you are looking to purchase your first Digital Pen and Screen and work from a fixed home or office location I would personally recommend you purchase the Wacom 13HD Touch screen. This is cheaper and has one sole purpose that allows you to use your normal software and integrate more seamlessly with your workflow, and offers great value.
If however you are constantly on the move, or like me want an additional device to be creative when away from the desk, the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil offer a very professional and practical solution. Just keep in mind this is not the convenient sized, go anywhere iPad you may have previously come to love, especially when combined with the Logitech Cover, and get used to worrying about where to store that Apple Pencil.