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iPad Pro & Pencil artist review by Rob Sketcherman

This is a review by guest artist Rob Sketcherman.

If you've owned an iPad at any point, you know it can be handy for lots of things. I added sketching to that list 2 years ago, but for many of you, the artistic experience may have been touch and go. I'm pretty sure however, that things are about to shift considerably.

When rumors of a larger iPad began circulating a couple years ago, I had a feeling that it would be a milestone in the product line, largely because much as I’ve loved my iPad(s), I was now ready for...more; a bigger screen, more power - a souped-up iPad that could be a seriously amazing creative device. Early this year, the rumors started flying thick and fast, and in September, the tablet I'd been waiting for was finally officially announced. I picked mine up the moment it became available in Hong Kong, and have been playing with it for the last few weeks. Now, from the perspective of one who uses it daily for a living, here are my thoughts on Apple's latest offering.

Bear in mind - although I'm a bit of a tech nerd, I’m not big on detailed specs and numbers that include speed tests, chip names and RAM configurations. If a device is fast, what's most important to me is how it keeps up when I work. So if you want to geek out on performance-type tech specs, this isn't the review for you. I'm going to talk about how it feels to use this thing.

iPad Pro options

If you weren't already aware, there are 3 models to choose from, differentiated by disk space: 32GB and 128GB. They range from USD799 for the base model to USD1079 for top-of-the-line. The need for wifi or LTE capability will also affect your choice, although the latter is only available for the 128GB version. Finally, there are 3 colors to choose from: silver, space grey and gold. The space grey 128GB LTE version was my pick as I take my iPad everywhere and want (some say need) access to data if I can get it, especially when traveling.

The extra real estate and significantly higher resolution promises many possibilities for artists.

How big is 'Big'?

5.6 millions pixels flooding 12.9 diagonal inches. You don't need to remember that, because it hits you in other ways when you see the screen for the first time. The iPad Pro is huge! Bigger than my wife's 13" Macbook Air screen. It dwarfs my iPad Air. And it is stunning to look upon.

The screen of the iPad Pro is larger than that of a 13” Macbook Air!

At 30.5cm (12") by 22cm (8.75"), the iPad Pro's width is about 1cm less than the height of the iPad Air 1 and 2. While waiting for them to bring me mine at the Apple Store, I picked up a unit on display and was surprised at how light it was. At 713g (1.57lb), it's heavier than my old iPad Air (469g or 1lb) but because it's so much bigger, it feels lighter than it looks. The detailing is all you'd expect from Apple; machined accurately to the nanometer, a polished sliver of metal and glass that comes to life at your fingertips. The iPad Pro is slim, big and bright - like my old iPad on steroids!

What I'd been really looking forward to however, was the higher resolution (and the power to drive it of course.) My go-to creative app is Procreate - one of the few drawing apps for iOS that allows you to pick your canvas size, and create really high-resolution ones. On my iPad Air, I could create a maximum canvas size of 4096 pixels across. That's pretty good, really! You can do a lot with 4K. To compare, TVs are just beginning to brag about 4K capability and the resolution is so high most of us haven't seriously considered buying one yet because TV programming doesn't have anything with that kind of resolution to watch! Now think even higher resolution. The iPad Air 2 can create canvases of up to 8192 pixels, and the iPad Pro can do 16384.

How does this affect an artist though? And more importantly, how does it affect your creative process and art-making? When translated to print, higher definition and more pixels means a source file with a lot more information and detail. A 4000 pixel-wide image fills your 55" TV with crystal-clear clarity. I printed the following piece for an exhibition and was able to scale it up (via Perfect Resize on my Mac) to 2m (a little over 6 ft) across without seeing any pixelation. Now imagine that x4 with the iPad Pro! That should be plenty resolution for most, I reckon.

Painted on a 4000px-wide canvas in Procreate on my iPad Air, this was then upscaled in Perfect Resize on my Mac and printed 2m wide. No pixels visible as the source file was very high-res. The iPad Pro can produce artwork that is 4x higher in resolution!

Another scenario to illustrate potential: you can sit quietly with a device that's the size of an average glossy magazine, thus not needing much space at all, and be able to create incredibly detailed artwork that fills most living room walls.

Big Screens look good with anything

I sketch a lot on my iPad but I also do a lot of other stuff on it. A typical day has me doing regular stuff like email, browsing the web, writing, catching up on all kinds of reading, watching videos and working out my schedule out on my iPad. I also mindmap projects, collaborate and communicate, present work, edit photos and simple videos; all in all, enough activity to say my iPad is my primary workhorse.

I've bought a few thousand apps, but these are the ones I use almost on a daily basis. The large screen of the iPad Pro makes it a pleasure to use them all.

For all this and more, the extra screen real estate has been so very welcome, especially when viewing photos and video. Be prepared for audible sighs and exclamations of delight when people around you see the screen for the first time. Your camera roll never looked so good, and if presenting images is something integral to your workflow, I'm sure the iPad Pro will help you close that deal.

Does your iPad do the the Splits?

A new happy discovery for me, is Split View. This only works on newer devices (the iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro). I only just got to test it firsthand, and wow - this has totally changed the way I work.

Split View was invaluable to me in the process of writing this post. Swiping in from the right reveals a row of app icons. Tap any and the app opens to fill either a quarter or half of your screen, allowing you to work in both apps at the same time.

On the iPad Pro, sharing your screen with another app makes absolute sense. I don't need many windows open the way I might on my Mac. This actually helps me stay focused. To activate Split View, you swipe in from the right side of the screen to access a vertical row of apps that can work in this mode. This includes Apple's stable of apps, and a constantly growing list of others. Tap any and it fills your choice of either a quarter or half the screen. Imagine referencing figures from a page in Safari while writing a proposal, looking up something in Notes while editing a spreadsheet in Numbers, or studying an image in Photos while painting in Procreate... handy!

Hello Apple Pencil

When I began sketching seriously on the iPad, I found that I could do a lot with a Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus (1st gen) with a modified nib. That was my stylus of choice until recently, achieving the best balance of build quality, accuracy and sensitivity, in my opinion. When showing my kit to others and allowing people to try sketching on it though, I got a wide range of responses. Some people loved the iPad + pressure sensitive stylus combination and some did not.

I found that for best results, brushes in Procreate had to be calibrated to suit the needs of individuals, and preferences could vary a lot. In drawing apps that did not allow the customization of brushes for pressure sensitivity, strokes could be clumsy, making and the entire experience incredibly frustrating. Although I did not notice it when sketching, others saw an issue with lag between strokes and their appearances on-screen. I had found my sweet spot, but it still left a sour taste for some, and I suspect that this was why artists had not taken to mobile sketching technology en masse. Yet.

In the right app, the Apple Pencil is deliciously responsive and fun to use.

Enter the Apple Pencil. I rolled my eyes at the name when it was first debuted, but it's come to grow on me. It looks just like a white color pencil, and I'm sure that was intentional. Steve Jobs has been famously quoted ad nauseum that iPads and styli do not go together. When my favorite fruit company does something however, they work hard to make it a home run at first bat. And but for some pretty minor issues, I think they've done just that.

Apple's Pencil is going to change the whole mobile drawing experience.

At USD99, it's not cheap, but if you're shelling out for an iPad Pro, I can't imagine why you'd do so without also getting the Apple Pencil. I’d even go so far as to say it’s an essential accessory, whether you’re a creative professional or not. It extends the abilities of your new gadget manifold. In a nutshell, I'd say that anyone who wants digital flexibility with the organic feel of handwriting, or just doodling and making marks, will love using Apple's stylus.

I had many questions about the Apple Pencil, and have trawled the internet for answers. Here's what I found, along with what I discovered after my own testing:

  • First up, sorry older iPads. The Apple Pencil only works with the iPad Pro
  • Pressure sensitivity feels very natural - press harder and get darker, broader strokes. Keep things light with feathery strokes if you prefer. The Pencil handles all with aplomb.
  • The Apple Pencil does truly feel like a real pencil in your hand (and in keeping with that, does not magnetically stick to your iPad nor come with any hi-tech means of clip-in/hideaway storage).
  • It ships with 1 replacement nib and an adapter for the option of charging via regular lightning cable.
  • To pair your Pencil with your iPad Pro, simply plug it into your iPad. The rest is automatic. The two connect via Bluetooth, but there's no configuration necessary. This really just works :)
  • Charging itself is a cinch. Plug the Pencil directly into the iPad Pro and a 15 second charge will give you 30 minutes of use.
  • When the Pencil's battery goes below 5%, a notification pops up on your screen to warn you.
  • A full charge from that point will take about 20 minutes when plugged into your iPad, which then gives you about 12 hours of continuous usage.
  • There is no indicator on the Pencil that tells you how much juice you have left. The only way I know to tell is to enable the battery widget in iOS notifications. You can then swipe down anytime your Pencil is plugged in or when you're using it to see its charge level.
  • If you fancy, you could use the Pencil for navigation and selection purposes, but be aware - to avoid user interface conflicts, it has been programmed to not work with certain things like swiping down for Notifications or activating Split View.
  • No calibration or in-app pairing is needed to start using the Pencil. It works great in all supported apps.
  • Digital handwriting never looked so good! Hah- nobody can blame clunky styli for their chicken-scratches anymore. And fans of handwritten notes, take note: game changer!

Sketching with iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

If you're reading this post, chances are you're a creative of some sort and want to know if the iPad Pro lives up to the hype. Or perhaps you’re considering a gift for a creative you love, and want to know: How is the iPad Pro for drawing, sketching and painting?

The singular most remarkable thing I've noticed since using the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil is that when all kinds of people try it, they delight in the fact that the Pencil works the way they expect it to - like a natural pencil. They echo how I feel, and remark at how instinctive it is to draw, to write, to sketch. The process of discovering what creative apps can do has just become really fun!

I watched as friends brushed blooms of digital paint across a canvas and toyed with pastels without smudgy powder flying everywhere. Their eyes lit up. They scribbled, traced lines and made little doodles without frowning over, "How do I make this stylus work the way I want?" This changes everything. Not many people took to writing or drawing on their iPads before because of the learning curve or need for complicated calibrations. With that speed bump removed, I think we'll see a lot more people turning to the iPad Pro for artistic experimentation. (Please note however, that experiences depend very much upon the app used.)

Plug the Pencil into your iPad and get 30 minutes of use from a 15 second charge (20-30min for a full charge). Check the Pencil’s battery level in notifications. Pressure sensitivity is sweat and tilt-to-shade works a treat in tools of supported apps.

You may have seen videos and demonstrations of the Apple Pencil being used to draw, first on its tip, then tilted to the side for shading. This feature was first seen in Pencil by Fiftythree (the original digital stylus called 'Pencil'), makers of the drawing app, Paper by Fiftythree. The tilt-to-shade of their carpenter-style Pencil however, was hit-and-miss in my experience. It required a lot of getting used to, and even then, would often behave in totally unpredictable and unwanted ways. I get the feeling that although the people at Fiftythree used the 'Pencil' name first, it won't be long before Apple's version will be known synonymously as the Pencil and digital stylus to beat.

That's got a lot to do with the fact that Apple makes both iPad Pro and Pencil, allowing the company to build integration at the deepest hardware and core software level. Well, Yay for us! USD99 isn't cheap, but for what it can do, it's not expensive either. All you need to know is that it's a great buy, and you will love drawing and writing with it.

Apple's stylus has got the weight and balance right. The fine tip allows you to see what you're doing, is accurate and does not click or clack on glass. There is teeny bit of friction between the tip and the screen, with just a touch of give so that it doesn't feel like you're pushing and dragging one hard surface against another.

Styli like Adonit's Jot Touch with Pixelpoint and Wacom's 2nd generation Intuos Creative Stylus had rigid plastic tips that felt...too hard. They were durable, but natural media has some give, yielding somewhat to the substrate it's applied to. The Pencil has just enough to remove that hard-surface feel, and is the kind of little detail I would expect from Apple. I do wish they made a smart, easy way to transport the Pencil though. I've panicked more than a couple times trying to remember where I put it or whether it was safely stowed away in my bag.

Lag or No Lag

After I posted a video to my YouTube channel on my first impressions of the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil I was surprised at the number of views and variety of comments. Although I said that I saw no discernible lag, someone said they had slowed my video down and determined that there was indeed some lag. This bugged me, so I made a slow-motion video with my iPhone 6Plus to check. Normal footage is captured at 30 frames per second. I recorded this test at 240 fps, meaning time is slowed down four times when played back.

The results are in, and there is indeed some micro lag, BUT... it can't be picked up by the human eye at normal speed. So my opinion is: if the lag only bugs you in slow motion, then it's a non-issue. (Unless you are some sci-fi Time Lord who lives in slow-mo, in which case, stylus lag is the least of your worries.)

In my real-time tests, I found the iPad Pro, to be smooth, fast and accurate, keeping up with my speediest strokes.

Palm Rejection

You'll be happy to know that you can rest your hand on the screen as you draw. Over the last couple of years, I've trained my hand to hover over my iPad as I sketch. (Maybe that's why I have shoulder issues.) Since upgrading however, I've rediscovered the relief of resting the edge of my hand on the surface I'm working on. And this has worked in every app I've tested for drawing: Apple's Notes, Procreate, Paper by 53 and Adobe's iOS offerings, as well as PDF annotation apps like PDF Expert and Goodreader.

All the tools are calibrated to just work with the Apple Pencil, although in some apps, you can tweak settings even more if you wish. I love that you can fine tune and customize brushes in Procreate, but if that's not your thing, tools work pretty great out of the box too.

Outdoors Sketching with the iPad Pro

I took my new kit to a life drawing session right after I got it, and the first thing I did was open a huge canvas: 16000 x 3000 pixels, which made for one giant panorama. To illustrate how much more powerful the iPad Pro is compared to its predecessors, on my iPad Air, an A4 300 dpi document (3508 x 2480 pixels) allowed me 7 layers to work on. The iPad Pro gives me 57! I can't imagine what I'd do with 50 extra layers, but it's nice to have the option.

The Apple Pencil sang across my screen. It felt a lot more instinctive to use. Incredibly responsive, I barely needed to tweak size and opacity settings, which gave me more mental space to just draw. I would change tools and colors of course, but that's a given. I like a variety of textures in my work, and appreciated that the Pencil was long enough to easily tap through menus without me having to stretch my arm or move my injured shoulder. That makes for a much more ergonomic workflow, and is an important note for people who spend hours and hours at this on a daily basis.

A week ago, I attended a Car Show and wanted to see how the iPad Pro would hold up with all-day sketching. I began with it fully charged. The sun was brutal and for the first couple hours, I was out in the open, completely exposed and broiling slowly. The iPad Pro set itself to full brightness to compete with the glare, and handled itself well, I thought. I could see my canvas clearly enough to easily do line work. Colors would not have been as accurate, however. In any case, I'm not a fan of the heat, and have always opted for a shaded spot rather than cook under direct sun to sketch. My discomfort must have been obvious as the sympathetic owner of a 97-year old bike I was drawing, found me an umbrella and tied it to the guardrail next to me to seek refuge under!

Here’s the iPad Pro under full sun with screen brightness cranked up to maximum. As you can see, it’s fine for drawing lines. The contrast is much better than on earlier iPads. (I’m wearing a glove because it was hot and sunny. My hand was getting sweaty and the glove mopped up the moisture so I wouldn’t smudge my screen.)

All day long, I heard people chatting behind me, and some even ducked under my umbrella to see what I was doing and say “Hi”. Many recognized the iPad Pro and Pencil. Several asked what I thought about it, some wanted to test it, and yet others requested little demos.

Battery life

I started sketching at about 9:30am, and found my iPad Pro battery drained to 13% at about 2:30pm. That was the cue for lunch, and after eating, my patient wife sat in the cool interior of a nearby library to babysit the iPad while it charged. I went out and shot some video. An hour later, the battery level read 39% and I unfolded my chair to sketch again. As the sun began to set at around 5:30, the battery ran out completely, and a friend's power bank resurrected the iPad enough for me to finish my sketch and allow a few more people to test drive Apple's new tablet.

I did find that the iPad Pro used up power a fair bit faster compared to my iPad Air, and perhaps takes a bit longer to reach full charge. I've timed it at about 5 hours from 0-100%.

On the day I was out in the sun, the battery could have drained a bit faster than it normally would due to the brightness being set at full most of the time. On subsequent sketchcrawls, I'll try setting the iPad Pro to Airplane mode with just Bluetooth on to see how much that helps. That could make a big difference if I were to go on an all-day sketch-hike in the country, for instance.

When I now head out for the day, I carry the charger with me and keep my eyes peeled for juicing opportunities. You may be glad to know that the accompanying lighting cable (2m / ~6ft) is not only longer than its predecessors, but also thicker and sturdier. I'll also be on the lookout for a robust power bank for emergency juicing on the go.

Points to consider before purchase

Which should you buy if you've been toying with the idea of a new iPad Pro? I always say "Get the best you can afford". And skip the lowest-end model unless you curate content very well, have the time to do it, or want the iPad Pro mostly for show (I can see it being handy for a sales-driven position requiring a lot of presentation). If you're a creative pro, the 32GB model would be the absolute bare minimum I'd recommend. You may want to edit photos on the fly or sketch on location. With more power under the hood, you'd naturally want to floor the pedal. Apps are becoming more sophisticated, with the ability to handle larger files. Those megabytes add up very quickly. The last thing you'd want is to be somewhere gorgeous, feel your creative juices flow, then find you can't begin because you need to decide what to delete on your hard drive just to make space!

People who depend on really power-intensive desktop software from the Adobe suite or Final Cut Pro may find the iPad Pro insufficient for getting everything they want done, but it could be a supplementary tool for roughing ideas out on the go. There are many Cloud solutions that make it really easy to get files and content on and off iOS devices.

The whole combination of iPad Pro, Apple Smart keyboard and Pencil are pricey though, weighing in at USD898 for the base model iPad Pro + Pencil and USD1178 for the 128GB LTE equivalent. The Apple Smart Keyboard is handy but will add $169 to your bill if you go that route too. So... if you're a casual user and unsure about whether you want to dive down this digital path, please test thoroughly before deciding. Also remember that Apple Stores (not resellers) allow you to buy with a 14-day return window should you decide this is not for you.

You'll also need to consider the fact that the iPad Pro is pretty big. Bag needs will probably change. Case decisions will certainly be affected, especially if you don't get the Smart Keyboard. I haven't yet found the optimal solution for sketching as my preferred tablet holder doesn't come in iPad Pro size, nor does the manufacturer have plans to make one. The large screen makes me feel I need something sturdier to protect it while I get around town. In the end, I decided on Apple's Smart Keyboard as my 'case' while I await options. It's really light and hardly takes any space. I type a fair bit, and being able to use Split View means a lot more writing will get done on my iPad Pro, so the investment is justified. I’m also happy to note that the Smart keyboard is durable and repels liquids.

The other thing to be aware of is that the Apple Pencil looks much like a regular pencil and is just as easily lost, but costs a fair bit more to replace. Watch the cap, and have some sort of system to remember where you left it! Even if you don't mind forking out another $99 to get a new Pencil, stocks worldwide are currently really low, so a moment of carelessness could mean getting stuck without one for weeks.

The Final Word

After 3 weeks of use, I can conclusively say that the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil are really excellent tools if you're digitally inclined. If your activities revolve largely around email, web browsers, reading, writing (now including both handwritten and typed) and the need to mark up PDFs, this could replace a notebook.

If you draw or paint, definitely go into an Apple store or reseller and test to see how you like the iPad Pro. Lift it, wield it and give it a whirl. Apple's Notes app is a good starting place to test, and many Apple Stores will also have Paper by 53 preinstalled. These should be fine for basic drawing testing. Fair warning, though - prepare to feel an almost irresistible magnetic pull drawing your wallet out to slap down payment.


  • Huge gorgeous screen = Images and video look incredible
  • Great for personal presentations
  • Capable of creating very high resolution artwork
  • Robust sound for music and videos
  • Powerful enough to leave some notebooks in the dust
  • Apps are being written to take advantage of iPad Pro's power and screen real estate
  • Split View looks awesome and works great
  • combined with the Apple Pencil = excellent, natural writing & drawing capabilities
  • Pencil charges quickly and easily
  • Palm rejection works flawlessly


  • Not everyone will want to work in a predominantly iOS environment
  • Complex productivity apps are still lightweight versions compared to desktop counterparts
  • Bigger iPad = more weight and bulk to lug around
  • Pricey

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