Apple iPad Pro + Pencil Review

18 November 2015

Apple iPad Pro & Pencil Review: An Artist’s Take

by XDL, Filmmaker…

In filmmaking, we have the deadly production triangle: cheap, fast and good. If you’re lucky, you get two — usually at the sacrifice of the third. You can have cheap and fast, but it won’t be good. You can have good and fast, but it won’t be cheap. You can have cheap and good, but it’ll never be fast.

When it comes to drawing computers, a triangle also applies. The ideal digital creative tool would be powerful, portable, and easy to use. I’ve never gotten all three.

For years I searched for the best drawing solution. I had an early Wacom Cintiq Companion, which had five hundred levels of pressure sensitivity and I was grateful for it. I had a Modbook. Anyone remember that? I even had a Surface Pro 1 hacked to have Apple OSX on it.

To punctuate my search, I even gave the Modbook Pro people feedback to create a Modbook Air. If they did, I would’ve paid their high prices and been there with bells on.

Finally, I broke convention: I left my Apple ecosystem for the Wacom Cintiq Companion. The Companion was never a great solution — only moderately portable and not especially elegant, but plenty powerful. Like I said, two out of three.

I concluded that I would always need at least two machines in my messenger bag:
• my MacBook Air for writing and quick on-set usage
• my Companion for drawing
• and a few Rugged drives for storage

Worth The Weight?

XDL's bag

It’s in the bag: Wacom Cintiq Companion, iPad Pro, Macbook Air, chargers, Wacom Pen, Apple Pencil, Magic Mouse, let Drive and two Rugged Drives

This morning when I left for the office, my bag weighed 14 pounds. That’s actually an improvement. Not long ago I’d keep my MacBook 17 and Modbook in the same bag and ditched the extra drives. And that dynamic usually rang in at nearly 20 pounds.

So when the Apple iPad Pro was announced I was interested. If it worked, I’d be carrying a substantially lighter load — the Air, the Pro, and maybe a new 2TB Rugged drive. All that would weigh substantially less.

I’m providing all this background because I’m not a unique story — many professionals have waited years for a proper creative device. I don’t want to waste too much time on rhetoric about how Apple has abandoned Creatives in favor of building machines for Emoticons, but the iPad Pro should’ve come out in 2011 before the iPad Air. Productivity should’ve come before mass consumption.

But that’s not how things worked out and now Apple is playing catch-up. What’s worse, it looks like catch-up. A for instance, the name, “Pro.” It’s not that this iPad fails to be a Professional or Productivity device, it’s just that it’s three years removed from Microsoft’s “pro” device — and it shows in the nomenclature. If you want to redefine the market, start with the name. My vote would’ve been “iPad Creative.”

Still, within the first 5 minutes of owning the iPad Pro, I’m happy to say it’s awesome for media. If I read a script on my iPad Air, I’d have to condense it like any other PDF. Or worse, in Hollywood a lot of people read scripts by turning their computers to the side after swiveling the document — I’m not joking.

But with the iPad Pro you just open up any document and read away. Likewise for magazines, periodicals, and other media. IMAGE FX art magazine shines in its full glory. Stuart Immonen’s artwork in Star Wars’ comic book issue 12 is breathtaking. And an HD version of Quantum of Solace (the visceral, art-house Bond movie) looks and sounds unbelievable — the screen and the 4 (FOUR!) speakers make an incredible combination.

So yeah, checking things out on the iPad Pro has been cool. But can the iPad Pro be my replacement art machine and succeed in lightening my bag? The big deal is whether I need to walk around with the Companion anymore. The iPad Pro is not as powerful or versatile — one machine is a fully realized computer and the other a tablet. But, man, the iPad Pro is a lot more portable — not only a lot lighter, but also considerably less bulky. And a bonus: the screen is larger.

The Stylus: What’s A Pencil Without An Eraser?

The other half of the equation is the stylus. Much has been said about how the Apple Pencil — Apple’s primary input device — has not been available. I agree, it was frustrating. And the fact that Microsoft happily includes their stylus in the purchase of the Surface Pro is embarrassing.

The long and short of it: the Apple Pencil is not as good as a Cintiq Pen. It’s too thin and not as versatile. I do find it better than the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Pen, which is technically more versatile (it has an eraser and a button), but you have to deal with Windows, which becomes considerably less elegant outside the Wacom system.

With the Cintiq you get a good grip for fine motor control and mouse-like buttons. And the Cintiq system works better — both screen and pen integrate better for protracted use. Their screens feel less like writing on glass, more like pen and paper, and they have controls (or “hot keys”) on the side to help ergonomically.

Does this mean lights-out for the iPad Pro? No. Because with pen, computer, and power plug, the Cintiq weighs in at over six pounds — plus the bulk. With pen, tablet, and power plug, the iPad Pro barely comes in over two. That’s compelling math.

The trick is using the Pencil. It’s not awful — just limited, like writing a document without a word-counter, a ruler, and a font resizer. I can still write, but I’m missing features that can help produce a better document.

Also, some claim that the Apple Pencil has flawless palm rejection. When you draw with a pen, your palm makes unwanted marks on the screen. It happens all the time with the Cintiq — really bothersome. Sadly, while testing Adobe Sketch and Sketchbook Pro on the iPad Pro, it happens quite a lot with the Apple Pencil, too. As artists, you just get used to it.

Likewise, the lag between both are similar. Drawing on a digital device will never be as easy or responsive as putting a wet pen to dry paper. With digital devices, there can be the slightest lag between your drawing stroke and the image it creates — especially when your work becomes complex with multiple layers. Fortunately, I found neither device faster or slower than the other, so no loss or gains there.

The drawing on glass experience is more prevalent with the iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4 than the Companion. The pen slips along and not in a good way. The Companion is the best with its textured screen, the Apple Pencil is in the middle, and the Surface Pro 4 brings up the rear considerably further back from the other two — it has very little paper to pen feel.

Still, the new kid on the block (and the one who kept everyone waiting) is the stylus from Apple. I was hoping for better. This is not to say that Pencil can’t ever improve. Version two could have more weight and buttons on the side the facilitate controls like the Cintiq, and an eraser on the back — like any damn stylus should!

Software Compatibility: Back To The Drawing Board

Likewise, some of the software needs to catch up. For drawing, I use Artrage — which is available for the iPad but does not (yet) work with the Apple Pencil. Artrage does inking the best, so I hope something becomes available soon.

I also use Sketchbook Pro, which is essentially the same for me on the iPad Pro as it is on the Companion and to a lesser extent the new Surface Pro 4. If you use that program a lot, I suspect you’ll like the iPad Pro.

I would sometimes use Manga Studio on the Companion, but it’s processor intensive —a tablet version would need to handle the computational short-comings.

So far I’m ambivalent about my initial play with Adobe Sketch. The program works but it doesn’t bring anything new or impactful to the digital drawing experience.

Of course, for digital painting I use Photoshop like thousands of other artists. Adobe has released Photoshop Express. It’ll take time to get around the clunkiness, but for this transition to succeed, I’ll need to adjust.

If anything, drawing on the iPad Pro reminds me of when Apple debuted Final Cut Pro X. Instead of improving on an existing system, they pushed for a new, clunkier, and far less intuitive solution. Many post production house houses switched back to Avid (the Cintiq Companion) or Adobe Premiere (the Surface Pro), while most just stuck with Final Cut 7 — including ours. Final Cut X is an epic, abysmal failure in Hollywood. I don’t think the iPad Pro will be as unsuccessful with artists, but it will take a lot of adjustment and hope for hardware and software improvements.

Accessories: The Write Stuff

You should pass on the new Apple Smart Keyboard cover for the iPad Pro. I didn’t like the feel of the keys. I thought I wouldn’t mind but I ultimately did. Plus the weird way to unfold it and it’s limited range become bothersome.

Likewise, I didn’t care for the Logictech solution. Although the F-keys on top were nice, the Logictech also doubles the weight of the iPad Pro, which just seems odd. If you’re going to create the Macbook Air, why not just buy the iPad Air?

What I do like is pairing a regular iPad Pro Smart Cover with an Apple Wireless Keyboard. For writing it’s a decently portable solution and you don’t have to stick the iPad screen directly in front of the keyboard. You can offset it to one side like you do with a desktop. For long and engaged writing, it’s very nice. Also, many of us writers aren’t the most productive people in the world. For finding distractions, one could not do much better than the iPad Pro.


So, will my bag be lighter tomorrow? Or will I exercise my two-week Apple return window? My verdict: I’m leaning towards keeping the iPad Pro. It’s not just more convenient to move around with, it’s A LOT more convenient. I also enjoy the multimedia aspects, which are easier to enjoy than on the Cintiq Companion.

And, of course, the elephant in the room: the Cintiq companion not only weighs three times more, it can also cost nearly three times more. Entrance into the Wacom Cintiq is roughly $2,000 and can easily hit $3,000 with upgrades. My iPad Pro with Apple Pencil and cover: a few bucks over $1,000. For that kind of savings and convenience, one can learn to put up with a lot.

The best drawing tool: the Cintiq Companion. But the best overall experience just might be the iPad Pro. Sure, for the sake of convenience and a really nice screen, people will have to adjust their workflow, but it’s a good start and I have every reason to believe it’ll get better.

Of course I would love that one solution that reduces my baggage to a single device — one that is powerful, portable, and easy. For years I’ve looked longingly at the Microsoft Surface Book, a laptop with a screen that detaches into a tablet. For many professionals, the best device would be a MacBook Pro with a detachable screen and stylus. And a computer like that would be great for my neck — these bags are still pretty heavy.

But Tim Cook has already said that’s not going to happen. Pity too, because that’s exactly what a lot of the creative workforce really needs. You sometimes get the feeling that catering to individual needs is not Apple’s concern. A lot of people, including myself, would love to be proven wrong.

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XDL is a Cornell University grad and filmmaker/writer/editor/illustrator in Hollywood.

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