Last week, Apple introduced the iPad Pro, and while it's easy to dismiss it as 'just a big iPad' – in the same way as some people shortsightedly described the original in 2010 as 'just a big iPod', as if that was a bad thing – it's possible that what it actually is is a big deal for artists, designers and other creatives. It's not just very powerful – some early benchmarking suggests its A9X CPU might actually be faster than the current 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro Intel processors – and it doesn't just have a generous 12.9-inch Retina screen, but for the first time with an iOS device, Apple is officially supporting a stylus, to turn the iPad Pro into a self-contained digital sketchbook. Indeed, it has made its own, the Apple Pencil.
Not everyone gets or welcomes it, though. Here's Gareth Beavis from our sister site, TechRadar: "The Apple Pencil is an odd thing to have added in. It's very good at sketching – one of the best I've tried when it comes to handwriting recognition, and it didn't get confused by my fist rubbing the screen at the same time – but for $99 (around £70) it's an expensive add on to an already expensive tablet."
Nick Statt at the The Verge, though, just accepts that it's there for the kind of creative stuff us creative types will like: "It can draw thicker lines with applied pressure and orient its toolset to whether you're tilting the pen, for shading, or dragging it along the surface to draw lines or form letters," he says. "These selling points make it clear that the Pencil is not designed to help you clean out your inbox."
Most tech writers, though, even if they're not specifically designers, have grokked this. "The Pencil felt great from the moment I picked it up," says Susie Ochs at Macworld. "It feels like a pencil, very natural (although you can say the same for other smart Bluetooth styluses on the market), and using it felt natural too."
But while pressure- and tilt-sensitive styluses are nothing new – even if they're new to Apple – they're not the only things that contribute to that natural feel. Designer Linda Dong puts it best: "This is the game-changer with the Apple Pencil — barely any latency, so you actually feel like the pencil is leaving ink and can see the outcome of your drawing as it's happening. Makers of real-life pencils got this figured out years ago."
"Pair this amazing stylus with the iPad Pro's huge screen," Malarie Gokey says at Digital Trends, "and you've got an iPad that could kill off Wacom tablets." And Dong is similarly bullish about the iPad Pro, dismissing the decades of Wacom heritage with a stroke: "My advice to anyone trying to decide between buying Apple Setup vs. Cintiq is run far far away from the Cintiq. Especially if you're a student. Specialized professionals that have their Cintiqs hooked up to PCs running Solidworks, C4D, CAD, yeahhhhh… I guess cross your fingers they make iPad apps."
No everyone is quite so black-and-white, though. "We digital artists love Wacom's stuff," Aysha Marie Zouain, a Miami-based illustrator tells CNN Money. "But they're seen as the Mercedes-Benz of the tablet industry. Apple just created more competition."
Competition, remember, doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. For iMore's Peter Cohen, it's about creative professionals choosing the mix of tools that makes most sense for them. "The funny thing about Cintiq tablets," he says, "is how much of that work is already being done on the iPad. So why not make the iPad work more like the Cintiq, and expand the arsenal of artist's tools on the Mac?"
It's a sentiment echoed by comic book artist Mike Norton in that CNN Money piece: "I still don't know if I'll be fully creating comics on the iPad Pro," he said, "but I could see myself doing layouts and preliminary stuff."
Not everyone is upbeat, though. Here's software engineer and artist Steve Streza:
Certainly, the best hardware in the world is useless without great software to run on it, and although Procreate and an upcoming Adobe app were demoed at the iPad Pro's introduction, Digital Arts sounds a note of caution. "Before the iPad Pro comes out in November," it writes, "we need to see serious, grown-up, professional applications for creative pros – or it'll end up in a limbo between tablet and laptop like Wacom's Android-based Cintiq Companion Hybrid, which only lasted a single generation before being killed off in favour of a proper tablet PC."
One way Apple could shortcut to this, of course, is to have its Cintiq-alike run OS X rather than iOS, in a similar way that Wacom's current stand-alone Cintiq tablets run full Windows. It's an approach that Duncan Bell at TechRadar likes: "Although the iPad Pro looked highly impressive, if Apple thinks creative professionals and people in healthcare are going to dump their laptops for it, they might be in for a bit of a shock. A version of OS X with support for touchscreens? Now you're talking." That, though, is very much not Apple's style, so if Bell is holding his breath, he's not going to last long.
Wacom, of course, isn't the only company making a tool that pro designers can use as a digital sketchbook; it still feels a little unnatural to say it, but Microsoft's own tablet, the Surface Pro – which itself, of course, also runs full Windows – has been a surprise hit with many in our community. So, asks Ryan Stegman, an artist for Marvel:
And the answer is: we just don't know, until we get a chance to use both side-by-side, in anger.
For some, of course, the idea of a digital sketchbook at all is anathema. "Oh, it's not going to replace the sketchbooks," writes Teoh Yi Chie. "You can't replicate the tactile feeling and satisfaction of drawing on paper." Others, though, are fully ready to embrace the new world order, such as videographer, photographer and designer DJ Pulce.
The truth is, we just can't make a balanced judgement of the iPad Pro as a sketching tool – "draw our own conclusions", you might say – until it comes out in November. We'll have to wait and see. And talking of waiting…
(From $799 to $1079, incidentally. Apple hasn't released non-US pricing yet, so we'll have to wait and see for that too!)
Has Apple made your perfect tool, or is it too limited? Are you going to be first in line, or does your Surface Pro destroy it? Will we have to prise your Wacom stylus out of your cold, dead hands? See our iPad Pro (2017) review for more.
Words: Chris Phin
Chris Phin trained as a graphic designer before falling into tech journalism; he's been trying to climb out ever since.
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