iPad Pro and Pencil a designer’s hands-off perspective 

When Apple recently showed off the new iPad Pro and accompanying Pencil, it was a long time coming for designers such as myself. In this hands-off perspective, I wish to delve into why I and my fellow designers are getting excited over the iPad Pro and Pencil.

Wait, what? A stylus…?

2007 Steve Jobs mocking the stylus

Steve Jobs mocking the stylus at the iPhone event in 2007.

Who wants a stylus? You have to get em’, put em’ away. You lose them. Yuck.

Steve Jobs, Apple

This is what Steve Jobs famously had to say about the stylus back in 2007, at the initial iPhone reveal. His resentment towards the use of styli does not seem to have passed anyone by, considering how vigorously the statement has been brought up again. It’s worth noting, however, that while the original iPhone offered a touch based user-friendly UI, allowing for accurate and responsive touch interactions, other phones at the time relied on styli to compensate for poor touch interfaces and imprecise resistive touchscreens. With the iPhone you didn’t need these sort of input devices anymore, and Jobs’ statement should be understood in that particular context. While it’s pretty clear that you still don’t need a stylus to catch up on your email, there are a whole bunch of other compelling reasons for the Apple Pencil to exist; it’s an add-on, a tool for creative work and play, and I would argue that a stylus for the iPad Pro makes perfect sense today.

A brief history of the stylus

Styli for use on iPads is nothing new. A number of third party developers have been making iPad compatible styluses in all manner of shapes and sizes for several years. Apple even introduced a “variable touch sizing” feature in iOS 8 last year, improving third party stylus uses by providing the option to add simulated pressure sensitivity. I have myself owned a myriad of different styluses since getting my first iPad in 2011.

Different styli for ipads.

Unfortunately, the experience of using these has mostly been pretty jarring; inaccuracy, slow or lagging performance, and fat and imprecise pen tips are some of the most common persisting symptoms in general. There have been a few notable exceptions like Pencil by Fiftythree and my last purchase, the Intuos Creative Stylus 2 from Wacom. But despite offering a thinner tip, somewhat functioning palm rejection, and pressure sensitivity in some apps, it is still flawed in a number of ways and has been plagued with issues resulting in Procreate, a drawing app favourite amongst enthusiasts, dropping support for that particular stylus.

So, who wants a stylus?

Wacom pen tablets have been the go-to products amongst designers, illustrators and other creative people for many years; highly regarded as indispensable digital drawing and sketching tools. At EGGS Design, where I work, we use them for everything ranging from sketching ideas, detailing concepts, 3D modelling, annotating each others work, to live-drawing during video conferences with clients via screen sharing. We also have a couple of Wacom Cintiq pen displays, which are pretty great. In my own experience and according to some of my design colleagues who use the Cintiqs on a daily basis, they are fast, precise and responsive. In addition, sketching directly onto a screen feels great. Enormous screen bezels and somewhat poor resolution aside, the big issue with the Wacom Cintiq pen displays is that they’re really expensive.

Sketching with a stylus.

iPad doodling by Spencer Nugent, founder of idsketching.com and sketch-a-day.com.

This is where the appeal of the iPad Pro and Pencil comes in. I would love to be able to do all these things on a larger, but still portable iPad, which just happens to double as a killer drawing tablet with the addition of the Pencil. Like any other Apple product, they’re definitely not cheap. Taking into account that the iPad is a fully functioning and portable device, as opposed to the single-purpose Cintiqs, which are heavy and bulky, require a separate computer (preferably a powerful one for optimal performance) and retail at a hefty price tag (even for the cheapest model), the price of Apple’s new offering doesn’t seem too bad after all. Even the similarly sized and more comparable Wacom Cintiq Companion and Hybrid, both of which are actual tablets running Windows and Android respectively, in addition to being pen displays, are noticeably more expensive than the iPad Pro and Pencil combo.

Big promise, big questions

In terms of mass appeal, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Apple’s offering will gain more traction amongst hobbyists and enthusiasts as well. Apple’s rise to the top has been driven by disruptive innovation, and the iPad Pro and Pencil will likely cause a stir in the niche market of drawing tablets too. With the wide variety of apps for sketching, drawing, painting, note-taking, and even 3D modelling/sculpting readily available, the iPad Pro seems destined to become a hit amongst creative minds. The advertised “desktop-class performance” should hopefully propel development of even more powerful and compelling design-related applications in the future as well. I would love to see even better solutions for collaborative drawing for instance, something Wacom still hasn’t tackled.

Martin Skogholt sketching on Warcom Cintiq.

Martin Skogholt, Industrial Designer at Eggs Design sketching away on his trusted Wacom Cintiq.

However promising they may seem though, many questions still loom over Apple’s new iPad and Pencil; is the tablet too big and obtrusive for impromptu use and note taking? How responsive and accurate is the pencil in real world use? Is perceivable lag an issue when drawing quick strokes? How well does palm rejection work? Will I need a third party tilt-stand to work comfortably? How close will the experience resemble drawing on pro-grade drawing tablets? Then there is the question of workflow. Will it fit seamlessly into a designer’s professional workflow alongside desktop design tools? And why is there no storage solution for the Pencil?

I intend to provide an answer to these questions as soon as I get my hands on an iPad Pro and Pencil, so stay tuned for an actual hands-on review in the coming months! I will try to gather insights from fellow designers too, particularly those who swear by the Wacom Cintiqs. In the meantime I would love hear other designer’s perspectives and thoughts as well. What do you think? Is Jony Ive sitting on his couch sketching ideas for the next iPad with his shiny new Pencil right now?

Thanks to Martin Skogholt and Carl André Nørstebø at EGGS Design and Fredrik Matheson at Bekk for sharing their Wacom tablet experiences.