Astropad is a new solution that proposes to turn your iPad into a Wacom style graphics tablet so you can use it as a drawing/painting tool with your Mac. The website and promo video are slick, and my expectations were quite high. Probably the main sales tool that worked on me was the line about “built by former Apple engineers”.
Installing and setting up the apps was smooth – the concept is the iPad app is free, and the Mac app is free to try for 10 days, then $50 to buy. If it worked as well as a graphics tablet definitely this is a more attractive price. An entry level Wacom is £70 and a decent one £299. My stylus, an Adonit Jot Touch, was easily recognised.
I’ve done a lot of drawing and painting on the iPad with pretty much all the available apps, and at least 3 of the leading styluses (styli?), and my main complaint is that the device’s surface area is too small. So the prospect of being able to use the 24” screen plugged into my retina Macbook Pro as a canvas was exciting.
Initially Astropad selects an area the size of your iPad, on your Mac screen. Despite having a retina iPad 5, this worked out to around 1/2 the real estate on my screen. My Mac painting app, Sketchbook Pro, needed to be fit within the bounding box, which was fairly easy to adjust. But then I had 3 issues:
- the brushes and items on the Sketchbook Pro toolbar were too small to select on the iPad, it took around 5-6 taps to get the tool selected
- there is a big circle that Astropad puts permanently on view, it’s a tool to zoom and pan, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it disappear
- there’s a tool panel that’s a vertical, black bar that occupies around 1/6th of the width of the iPad screen. At one point I mysteriously got it to disappear for a minute or so, but given that the iPad screen is already small, this proved really annoying the rest of the time. With a lot of fiddling I managed to fit Sketchbook Pro’s 4 floating toolbars and the main canvas into the Astropad surface area reflected on the iPad, and squeezed them such that the Astropad black toolbar (notably always present in Astropad demo videos) still took up its required screen space. The annoying circle pan controller was moved to a bottom corner out of the way.
The main issue I had is that this product is designed to work Cintiq-style, and when you think about it, it has to be that way. In other words all interactions must take place on the iPad, and your Mac screen is really just a monitor, you can’t use it as part of the feedback loop while drawing. In other words you have to make marks on your iPad (of course) but you also have to look at the results on your iPad, not the computer monitor. When you move your stylus over the drawing canvas before making a mark, you can only see where it will land if you look at the iPad, which gives you the visual feedback. What a proper graphics tablet can do which so far is not possible with any iPad emulators is let you know the cursor position before the stylus comes into contact with the tablet surface and makes a mark.
So this was a no go for me. To Astropad’s defence it has to be said the app, website and videos are all very attractive and well made, and it already has some positive reviews, but this is not a graphics tablet replacement, at least not for me.
UPDATE: I’ve since purchased the Wacom’s Intuos Pro Medium (£299) and am very happy with the results. Ironically, I have Astropad to thank directly for pushing me towards this resolution. I was hesitant to spend the £300 but also annoyed by the idea to have 2 tablet style devices, why couldn’t one suffice? But the power of the Intuos Pro (the Medium is the minimum usable size) makes it clear that any “stylus on iPad solution” is just a gimmicky stand-in, at best something good for a quick sketch, but by no means a replacement for a proper graphics tablet. Selecting the right software to get the tablet working to its full potential was quite a tricky process, perhaps the subject of a future article.