Drawing tablets and graphics tablets have grown quite popular over the years. They give artists the ability to create incredibly beautiful digital works of art using many of the same skills that they’ve been using on traditional drawing media. They are specialized for the job and they do it well.
However, as technology continues its onward march, the category of drawing tablets is becoming less strict as other more general purpose tablets begin to take on the drawing market. One of these is the iPad. Apple has included an Apple Pencil in its latest generation of iPads and wants to provide the same features in an iPad that users get from a drawing tablet.
The billion dollar question here is whether Apple is up to the task.
In case you’re mulling over the question of whether to buy a dedicated drawing tablet for your journey as a digital artist, or whether to just get an iPad, then this article is for you. We will take a look at the two and go into the details of their pros and cons. Hopefully, at the end, you will be in a much better place to make a decision.
Can an iPad replace a drawing tablet?
Think about how we use drawing pencils and brushes in real life. With such things, you press harder with the tool on the canvas when you want to make a stronger mark. For you to be able to do this on a digital drawing tool, the stylus of the tablet should be able to do the exact same.
Styluses enable this feature by supporting different levels of sensitivity. That is, each stylus has a set range of pressure levels that it can detect, and those are translated to different thickness strokes on the canvas. The greater the range of sensitivity levels supported by the stylus, the greater the degree of control you have over how much pressure you can put into your pen or brush strokes.
To be honest, there isn’t a set of universally accepted standards over how many sensitivity levels a stylus should come with. Even among artists, there isn’t consensus over how much qualifies as good enough. Some artists will do well with 2048 levels of sensitivity. Meanwhile, Wacom’s latest drawing tablet has an incredible 8,192 levels of sensitivity, and there are artists who have grown accustomed to that and will take no less. Even Microsoft, with its Surface Pen, has a still respectable 4,096 levels of sensitivity.
Unfortunately, Apple is a bit of a black sheep in this sector. They haven’t yet revealed how many sensitivity levels are in any of their Apple Pencils. This opaque practice is certainly a disadvantage on their part. Anecdotally, however, my artist friends who use the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil to do their digital art work say it’s as good as other styluses on the market.
Another interesting thing to note is that there isn’t really a big difference in sensitivity levels between the first generation Apple Pencil and the second generation one. At least no difference that I’ve personally noticed. The only difference between the two is the the second generation Apple Pencil only works on the iPad Pro.
If you want to get a feel for the Apple Pencil, the only way how is to visit an Apple Store near you and try it out before making the financial commitment to get one.
Tilt and rotation support
For this one, we’ll again have to start the discussion from traditional media and transfer it to digital media. When you’re painting with a brush, you can tilt and rotate it every which way to get a particular type of stroke. You could tilt and rotate it to get broad or narrow strokes. It’s all at your discretion. The same happens with the canvas itself. You should be able to rotate it in order to do your drawing from different angles.
It would be great if you could emulate these features in digital art, right? These are useful drawing techniques and so it should be possible to employ them on digital media.
As it turns out, the iPad only supports one of these features: tilt. Both of the new Apple Pencils have tilt sensitivity, which allows you to determine the width of your stroke by tilting your pen. When using a pencil tool in a drawing app with the Apple Pencil, you can draw straight up to get a sharp, fine line, or you can do it at an angle to get a wider and softer stroke.
Unfortunately, neither generation of Apple Pencil supports rotation. When you have an angled brush in an app on your iPad, you’ll only be able to make it flow in a single direction, unless, of course, you rotate the tablet itself. You don’t experience this limitation with specialized drawing tablets. Wacom and other leading manufacturers build their drawing tablets with rotation sensitivity.
Now, admittedly, it is easier to rotate an iPad than it is to rotate a graphics tablet that’s connected to a computer. However, the drawing tablet already has rotation sensitivity, which makes that unnecessary, and the rotation sensitivity limit is quite annoying in the iPad.
Tips and Erasers
Again we’ll start with something from traditional drawing and carry it over to digital artwork. When you’re drawing with traditional media, the tip of the pen, pencil, or brush has a profound impact on how it feels for you while drawing. Drawing as an activity is multi-dimensional in terms of the senses it engages. You use your eyes, your hands, and even your ears (Remember those Bob Ross art videos and the awesome ASMR they give you?). We don’t know about you, but there’s a feeling you get in your hands as you draw, and it feels more natural depending on which pen, pencil or brush you’re using.
The same is true for digital art. The tip of the stylus is crucial to how it feels for you when you’re drawing on a digital medium. The tips, commonly known as nibs in the industry, are replaceable, and the most professional of styluses have different nibs with different textures that simulate the feeling of different real world tools, such as pens, pencils, markers, and even chisels.
…For artists who appreciate the deeply kinaesthetic aspects of drawing, this feature can be priceless.
Again, this is very common among professional drawing styluses like the ones supplied by Wacom but does not exist for the Apple Pencil. You can, of course, buy replacement tips for your Apple Pencil, as they are guaranteed to eventually wear out, but they all come in the same style. You don’t get alternatives to choose from.
As a result artists that use the Apple Pencils have come up with a variety of clever tricks to emulate different textures. For example, some of them tie the tip with plastic adhesive to make it softer.
Another thing to consider here is the fact that the iPad has a very glossy and smooth surface. After all, it’s a touch screen and you know how smooth and glossy touch screens are. When you pair that surface with an Apple Pencil’s tip it can make drawing on an iPad feel very unnatural compared to the traditional pencil and paper you’re used to.
Now, just to be fair, this isn’t a problem all artists have. It comes down to your preferences. Some artists don’t mind the smooth touch screen surface at all. I, on the other hand, mind it a lot, and I know lots of other artists who do too. If it doesn’t bother you, then the Apple Pencil should be okay for you.
Another issue to consider is the eraser, which you know of from the physical world. An eraser helps you to eliminate mistakes. When you’re drawing with a pencil, you may have one with an eraser on the back. Professional styluses try to emulate the same. Many of them have a touch sensitive tip on the back so you can just flip the stylus over when you’re drawing and use it as an eraser. This maps very well from traditional pencils, and makes the transition to digital art a smooth one, relying on the muscle memory you have already developed to make the drawing feel familiar.
You won’t find this kind of feature on the Apple Pencil. The flip side is that you can just double tap the Apple Pencil to switch to an eraser. It’s convenient, sure, and not everyone minds it, but I find it less satisfying than the eraser on the back of the pencil.
All professional drawing tablets, no matter what the price or size, come along with some buttons on the side that you can program to play different roles. You can program a specific button to undo, or create shortcuts to the brushes you use most frequently, or any other tasks you would like to automate and make simpler.
Again, this isn’t a feature you’ll find in the iPad. Sure, you can double tap on your Apple Pencil to switch between different tools. By default, double tapping switches to the eraser, though you can customize the feature to switch to different tools. That said, your options are limited to whatever is on your screen.
This might be okay if you’re starting out with the iPad or if you don’t mind it at all. However, if you’re used to customizable buttons and like them, you might not appreciate the limitations of the iPad.
This is arguably both the biggest and most important difference between the iPad and the drawing tablet. An iPad gives you access to lots of powerful apps, such as Autodesk Sketchbook, Procreate, Adobe Photoshop Sketch, and loads of others. These allow you to draw, design, paint, and many of other activities.
That said, most of the apps that work with the iPad aren’t really meant for professionals working in production environments.
Your average drawing tablet pairs well with both a Mac and a Windows PC and can work with high end software used in just about everything, ranging from architecture firms, to animation studios, to fashion design studios. Now, you may be able to use an iPad for some parts of professional work, but, for the most part, they’re only good for casual sketching.
Things aren’t entirely bad for the iPad Pro. When it comes to portability, your iPad can work independently of a PC or laptop. With Wacom’s product, for complete portability you would have to get the Wacom MobileStudio Pro, which is much more expensive than an iPad. Additionally, touchscreen laptops can also offer a high level of portability with a lot of extra functionality.
The iPad Pro has the major advantage that it’s not only good for drawing. It’s useful for a whole range of things, including texting, emailing, sharing images, watching movies, surfing the net, and so on. With a drawing tablet, you only get drawing.
Yet another win for the iPad is the price. The iPad Pro costs about $800. While this is pricey, it’s still cheaper than many high end drawing tablets, some of which can cost a few thousand dollars.
Is a drawing tablet better than an iPad?
That depends on what you want to do. A drawing tablet is a specialized tool for serious artists. An iPad is a general purpose tablet that supports drawing via many apps and the Apple Pencil.
If you only have a casual interest in drawing, then an iPad and the versatility it offers with other tasks should be just fine. However, if you’re looking to take drawing seriously, and even pursue it professionally, a drawing tablet is a worthy investment.
Can you use an iPad as a drawing tablet?
Yes you can, for simple drawing tasks. However, for more professional software, and to get access to more functionality that’s helpful for professional art, you would be better off with a drawing tablet.
What is the main difference between an iPad and a drawing tablet?
The main difference is really a matter of specialization. An iPad is a general purpose tablet that you can use to do casual digital artwork if you buy and Apple Pencil and install the right software. A drawing tablet is a special purpose tool that enables professional digital art workflows and avails many professional tools to the artist to make their work easier.
Are iPads good for drawing?
Yes they can be used for casual digital artwork. However, they are not the best for professional work due to their lack of some important functionality and features that are common in drawing tablets.
Can I use an iPad as a drawing tablet for Windows?
Yes, there are apps that enable you to use the iPad Pro as a screen extension of your Mac or Windows PC.
So which one?
As mentioned earlier it depends on what your long term goals are. If you’re looking to do something casual and take your time to learn, all while having a general purpose tablet that you can use for other things, then an iPad is fun.
However, if you’re seriously considering getting into drawing professionally and want the full set of features available to you, you’re better off investing in a drawing tablet.
…And with that we come to the end of this comprehensive review. As you can see, while the iPad is good enough for lots of digital art, it’s not meant for professional digital work. For that you’ll need a drawing tablet. Hopefully, the decision is much clearer now that we’ve covered both tablets. Until next time, happy drawing!