iPad Pro 12.9-inch review: Apple's first iPad that's amazing for artists (and some designers)

After six months of use, we've discovered that the iPad Pro is the best drawing and painting tool we've ever seen - but it's not for every type of creative.

While even the iPad Air and iPad Mini can be good enough for sketching, ideation and very rough cuts, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is great for these. And more importantly, this iPad Pro will get you nearer to a completed project than its smaller cousins – and some artists will even be able to produce completed works without needing to pass it on to their computer for final touches.

Apple's smaller iPads are perhaps the wrong comparison. In what you'd use it for, the iPad Pro is nearer to Microsoft's Surface Pro or Wacom's Cintiq Companion. Both of these pair a tablet with a stylus, and the iPad Pro has this in the form of the Pencil. Apple sells the Pencil separately, as it's not essential for a home user looking for a larger surface to play Scrabble on – but for Digital Arts readers, it's essential. It's the best stylus on the market, more natural-feeling that Wacom's or Microsoft's.

One key difference between the iPad Pro and the Cintiq Companion and Surface Pro is that Apple's device runs a tablet OS, while Microsoft's and Wacom's run the full version of Windows. As we discovered, there are pros and cons to both.

I've been using both the 12.9- and 9.7-inch iPad Pros since their respective launches – using them as a creative director and UX designer, as well as an editor and journalist. I've also loaned the devices to artists and designers to gain their feedback.

First off we gave the device to artist and illustrator Pete Fowler, in whose studio the photos in this review were shot – and who we've interviewed in the video above.

Pete's work spans the vector worlds of Monsterism to craft work with everything from a paintbrush to woodcutting knives - and he's even spent time digitally painting with his iPad with a variety of stylii. He primarily works with the Procreate digital drawing and painting app, which has just been updated to better support the iPad Pro.

Pete was extremely impressed with the iPad Pro itself, saying that it's 2,732 x 2,048-pixel, 13-inch screen (ok, 12.9-inch, decimal-place nerds) is "phenomenal".

"When I was painting using Procreate, the richness of the colour and the texture of some of the brushes really comes through."

What Pete's most enthusiastic about with during his time with the iPad Pro are the Pencil – and how it works with Procreate.

"The feel of the Pencil is great," says Pete. "In your hand, it just feels fantastic. There's a really nice weight to it"

Pete also likes the length and balance - and the pressure sensitivity means that strokes both light and hard are rendered properly on the screen. If he has one reservation - and this applies to all digital drawing systems - it's that drawing on the iPad Pro with the Pencil is too smooth compared to paper. Though maybe someone will develop a rough stick-on 'screen protector' to replicate the resistive texture of real sheets of paper.

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One of Pete's favourite features he discovered by accident, when trying to swipe down on setting for Procreate's 6b pencil, he brushed the screen with the side of the nib and discovered you could do side-shading as with a real pencil.

"That was amazing," he says, clearly delighted by something he's not found possible with other drawing tools. "It's like having a real pencil. With the side-shading there's quite a lot of subtlety in what you can achieve - and that's not something I've encountered with drawing on a tablet before."

The Pencil is a triumph of simple design. It feels like something a craftsman or draftsman would use – and after holding it the Surface Pen from the Surface Pro 3 feels like a cheap biro. (We'll update this once we've tried the Surface Pro 4's Pen, which Microsoft is intriguingly offering interachangeable nibs for).

It's difficult to compare the Pencil to the chunkier Wacom pen, as years of use mean than many creatives have muscle memory of how to get the most from it. However, while the Pencil may feel a bit weird to begin with, I'm assuming you use a range of real-world pens from Rotring to Posca it's just like picking a new one of those. You give it a bit of time and you learn and you might even find that it's better.

One of the Pencil's features – or lack of – that will divide users is that there are no buttons on it. Both the Surface Pen and Wacom pen have two buttons and, with the latter and the new Surface Pen, an eraser on the end.

Image: a real pencil, the Apple Pencil and the Surface Pro 3's Pen.

Pete prefers the simplicity of the Pencil, as he found the way you have to curl your forefinger to use them caused him pain after long-term use. But at least with the Wacom and Microsoft pens you have the option to use them or not – with Apple, there's no choice.

The bluetooth-connected Pencil is battery powered. Pop off the back end and there's a Lightning connector. You can charge it by popping it in the slot at the bottom of the iPad Pro – though that gave me anxiety about snapping it off by accident – or by connecting it to a Lightning-to-USB connector using the included female-to-female connector. (There's also a spare nib in the box in case you wear the first one out.)

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We also tried sketching wireframes in Apple's own Notes and in Evernote, which has just been updated to support the iPad Pro and the Pencil.

Again the Pencil is a deft drawing tool. Notes has what should be a nifty feature where you put two fingers on the screen to create a ruler to draw along. However, you need to keep the Pen very close to drawing an actual straight line, rather than just roughly sweeping along the page to create one along the edge of the ruler – which I'd prefer to speed up drawing straight lines.

One of iOS 9's new features that the iPad Pro really brings into its own is Split Screen. By swiping from the right, you can split the screen in two and see another app. This is great for working for a reference image - and you can keep the right-hand column thin or split it half-and-half.

However, not all apps support it. Some are happy to live in the main space, some aren't (eg Skype). Fewer will work in the right-hand column.

The only really annoying feature here is that you can't have different documents from the same app open in split panes, so if you wanted to use another Procreate drawing as reference for example, you'd need to save it to your Photos first.

The iPad Pro's large, high-resolution screen is also great for more than just drawing. Watching films and TV shows is wonderful – you really appreciate the art direction of shows from The Returned to Hannibal. However, such quality shows any flaws in what you're watching. You'll notice the 'burbling' of compression artefacts on Netflix in a way you won't on your TV or lower-res screen. Shows downloaded from BBC iPlayer or Apple itself look stunning.

For creative use, the screen also means finger-driven apps are easier to use with higher precision. For example, in Adobe Photoshop Fix or Lightroom Mobile you can retouch photos much more effectively using the touch-based tools - just by having a larger screen.

However, these tools on the iPad are still much more limited than Photoshop or Lightroom  on a Surface – where you've got many more tools.

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With that, we come to the ultimate question when deciding whether the iPad Pro is for you or not – the thing that will make it essential or irrelevant to your creative process.

How tied are you to your desktop applications?

It's not a question you have to ask yourself with the Surface Pro or Cintiq Companion. You just run Photoshop or Painter or Premiere or Sketch or Lightroom just the same. But being originally designed for super-powerful desktops and laptops, they don't always run perfectly on tablets with different screen sizes and resolutions and pen technologies.

The iPad Pro often means exploring other tools. There are few apps that exist on iOS, Mac OS X and Windows – well, few apps for creative pros anyway. If all you want is Monkey Island and Word, you're fine (though some apps need to be updated to work with the iPad Pro's bigger screen – Spotify crashes when you open it, for example).

Image: An iPad Pro next to a Surface Pro 3

So can you create what you want to create on iOS? At one extreme you have Procreate, which is arguably as good – if not better – than even Corel Painter (unless you want physically accurate gouache and will spot if it's not).

Apps like Procreate are focussed on delivering great creative experiences on the iPad Pro with the Pencil – and arguably these will be better than tools that have to work on laptops, desktops and tablets. However, these are fewer in number and newer with less features than the big boys.

At the other end of the scale from Procreate, you have Sketch – for which there's no real iOS equivalent. It would be great if Bohemian Coding could produce an iOS version of Sketch, as it's doesn't require a beefy desktop processor to run – but logistically it might be beyond that small company's development capacity. So digital and UX designers will have to hope that Adobe might finally create an iOS version of Adobe XD – though as it could be up to six months before the company launches the Windows version, don't hold your breath.

In between, you have Adobe's tools: Lightroom Mobile for photography, Comp for print layouts, a bunch of Photoshop and Illustrator offshoots that don't hang together cohesively. They're an iOS toolset in their infancy. How quickly and well Adobe develop them will be key to whether the iPad Pro is suitable for creatives who don't (exclusively) paint or draw.

If there's place in your life for a highly portable device that can get you only so far towards a finished project, and you'll have to go back to your desktop to finish it off. This isn't just an issue for the iPad Pro – the same can be true for the Surface Pro and Cintiq Companion (and any other tablet PC) due to the constraints of screen size and performance.

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If you've not seen one, the size and weight of an iPad Pro is easy to imagine. It's exactly what you'd expect if you took an iPad Air and made it bigger. It's thinner and lighter than the Surface Pro, though slightly larger due to a bigger screen. However, in practical terms there's little between them. The real difference is with the Wacom Cintiq Companion, which feels much bulkier – but does have physical buttons and a control ring that some users find very useful.

The iPad Pro's battery life is higher than the Surface Pro 3 (review units of the Pro 4 are due soon) is or Cintiq Companion 2. I'll leave the formal battery testing to our techie sister sites Macworld and TechAdvisor – but in my informal tests I got up to 12 hours of battery when using the iPad Pro, to the Surface Pro 3's eight and the Cintiq Companion's four.

If you do more than a bare minimum of typing, you'll want to pair the iPad Pro with a keyboard. As with the Surface Pro, the iPad Pro has a special connector along one of its longer sides that keyboards can magnetically snap too (and communicate through). It's not just for keyboards for typing – it's for anything you might want to connect to the iPad Pro in landscape mode from musical keyboards to scientific equipment (so expect to see the iPad Pro on the next season of CSI:Cyber).

Apple sells it's own keyboard/cover for the iPad Pro. For typing, it's almost on a par with the Surface Pro's. There's the same limited travel to the keys – so it's fine for writing emails or short briefs/pitches but something the length of this review would be a little arduous. The kickstand built into the Surface Pro also makes typing more stable than Apple's foldaround keyboard.

However, the main flaw with Apple's keyboard for the iPad Pro is that it's currently only available with a US layout. So no easily accessible £ or €. I do too much writing for this keyboard, but you could find this rather annoying.

Both the Surface and Apple encapsulating keyboards are better than the Cintiq Companion's external bluetooth keyboard – which is almost impossible to use on your lap.

The review unit we've been using was loaned to us with a Logitech Create keyboard for the iPad Pro. This is a much better typing experience – much nearer to a laptop with a lot of travel to the widely-spaced, backlit keys. And a UK layout with a full set of function keys. The iPad sits at a comfortable, tilted position – though you can't adjust this as you can with the Surface Pro's keyboard.

Its only flaw is its design. It's like someone's stuck a cheap Acer laptop base to the bottom of your iPad. If you want the admiring glances that come from being one of the first people travelling around with a new type of Apple device, don't stick it in this keyboard case.

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The iPad Pro is an incredible creative tool, with a stylus that really shows up how bad previous attempts at pens and pencils have been. 

It's real potential is heightened or hamstrung by its software. For illustrators who paint and draw, it's the best way to create digital artworks around (unless you work with vectors). You'll want to go buy one now. For digital designers, it's a pricy sketchbook – and perhaps you'd be better off with the 9.7-inch model, as it's easier to carry around and so you'll take it to more places where you'll want to sketch. For everyone else, it's for roughing in ways and places you couldn't do before – and as apps develop we'll hopefully see it blossom for you as much as it has for artists.

Over the next few pages you can see artworks, roughs and sketches created by Pete in Procreate.

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