Review: Astropad

Can an app turn an iPad into a great graphics tablet for your Mac?

Walk into a graphic design or photography studio and you’ll probably see a graphics tablet on the desk. With an app called Astropad you can use an iPad or iPhone as a graphics tablet for a Mac. The version for the iPhone is called Astropad Mini; when I talk about the iPad in this review it also applies to using an iPhone with Astropad Mini.

Before we look at Astropad it’s important to distinguish the two general types of Wacom tablets. With the more common type, you use the tablet on your desk while watching the computer screen. The other type of Wacom tablet, the Cintiq, has a display built into the tablet. Astropad works more like a Cintiq; it mirrors your Mac display to your iPad or iPhone display so you can draw directly on the image you’re looking at.

Setting up Astropad

To set up Astropad you install the iOS app on your iPhone or iPad, and you also install a free Astropad application on your Mac. The two Astropad apps can talk to each over wifi, or through a standard Lightning-to-USB cable connecting your iOS device to your Mac. To minimize the lag between drawing a stroke and seeing it appear on the screen, connect using the cable option.

Astropad has two modes: Finger and Stylus. In Finger mode Bluetooth isn’t used, Astropad only gets input from the touchscreen of the iPad or iPhone so you can draw using your finger or a simple compatible stylus. But there’s no pressure sensitivity in Finger mode. In Stylus mode Astropad expects you to connect a Bluetooth stylus, and if the stylus is capable of pressure sensitivity that Astropad recognizes, you’ll be able to take advantage of it in Mac programs where pressure sensitivity is enabled for the selected tool, such as a brush in Adobe Photoshop.

Finger and Stylus mode buttons in Astropad for iPad

You can switch between Finger and Stylus modes using the Astropad sidebar on the iPad. The status line at the top left corner tells you that Astropad is using a cable to connect the iPad and Mac. (On the iPhone, Astropad Mini uses a compact version of the sidebar.)

Using Astropad

Drawing and painting with Astropad is definitely more natural, fluid, and fun than with a mouse or trackpad. The Astropad team has done a lot of work to minimize lag, so Astropad is surprisingly responsive, especially when connected by a cable.

You can easily adjust Astropad to control the entire screen or a rectangular area of the screen. I have an iPad mini 2 with a screen size much smaller than the displays on my Mac laptop and desktop. If I set Astropad to control the entire Mac screen, the shrunken Mac user interface is hard to see and control on the iPad mini display.

Fitting a maximized Mac workspace to an iPad mini screen

Here I’m using Astropad to paint in a layer mask in Photoshop. If I fit a maximized Mac workspace (left) to my iPad mini 2 screen (right), the Mac UI becomes smaller, and harder to read and manipulate.

An alternative that Astropad suggests is to set up a workspace that arranges the document window and panels within the screen size of your iPad or iPhone and zoom Astropad to that size. Custom workspaces are easy to create in many Adobe applications.

Custom Photoshop workspace sized for Astropad

I can create a small Photoshop workspace (left) sized for my iPad screen, and zoom Astropad to display that area on my iPad at a more stylus-friendly magnification (right).

If you leave the Mac workspace maximized but zoom Astropad to show just the part of the Mac screen where you want to draw or paint, menus and panels may end up beyond the edge of the iPad screen. Having to choose among these compromises isn’t Astropad’s fault: they’re a natural consequence of trying to handle a large screen image on a much smaller display. It’s less of a problem with a larger iPad that’s closer to the size of the Mac screen, so the bigger display of the upcoming iPad Pro should benefit Astropad.

I like to use Astropad with my usual full-sized Mac workspaces, with Astropad zoomed into the area where I want to draw or paint. To get at the areas of the Mac user interface that are outside the area shown on the iPad, I keep my other hand over my Mac laptop’s trackpad and keyboard so I can use them when needed. It helps that the Astropad sidebar on the iPad provides a few buttons that you can map to Mac shortcut keys.

Astropad with controls displayed and hidden, and Photoshop with panels hidden

On my Mac I’ve hidden Photoshop panels with the Tab key to maximize the visible painting area, seen here in Astropad on my iPad mini 2. The image on the left shows the Astropad sidebar, which is hidden in the image on the right. The white ring is for zooming and panning the Astropad view, and for displaying its sidebar.

You might assume you can precisely position the pointer by watching the Mac screen as you move the stylus across the iPad, as you would with a mouse or Wacom tablet. But that doesn’t work with Astropad; I think it’s because iOS doesn’t provide a way to “hover” the pointer over screen objects. Any time you touch down on the iPad screen you’re going to tap it, which creates a click on the Mac screen. To position the Mac pointer with Astropad before clicking or dragging, you have to watch the stylus tip’s position over the iPad screen before touching down. If you want precise control over the entire area of a large desktop monitor, using a mouse or a conventional graphics tablet will work better than using only Astropad.

Choose your stylus carefully

The stylus you use has a major impact on how much you enjoy Astropad. Cheap styluses aren’t pressure-sensitive. If a stylus is designed for painting it may have a fat marker-like tip, but that can block your view of details on the screen that you’re trying to aim for, such as handles on vector objects or minuscule panel icons which were designed for the tiny tip of a mouse pointer. To get a Wacom-like combination of fine-tipped precision, responsiveness, and pressure sensitivity you may have to spend around $100 on a stylus such as the Adonit Jot Touch. Astropad has a list of recommended styluses on their web site.

Trying to drag or click handles and icons with a fat tip stylus

An iPad stylus with a fat tip (like this 53 Pencil) is great for freehand drawings and paintings, but can make it hard to target the exact handle or icon you want to click or drag in Astropad.

So…can Astropad replace a professional Wacom tablet?

For pure drawing and painting Astropad is a viable alternative to a Wacom tablet. If most of your work involves precise object manipulation or page layout, you might still prefer a Wacom. Professional Wacom tablets can also sense tilt angle and barrel rotation, which are useful for some types of artwork such as pencil shading or calligraphy, but Astropad currently doesn’t support those features even if you have a stylus that supports tilt and rotation in iOS. Also, while you can rotate a Wacom tablet for vertically oriented drawing or painting, Astropad currently supports horizontal orientation only.

For many creatives, what Astropad does well far outweighs its limitations. Astropad lets you have a highly responsive Mac-compatible graphics tablet any time you’ve got your iPhone or iPad, making it an especially good value if you frequently work out of a laptop bag. With Astropad Mini you can sketch on a Mac with just an iPhone and your finger, but Astropad really shines with a high-quality stylus and a large iPad. If Astropad fits your creative workflow, it can add much of the capability of a Wacom Cintiq tablet at relatively little cost.

Rating: 8/10.

Cost: $29.99 for Astropad (for iPad), $9.99 for Astropad Mini (for iPhone).

System requirements: Astropad requires an iPad running iOS 8 or later; Astropad Mini requires an iPhone running iOS 8.2 or later. Both also require a Mac running OS X 10.9 or later.

Astropad was created by two ex-Apple engineers, and the way the company describes the software it appears to be written pretty tightly for iOS and OS X. It’s not clear when or even if Astropad might become available for other mobile and desktop operating systems.

[Note: Shortly after this article was published, two changes to Astropad Mini were announced. Astropad Mini is now free, and supports pressure sensitivity on iPhone 6 and 6 Plus without a stylus by using 3D Touch. And in December 2015, Astropad added support for the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, and can sense Apple Pencil tilt angle. As Astropad continues to develop you can learn about its current capabilities at astropad.com.)

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Posted on: October 26, 2015

Conrad Chavez

Conrad Chavez writes books, articles, and training materials with a focus on digital imaging using Adobe Creative Cloud tools. He is the author of books such as Real World Adobe Photoshop CS5 for Photographers, and is a photographer. You can find out more about Conrad at his website, conradchavez.com.

2 Comments on Review: Astropad

  1. Astropad keeps going dark on my iPad pro. it won’t show what I’m doing on my computer. All updates are up to date.

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