I want a $1000+ interactive pen display! So do you, so does everyone else. But chances are slim for that to happen for most of us, so what are our affordable options?
If you already have an iPad (or even iPhone), the very clever and inexpensive Astropad app allows you to mirror your desktop computer screen to your mobile device and interact with your favorite drawing or painting app right on its screen!
Seems too good to be true, but it is true! Of course for $30 the experience is not 100% the same as using a high-end dedicated pen display, but it’s not far off either.
The screenshot at top shows Astropad up and running on an iPad Air 2 connected to an iMac via USB cable, with an actual new piece of digital art being created with this setup in Photoshop. Before you get to this point, there is a bit of setting up to do:
First, you need to load the free version of Astropad onto your desktop Mac (requires OS X 10.9 or higher) from www.astropad.com. From your mobile device you will get Astropad from the Apple App Store (requires iOS 8 or newer). If you do this on your iPhone, there is no further expense, the app is free. For the iPad, the app costs $30 and is also accessed through the App Store.
Next you need to decide if you’re going to use a wireless connection to communicate between your devices, or a USB cable. In my experience wireless may work and then not work (iPad) but always worked with iPhone. Of course the cable will give you a more stable connection.
Launch Astropad on your Mac and your mobile device (the red screenshot above shows that the first one launched will wait for the other to join in). When ready, you will see the following Astropad interface on your Mac (below). Adjust the selection area to include what section of the Mac’s screen you want to view on your mobile device. Here is Photoshop’s interface selected, with everything else excluded:
Below is the same process as is appears on the iPhone:
Here’s the view of the Mac screen as viewed in Astropad on the iPhone:
Once you’ve got the screens coordinated, it’s time to get drawing! The folks at Astro HQ have tested every stylus on the market and offer their recommendations for best performance, as listed below. But you can even use your finger if you want to…
From the interface screenshots you’ll notice Astropad offers commands for many of the interactions you would need when working in a desktop app. These are accessed by pressing the white ring (as seen in top screenshot). The default commands are intended for use with Photoshop, but you can customize them for other apps. You can also customize where these tools appear on your mobile device (left or right of screen, etc.) and get under the hood for even more tweaking of the experience:
As I mentioned above, a $30 experience is not quite the same as a several hundred or over-a-thousand-dollar experience. But it’s also not as “bad” as you might expect!
This setup does work, and you can do your art as described. Of course there are going to be minor irritations as with any technology that pushes the boundaries, but these too might be overcome by better artists with iPad Pro’s using better styluses than the low-end one used here.
The more difficult things to deal with were loss of wireless connectivity after originally having it working (the option to use a cable fixed that problem for the sake of the review). There is a slight bit of lag on the iPad 2 (but oddly not on the iPhone), which makes drawing a little odd (a magenta line preview can be activated which shows the placement of your stylus tip in real time while the actual drawing catches up). Some artists may find this delay hard to work with, as would a guitarist dealing with slight latency in a computer-based digital amp.
You might also experience some lagging and pixelation when zooming, and color matching between Mac and iPad was close but not quite, even after experimenting with color profiles in System Preferences.
I would recommend starting out with the free iPhone version and seeing if you like the concept, then upgrading to the iPad version if you find Astropad a suitable substitute for the more expensive options.