Woman creating graphic art on an iPad with an Apple Pencil
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The iPad is great for drawing when paired with a stylus like the Apple Pencil, but the best software for artists is usually found on the desktop. That’s where the iPad’s abilities as a graphics tablet come in, allowing you to use your tablet to draw with your favorite apps on macOS or Windows.

There are a few different options for achieving this, so we’ll weigh up the pros and cons of each approach.

Try Before You Buy

With the exception of Sidecar (Apple’s own free solution), all of the products listed below have some sort of free trial. Before you sign up for a subscription or pay a one-off fee, make sure you thoroughly test the full set of features. Confirm that your solution works with your preferred creative apps, whether that’s free tools like Inkscape and GIMP or professional apps from Adobe or Affinity.

Make sure you fully test wireless performance if you intend to rely on it. Things like nearby wireless interference or lots of network activity can slow wireless performance down so a stress test may be in order.

Lastly, all of these apps were designed to work with the Mac first and foremost, which means Windows support isn’t as mature. Certain apps may work better than others with your particular hardware or preferred creative apps, so testing is essential here to avoid disappointment.

Apple Sidecar (Free)

Apple

Perfect for: Mac users with a recent model iPad and Apple Pencil.

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Sidecar is Apple’s attempt at turning the iPad into a second display for use with compatible Macs. It works with the iPad Pro, third-gen iPad Air, fifth-gen iPad mini, or sixth-gen iPad or newer. You can find out which iPad you have under Settings > General > About.

Since Sidecar is a first-party solution, it generally works very well (especially compared to some third-party alternatives). You can use it wirelessly or plug it directly into your Mac using the USB cable that came with it, which means you can power your tablet while you work on it.

Speaking of the Mac, you’ll need a fairly recent model that’s running macOS Catalina or later. Sidecar with the 2016 MacBook Pro, 2016 MacBook, 2018 MacBook Air, 2017 iMac or 2015 Retina iMac, the iMac Pro, 2018 Mac mini, and 2019 Mac Pro or later. You’ll also need to be using the same Apple ID on both devices, and be within 30 ft (10 meters) of your Mac for wireless to work.

One of the best things about Sidecar is that you can use it as a proper second display, rather than just mirroring what’s on-screen. Drawing is possible using the Apple Pencil in Mac apps that already support stylus input, including Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Sidecar is well-optimized, reliable, and compatible with supported Macs at a system level. There are shortcuts around the outside of the screen that allow you to quickly undo, use modifier keys like Command and Option, and access app-specific shortcuts. A lack of customization could be frustrating to some users who would prefer more control over the UI or pen pressure settings.

Apple Sidecar Setup in Big Sur

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If you have a compatible iPad and Mac, you can set Sidecar up right now under System Preferences > Sidecar.

Astropad Standard / Studio ($30 or $12 per month)

Astropad

Perfect for: Mac users who don’t meet the requirements for Sidecar, and Windows users.

Astropad is the original iPad drawing tablet app. It first appeared in 2015, long before Sidecar existed, bringing graphics tablet-like functionality to anyone with a compatible Mac and an iPad. Astropad now has two tiers: a one-off $30 purchase that includes core functionality, and a $12/month (or $80/year) subscription plan that includes many more features.

Unlike Sidecar, Astropad has much broader support in terms of hardware. You only need a 2013 Mac model running OS X El Capitan (10.11) or newer, with support for iPads running iOS 9.1 or later. That includes the second-gen iPad mini, original iPad Air, fifth-gen iPad, and any model of iPad Pro.

You can use the Apple Pencil or simply draw with your finger or a cheap capacitive stylus (but not a smart third-party stylus). Astropad has been optimized for use with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and this is the best way to use the app. Astropad relies on a companion app running on your Mac and can connect via USB or wirelessly.

Wireless performance can be a bit hit and miss, so wired is recommended for serious work or especially busy networks. One major drawback to Astropad is that it relies purely on display mirroring. Unlike Sidecar, Astropad doesn’t “add” an external display, it simply allows you to interact with whatever is on your primary display while in use. For drawing this fortunately doesn’t matter too much.

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Astropad Studio provides access to some really useful features like an on-screen keyboard, external keyboard support, and Magic Gestures. These allow you to create your own set of gestures for oft-used functions like undo or paste, which can speed up your workflow immeasurably. If you want to customize pressure input, you’ll need to pay for the subscription.

While Sidecar is Mac-only, Astropad has a Windows version in development called Project Blue. There are some minimum system requirements you’ll need to meet, plus you’ll need to sign up for the public beta. Keep in mind that, as of this writing in August 2021, many features have yet to make it into Project Blue and that performance may be unstable during pre-release testing.

Duet Pro ($30/year)

Person using Duet Pro for iPad
Duet Display

Perfect for: Windows users who don’t fancy beta testing Astropad.

Duet Pro is part of the Duet line-up of apps for Mac and Windows that turn your iPad into a second display. Duet Pro is the only tier that includes support for stylus input, with full support for customizing things like pressure and tilt. You can use multi-touch gestures to pan, zoom, and hover, but you’ll need an Apple Pencil for stylus input.

The app is compatible with any Mac running OS X Mavericks (10.9) and any iPad running iOS 10. You can connect your iPad using a USB cable or wireless connection, but expect some stutters and performance issues if you cut the cord.

One feature that Duet Pro has over Astropad is that it doesn’t rely on mirroring. Instead, Duet Pro adds a secondary display (your iPad) which you can use for drawing while displaying something else on your Mac display. You don’t need additional hardware or dongles to enable this, and it works this way on both Windows and Mac.

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Duet Pro is also the most Windows-friendly solution, at least while Astropad’s ProjectBlue is in beta. The Windows version of Duet Pro has been available for years, and so is likely more stable than rival solutions.

Also Consider: Luna Display ($130)

Promotional art for Luna Display for Mac and iPad
Astropad

Perfect for: Cashed-up Astropad users who want a wireless, second display.

One of the biggest drawbacks to Astropad is the way that it relies on mirroring, rather than adding a separate display. This means you can’t do things like leave a reference image, chat window, or video playing on your display while drawing on your tablet. Luna Display changes that.

From the same developers as Astropad, Luna Display is a wireless USB-C or DisplayPort adapter that sends a video signal from your Mac to an iPad (or another Mac, if you want). This provides you with a truly wireless second display that pairs perfectly with AstroPad.

You’ll still need to buy Astropad for Apple Pencil input, and you’ll still need to cough up the monthly fee if you want professional features like customizable pressure settings or Magic Gestures (on top of the $130 dongle). This is an expensive endeavor, but it could be worth the investment if you have other uses for the dongle.

For example, you can use the Luna Display to output one Mac’s display on another. This could be a great use for an old iMac on your desk that has a perfectly good display but outdated internals. Be sure to read through the compatibility section on Astropad’s Luna Display support site before you buy to ensure you can make full use of it before you buy.

You Can Always Draw on Your iPad

Tablets are a lot more powerful than they once were, with the iPad Pro now sharing processor architecture with some Mac models. While desktops have always been the first choice in terms of raw power and software availability, things are changing. Adobe has finally brought full-fat versions of Photoshop and Illustrator to the iPad.

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This means that you might be able to get your drawing done right there on the tablet, with no Sidecar or third-party software requirements. Apps like Procreate, AutoDesk Sketchbook, and Affinity Designer let you use your tablet to draw natively, no desktop required.

Considering an iPad for work or play? Check out the best iPads for drawing, travel, and more.

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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