While it can't match the endless features of the desktop experience, Adobe Illustrator for iPad is loaded up with utility. Its Apple Pencil integration is a dream, and until Adobe ports InDesign to iPad, it could be the best tool for granular typography control on the go.
Granular typography control
Excellent Apple Pencil integration
Seamless Creative Cloud syncing
Keyboard shortcuts don’t work
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If you're a Creative Cloud member who hasn't been enjoying Lightroom Mobile, you're missing out on what is arguably the best on-the-go photo editing solution out there. Meanwhile, Photoshop for iPad is a smart, fun, handy way to supplement your full-fat desktop experience. Now, the third installment in Adobe's holy trinity of creative apps has landed: Illustrator for iPad.
Adobe's vector-based illustration software has been a firm favorite with designers creating scalable artwork, icons, logo design, and bold graphics for years. By primarily focusing on vectors instead of pixels, all your strokes, points, shapes, and gradients are a series of calculations, which are much more efficient to work with than Photoshop's memory-heavy pixels.
Since introducing artboards – the ability to work across multiple 'pages', or more appropriately, canvases in a single file – Illustrator has scaled new heights of utility. But Adobe isn’t done. We’ve spent over a week with the Illustrator for iPad Beta to figure out if the company’s masterful multi-purpose toolkit has transitioned to Apple's tablet-line successfully.
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Illustrator for iPad release date and price
The version 1.0 release of Illustrator for iPad became available to download on October 20, 2020. You can download it either as part of an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription or with a standalone app subscription.
An Adobe Creative Cloud subscription including Illustrator costs $19.99 / £19.97 / AU $29.99 per month, with Adobe running students discounts of 65 percent. If you up your access to multiple apps, price-per-app goes way down. The full suite of Creative Cloud apps, including After Effects, Audition, InDesign, Lightroom, Photoshop, and Premiere Pro, Adobe cloud storage, for example, costs just over double the single-app price.
If you only want Illustrator for iPad, though, you can also buy it as a single app for $9.99 / £9.99 per month.
Design and interface
Familiar and pared-back, that's the name of the game as soon as you fire up Illustrator for iPad. You'll see familiar features like the vertical toolbar to the left and panels to the right, but the notable omission is the horizontal 'everything else' bar at the top. Instantly, this should give seasoned Illustrator users a sense of the limitations here.
When you select an element, a new context-sensitive hovering bar expands, giving you quick access to tools like stroke thickness, transparency, text settings, and the option to duplicate or delete the current layer. Many of these can be manipulated by a dragging gesture which is intuitive.
Speaking of layers, Illustrator aficionados will be delighted to know layers are here in full force. Drag layers up and down, sort them into groups, rename, lock and hide them at will.
You can also customize the properties of whatever you’re selecting in the properties tab to the right of the screen. This menu is an extension of that context-sensitive menu mentioned, only with more granular control. If you’re selecting a shape, for example, you can transform it precisely here. Additionally, shape fills, blend modes, opacity, and stroke type can be controlled in this expanded menu.
This properties menu gets even better when manipulating typography. For starters, you have access to all the fonts on your iPad, and thousands more through the Creative Cloud app. Alignment, leading, kerning, and tracking (line, word, and letter spacing) are all easy to manipulate, and it makes illustrator an incredibly powerful type tool for the iPad. You can even convert text to an outline, giving you granular control of letter characteristics – especially handy for logo design.
Additional interface highlights include control over snapping – the software’s helping hand that latches your selection to where it thinks you’re trying to place it. There are options to combine multiple shapes into one, manage the alignment and distribution of multiple objects, create clipping masks, compound paths, and repeat shapes.
The repeat tool is particularly well optimized for iPad, packing all the frivolity of a spirograph with the potential utility and time saving that you really need when you don’t have all the power of desktop software at your fingertips.
Tools: what's here and what's missing?
On the subject of the desktop Illustrator software, while Adobe has crammed a huge amount into its iPad app — the versatility and curated set of features are incredibly impressive, there are some notable omissions.
The first thing we noticed that didn’t work was keyboard shortcuts. Whether increasing text size, trying to select multiple elements, or trying to switch tools, we ended up prodding the screen more than we would have liked to as long-time desktop app users. This also means you have to be more careful with your layering in the iPad app if you want to move multiple elements at the same time, as holding onto command or shift won’t let you select multiple items.
Some system shortcuts do work – command + Z to undo an action, command + A selects everything – but even these are inconsistent, so we’re looking forward to deeper keyboard integration in the future.
Other advanced Illustrator features like Image Trace are missing, and you forgo some of the granular control over all elements, so no distorting images or adding drop shadows. This all highlights that Illustrator for iPad is a supplementary tool, not a replacement for the MacOS and Windows staples.
Once you get comfortable with the notion that you can’t bin your desktop just yet, you really start to enjoy Adobe’s tablet app though. Its selection tool works with a finger or an Apple Pencil, though you can’t beat the precision of a stylus. Illustrator offers up total control over points and handles, and if you aren’t using a graphics tablet with Illustrator already, the Pencil integration will liberate you.
There are three ways to create lines in the app - point by point, using the pencil, or using the brush. It’s very likely you’ll want to handoff between iPad and computer; the brush and Pencil integration on iPad are so good. Add to the mix Adobe’s cloud saves and getting files across devices is simple.
Additionally, there’s an eraser tool, shape creator (complete with options to control rounded edges), an image importer and finally, artboard control, so you can work across multiple artboards in a single file. All work intuitively and manage to cover more than just the basics, rounding off a very capable experience for a tablet.
After a 15-minute learning curve, we were creating icons and setting type on the tablet, then flinging files to our laptop for finishing touches. That’s also incredibly impressive – every Illustrator file we tried to open on the iPad was fully editable; that’s a huge deal given the complexity of the desktop software.
Illustrator for iPad verdict
Given everything that Adobe Illustrator for iPad can do, not to mention its excellent Apple Pencil integration, it’s easy to recommend. As a typography tool, it’s virtually unparalleled and is a great way to get ideas out of your head when a computer isn’t within reach. Additionally, the Apple Pencil integration is stellar, as is Creative Cloud syncing.
What holds the Illustrator for iPad experience back isn’t so much what it can’t do from a features point of view, but more usability limitations and occasional bugs that crept up in the early version we used. Layer management for example is finicky, as is selecting multiple items, and of course, the missing keyboard shortcuts noticeably slowed us down.
Nonetheless, this is an excellent, supplementary app that won’t cost you extra but should still add plenty of value to your workflow.
Basil Kronfli is the Head of content at Make Honey and freelance technology journalist. He is an experienced writer and producer and is skilled in video production, and runs the technology YouTube channel TechEdit.