5 Best iPad Apps for Technical Drawing
Looking for the best iPad apps for Technical Drawings?
We reveal the top five picks on the app store.
Remember, back in the day when you tried to make a drawing on your PC, what a pain that was trying to get something done using your mouse? Sure, you could buy a WACOM pad or similar so you can use a pen and hook that up to your PC.
I did buy one of those some years back, but boy that opens up a whole new can of worms! Not just hooking it up and getting it to work with a graphics program, but the disconnect between the WACOM pad on your desk and the action happening on the screen just makes it difficult.
It’s just not ergonomic.
I think that’s the real USP of iPads these days.
Apple started a whole new device category (tablets) when they launched the iPad in 2010, but the iPad Pro with its Apple Pencil is a full new ball game when it comes to drawing: now, finally, we have something close to a real replacement of pen and paper.
We can now draw directly on the surface, with no disconnect between the hand and the screen.
And thanks to the sheer power of the iPad Pro, there is almost no lag when drawing.
It feels almost as if you are drawing directly on the screen, but with the added advantage of being able to edit, copy, move things around, and of course, directly send the result (try doing that with pen and paper).
Now recently, the standard iPad (not the very expensive Pro) also works with the Apple Pencil, opening pen-based iPads up to a much broader audience.
Now, there are many different use cases of drawing. Without going too much on a tangent, the uses range basically from simple doodling to very precise, technical drawings:
- Simple doodling and sketching
- More advanced drawing with coloring and using textures, simulating different canvases and brushes
- Illustration work using more advanced tools to bring shapes together, blend them, draw lines in predictable ways (e.g., with Bezier curves), filling, recoloring, and exporting the result (vector graphics, PostScript, …)
- Conceptual, technical drawings in which shapes drawn need to be fairly precise, but do not necessarily feature exact measurements and might only show the object from one view, but the result may be a good starting point for more precise engineering work (and hence an export feature to an appropriate format, e.g., CAD, may be useful)
- Technical drawings whose main purpose is the realization of the object (e.g., a workshop uses the technical drawing to build the component, or a team of builders uses the drawing to build a house): all measurements need to be highly precise, and all shapes and features need to be visible from at least two dimensions.
Most of the apps available for iPad fall into the first three categories and are, therefore, often not useful for technical drawings.
I suggest that at the very least, apps for technical drawings should feature the following:
- Capability to draw free-handedly
- straight lines
- right angles (90°)
- squares and rectangles
- circles and ellipses
- Order and arrange these shapes
- Add labels to the shapes for identification
- Add measurements
Many apps on PC make it surprisingly difficult to do this kind of work, Adobe Illustrator, for example: while it is possible to do so, the learning curve is very steep.
Let’s have a look at some iPad apps and see if the better, in theory, more ergonomic device, also leads to more ergonomic apps.
So with our requirements defined, let’s have a look at some of the apps available on the market today. I will focus primarily on apps that allow the use of an Apple Pencil since it is to be expected that anybody looking to do technical drawings will not lose time trying to do so with their fingers anyway.
Since all recent iPads, not just the iPad Pro but also the entry-level standard iPads, now have Apple Pencil support, this seems like a reasonable assumption.
Hey, we’re in 2020, so if anybody wants to do this with an outdated iPad and their fingers, I’m sure there is other information out there …
There are a few really good apps that came out with the iPad Pro that have changed the tooling of people doing illustration and drawing work.
One really good one is certainly ProCreate, which arguably replaces behemoths of graphic design such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, all in one single app, and with a better interface and much simpler ergonomics. But there are also few others like that out there.
I will review first some apps which seem to be more specific to technical drawings, then come back to the more universal ones such as ProCreate to see how well they do in comparison for the use case of technical drawing.
Technical Drawing Apps
OmniGraffle 3 comes in two versions for iOS: Standard ($59,99) and Pro ($119,99).
The standard version already has most of the functionality that we considered important for technical drawings: the app supports drawing lines and shapes easily, but precisely.
These can be arranged and deformed in a proper way (Bézier lines).
To further help along with quick designing, smart guides are available that help shapes snap to the right place. And yes, you can add measurements to your drawing to make things clear. When your drawing is the way you want it, you can export it to PNG or PDF.
Even the standard version goes beyond what is strictly needed, but when you are working with technical drawings, being able to build layers so that parts of a drawing can be hidden and displayed with a single tap is certainly most welcome.
In the Pro version, these layers can be shared, and there are many other functions which would certainly be useful in many use cases beyond the scope of this review, for example, the capability to convert lines and texts to shapes, to export to other formats (SVG, Visio), and many other features useful to, well, the pros.
This previously paid app has recently been turned into a free one.
As its name implies, it is built to allow users to sketch out ideas using a pen-based iPad. As Autodesk puts it, “From quick conceptual sketches to fully finished artwork, sketching is at the heart of the creative process.”
What is great is that if the user wants more precision, rulers, guides, and heck, even “assistive wizardry with 16-sector Radial Symmetry and Predictive Stroke” are available to help draw straight lines and to correct shapes.
Its focus does not seem to be on providing features such as measurements that would satisfy the needs of true technical drawings, however.
That said, once the work is done, it can be exported to so many formats, JPG, PNG, BMP, TIFF, and even layered PSD.
However, it should be noted that none of these formats are vector-based, so continuing the workflow towards real technical drawings seems limited.
All in all, Autodesk Sketchbook seems to be a very interesting app for serious sketching and contextual technical designs.
For true technical drawings, other apps exist, including, of course, apps by Autodesk. This is why next up is Autodesk AutoCAD.
Free with In-App Purchases
AutoCAD is, of course, the big daddy in the field of technical drawing.
Being the leader in CAD software for decades, it comes as no surprise that this app allows viewing and even editing for the standard format of CAD: DWG.
The typical workflow here would be that a technical drawing is done on a proper CAD workstation and then accessed on the go via the iPad through cloud storage (OneDrive, Dropbox, etc.).
For example, to measure accurately while on construction sites.
But it is also possible to create new CAD drawings on the fly.
So you can draw and edit shapes with accuracy using object snap, or perform the typical mods such as select, move, rotate, and scale objects.
So if the idea is to start work in the field and then continue at the office, this is certainly a good choice. Of course, this type of tool will never be as easy to use as Autodesk’s Sketchbook (see above), but it is possible to set up very precise drawings quickly.
This paired with the improved hardware tooling that comes with recent iPads and the 2nd generation Apple Pencil makes for an overall good solution for users that either already know AutoCAD or are not afraid to learn how to use it.
Free with In-App Purchases
As the name implies, this is another app for more conceptual work. However, it seems far more evolved in terms of capabilities than Autodesk Sketchbook.
For starters, it has an infinite canvas, and any strokes that are made are vectorial, meaning they can be edited and corrected if need be in an organized way.
So rather than adding and erasing pixels and perhaps scaling them, in this app, what you see on the screen is organized in editable strokes rather than pixels.
Therefore, they are editable, so you can move, organize, edit by the tool, color, size, scale, smoothing, opacity, or transform or nudge lines to shape them.
Concepts for iOS
Peeking at our checklist for technical drawings, this app also features shape guides, scale, and measurement tools that allow you to add, and even calculate real-world dimensions.
When the work is done, it can be exported to vector SVG and PDF. This allows scaled printing and effective exchange with team members or clients.
It’s even possible to export the data to other apps reviewed here, such as Procreate, Sketchbook, AutoCAD, and Adobe.
Universal Drawing Apps
After this view of apps that are specifically targeted to the use case of technical drawings, we will now have a look at how more popular, universal drawing apps such as Procreate or Adobe stack up.
Can these universal do just as good, or perhaps an even better job at helping us to draw up a sufficiently precise technical drawing quickly?
$9.99 on AppStore
One app, almost anyone with an iPad, will want to try out is ProCreate. For less than $10, one-time, this app has so many functions that leverage the iPad and the Apple Pencil that it’s worth owning.
But what about using it for technical drawings?
It’s not made primarily for technical drawings, but for simple technical drawings, you can use a few of its new features, which help turn ProCreate from a freehand-drawing app to a more precise tool.
One of these is QuickShape.
This turns a squiggly circle that you drew into a perfect one. Or an almost straight line to a really straight one.
Then there is Drawing Assist, which snaps lines and shapes to perspectives that you select (2D, isometric, perspective).
This allows you to put together a quite precise drawing very quickly.
This type of drawing assistance is certainly enough to create conceptual drawings.
For truly technical drawings, more specific apps are required.
$19.99 on AppStore
Affinity Designer for iPad is a vector-based drawing app that works in unison with the app of the same name available for Mac and PC workstations. Like Procreate, it features grids and guides, thus allowing you to draw directly on isometric planes and use precise snapping controls, including snap to pixel and pixel alignment.
But just like Procreate, it did not feature any particular tools for technical drawing.
Free with in-app purchases
Just like Affinity Designer, Adobe Illustrator Draw is the iPad version of a well-established tool used by many graphical designers on their workstations.
Adobe has recently released it for 2020.
Like Designer and Procreate, it helps drawing straight lines a bit thanks to aides that snap lines and shapes, but just like the previous apps, it seems to be lacking specific tools that make the job of creating technical drawings easier.
$8.99 on AppStore
Graphic for iPad is again a vector-based drawing app. Still, unlike the ones reviewed above (Procreate, Affinity Designer, Adobe Illustrator Draw), this one has features added, which make it very useful for technical drawings.
A bit like Procreate, it features smart alignment guides, object snapping, and dimensioning tools. But it also has a variety of specific functions like rulers, which can be defined to show pixels, feet, inches, yards, and metric units, and a customizable canvas grid for easy blueprinting.
You can also quickly add labels, such as simple text labels or custom text labels, and link them to any object.
But the absolute killer here is the dimension labels and automatic dimension lines to create technical diagrams and schematics, complete with auto-calculated labels for length, width, height, and area.
Graphic can also “import PDF and SVG files containing many thousands of vector objects, including maps and other large designs,” and you can import and export to Photoshop PSD. So, therefore, you should be able to use this app even if you use other apps for your vector-based and photo-editing work.
Conclusion Best iPad Apps for Technical Drawing
The arrival of the Apple Pencil and more powerful iPads has turned the iOS platform into a serious tool that many professional artists and engineers are using more and more not only when they are on the go, but simply to be able to draw with a pen directly to an electronic canvas.
This ergonomic revolution has led to a large number of iOS drawing apps to be developed, and they are getting better and better.
However, not all drawing apps are created equal.
Most drawing apps are good at, well, drawing.
They provide great help for people making illustrations and fancy artwork but are not particularly helpful in creating technical drawings. Other tools are made for technical drawings, but their use does not seem particularly easy to learn.
In this review, I had a look at several apps that seemed to be made primarily for conceptual and/or technical drawings.
It was a bit of a mixed bag: the one that seemed most useful for technical drawings was, without much surprise, AutoCAD. But unless you already work with AutoCAD on a workstation and are used to its ergonomics, I doubt you would have much fun creating technical drawings with it.
The other apps reviewed in the first section, on the other hand, seemed too conceptual: they lacked the specific tools to get the job done. So what should you use?
At first, my quest into the second group of apps, which I termed the “Universal Drawing Apps,” did not fare much better. I find it fascinating how much easier it is nowadays to work with vector-based drawing apps on a pen-based iPad compared to using a PC or Mac, but the apps lacked technical drawing support.
This means that although it is certainly possible to do technical drawings with these apps, it is more of a manual process compared to apps that have specific tools built in to help the job along.
Luckily, I stuck to my guns because the last app I reviewed had a surprise in store: while being very similar to the other Universal Drawing Apps, Graphics for iPad has added specific features that make it a great tool for creating technical diagrams, drawings, and schematics. So if I needed to make a choice, I would go for this one, especially because its price of $8.99 one-time should not be an obstacle for anybody.
So here is my list of the Best iPad Apps for Technical Drawings:
- Graphic for iOS: although it’s primarily a vector-based drawing app for illustrators, it has specific features added to it that make creating technical drawings a breeze
- AutoCAD for iOS: certainly the most powerful for creating technical drawings. Perfect if you work with AutoCAD on a workstation because you can just move back in forth between both platforms for on-the-go editing, checking dimensions, and discussions with clients.
- OmniGraffle 3 for iOS: an app specifically made for creating technical drawings with ease. Quite pricey though
- Concepts for iOS: as its name implies it’s specifically made for conceptual drawing, so it’s great for getting ideas out of your head and on to (digital) paper
- ProCreate, as far as technical drawing is concerned, it’s a tie between Affinity Designer, Adobe Illustrator Draw, and ProCreate, but I loved to Procreate for its ease of use on the iPad. If you use Affinity Designer or Adobe Illustrator on your workstation, that would be a better choice.