The search for a magical combination of iPad and stylus will probably be a never ending one, at least with the iPad’s that we currently have now. Creatives are coming up with interesting solutions for using a stylus on the iPads capacitive screen that involve a series of moving parts that include the screen, software, the shape and tip end of the stylus itself, and lately Bluetooth communication. For something that mimics the simple act of writing or drawing on a piece of paper with a piece of lead wrapped in wood, there is quite a bit of investment and complexity happening to try and deliver that simplicity. There’s a reason for that. How a tool, such as a stylus, feels in your hand when you’re working is crucial to the entire experience. For those not into Digital Inking and styli, it is no different than finding the right keyboard to work with your fingers.
A few weeks ago we posted that FiftyThree, the makers of the popular and award winning drawing iPad App, Paper, announced that they, like others, were getting into the stylus making business. The announcement came with quite a bit of hype. I ordered one the day I heard the announcement and it arrived yesterday.
For what it is and for what it currently advertises itself as being, the Pencil is a success and I believe more than lives up to the hype. If you like the feel of the Pencil (some may not) it works very well with the Paper App as a smart stylus. It also works reasonably well with other Apps without using the “smart” features that are coded into Paper.
Look and Feel
Let’s talk about the feel. The Pencil is shaped like a carpenter pencil. If you’ve ever used a carpenter pencil before you know what that looks and feels like. A carpenter pencil has two large flat sides with beveled edges leading to two smaller flat surfaces. That’s what you have with the Pencil. Having worked in my dad’s carpentry shop and in scenic construction I’ve used many a carpenter pencil in my time. Holding the Pencil in your hand will bring back memories for those with similar experiences. It certainly did for me. I don’t have a carpenter pencil handy but the weight feels like I remember. For a stylus containing a battery (see below) it feels very light in the hand. It also feels comfortably balanced. There are no buttons or switches on the Pencil.
There are two models of the Pencil available, there’s a Graphite model for $49.95 and a Walnut Model for $59.95. I ordered the Walnut model and that is the model I’m reviewing here. It is made out of premium grade Walnut and is designed to weather a bit with age. The Walnut model comes with a magnetic strip that will allow you to attach the Pencil to your iPad cover.
This kinda sorta works but there isn’t a great bond between the magnets, so I wouldn’t spend the extra $10 bucks just for that reason. A reasonable moving around of the iPad with Smart Cover and Pencil attached will dislodge the Pencil unless it is placed just so on the Smart Cover. The Graphite model is made out of brushed aluminum and according to FiftyThree is a little heftier than the Walnut version.
With each Pencil you also receive an extra tip and an extra eraser. You won’t need a pocket knife to sharpen the tip of this carpenter pencil. Do note that that the Pencil is only available in the US and Canada and it only works with the iPad 3, the iPad 4, the iPad Air and both versions of the iPad mini. Original iPad and iPad 2 owners are out of luck.
Battery and Bluetooth Connectivity
As mentioned above The Pencil does have a battery. All Bluetooth styli need a battery to power the Bluetooth radio that communicates with the iPad and the software. But this is a unique battery solution.
By gently sliding the tip out of the barrel of The Pencil you’ll reveal a battery/radio component that you plug into a full-sized USB port to charge.
This battery/radio component comes packaged separately from the body of the Pencil and you’ll need to charge it before using it. There’s no indicator on the exterior of the Pencil or within the App to tell you what the battery life is, but FiftyThree promises up to a month of use on a single charge. It took about 35 minutes for the unit to charge after it was first connected. FiftyThree says it takes 90 minutes for a full charge. There is an indicator light on the battery/radio unit to tell you when it is charging (orange) or charged (green). But of course you won’t see that once the battery/radio unit is sheathed back in the Pencil body.
Pencil’s Bluetooth solution does not require a mechanical button, nor does it require you to open up your Bluetooth settings on your iPad to pair it. If your iPad’s Bluetooth is turned on you tap and hold the icon on the lower left of the tools palette in the Paper App. You watch that icon’s animated spin, and when the spinning stops, you’re paired and ready to sketch away in the Paper App and take advantage of the features that this solution brings. FiftyThree calls this “Kiss to Pair.” It almost feels like a gimmick, but it works very well. If you’re not using the Pencil for awhile the connection automatically is broken, or you can turn it off by reversing the “Kiss to Pair” action.
Palm Rejection, Erasing, and Blending
Prior to the Pencil, Paper did not offer palm rejection or wrist protection, meaning you had to work with a stylus without laying the lower part of your hand on the screen they way you would with a piece of paper. The software solution now provides palm rejection with the Paper App so that’s no longer an issue. It works incredibly well in my testing. In addition to the business end of the Pencil for drawing, or the tip, the Pencil has an eraser.
Unlike some other stylus solutions you don’t have to select an eraser in the App to erase Ink. You simply turn the Pencil over to the eraser end and erase away.
Both the tip and the eraser are made of the same material. The material looks like the same kind of rubber we’ve seen on many styli, but the surface has a different texture to it that feels almost like paper. Whatever it is, it works well. You can use the tapered edge of the tip for drawing finer lines or the broader surface for filling in larger portions of your drawing.
The Pencil does not require much pressure to place digital ink on the screen and this is not a stylus that creates bolder or lighter strokes by applying different levels of pressure. That said, if you lightly brush the tip or the eraser over an area you’ve already inked you can achieve a blending effect.
The blending effect also works with your finger. The Paper app used in conjunction with the Pencil now has the capability to tell if you are touching the screen with the Pencil or with your finger. If you’ve ever done charcoal sketching you’ll feel right at home with this effect. You can also mix colors using this Blend feature.
Purchasing either the Walnut or the Graphite model also gives you access to a series of digital brushes and drawing tools in the Paper App that you could have previously acquired via in-App purchasing. Each tool cost $1.99 or you could purchase them as a bundle for $6.99. But they are now included with the price of the Pencil.
Can You Ink with the Pencil?
So, how does it feel to lay down Digital Ink with the Pencil? Very good. I am not artist by any means. I’ve dabbled but that’s about it. But using Pencil and Paper together feels close enough to a natural experience to justify the boldness of the naming for the combo. You’re still working with a piece of glass and not paper, so that will never go away. But, when the tip of the Pencil touches the glass the two surfaces work well together. Depending on how you hold a stylus, you’ll notice that the large tip may block the point where the Pencil touches the screen, making it tricky to guess exactly where you are attempting to Ink. I hold a stylus at an angle and this is the case for me. That said, I don’t think this is a huge hindrance. After working with the Pencil for while I didn’t notice this to be an ongoing issue.
Using the Pencil as a Dumb Stylus
The big features of the Pencil are palm rejection, blending, and the eraser. Certainly other Inking apps offer similar solutions with both smart and dumb styli. Currently these features of the Pencil only work with Paper. There’s no mention of an SDK to my knowledge or any other way of extending the use of the Pencil to other Digital Inking Apps. So, we’ll have to wait and see. That may indeed be a drawback for some currently and it does seem to be a limiting choice for FiftyThree at the moment.
That said, using the Pencil as a “dumb” stylus with other apps yielded a very acceptable Digital Inking experience. Again, you won’t get to take advantage of the eraser or blending. Palm rejection or wrist protection depend on how the particular App you are using handles that issue. As examples, The Pencil worked as well as any “dumb” stylus with Penultimate, Bamboo Paper, NoteShelf, Notes HD, Note Anywhere, and ZoomNotes.
I like the Pencil very much for what it is. You can tell the designers and developers at FiftyThree are proud of this product and they deserve to be. The Walnut version I am reviewing feels like a quality product top to tip. It is nice to hold in the hand and works very well for digital inking with Paper. Again, I’m not an artist. I mostly use Paper when I’m working with a designer on a play to sketch out ideas that I can’t quite articulate so I often resort to doodling on an iPad. I can see this working well for me in that capacity. I like the Bluetooth solution for connecting and I also think the Pencil could serve as a “dumb” stylus for my digital note taking. It feels that good in my hands. Again, you may feel differently.
Indeed, the Pencil is the best smart stylus solution for the iPad that I’ve seen yet. It combines the many moving parts that go into the Digital Inking experience better than any of the other solutions I’ve tried. So much so that I hope the folks at FiftyThree will consider broadening their reach and creating an SDK that can work with other Digital Inking solutions as well. Currently designed to be used to its fullest only with the Paper App, the Pencil is targeted at digital artists more than note takers. I think quite a few of them would be pleased to have this arrow in their quiver. Highly recommended if you think it fits your Digital Inking needs on an iPad.