Apple broke new ground with the iPad Pro in several ways, including offering its first pressure-sensitive stylus for this super-size tablet. We put the Apple Pencil to the test, including having a professional artist try it out.
Before we begin, an important point about this stylus is that it isn’t needed for day-to-day use of Apple’s latest tablet. This is a tool to make drawing, painting, and hand-written notes easier; everything else can be done with a fingertip.
And just so there’s not any confusion, at this point the Apple Pencil works only with the iPad Pro, not any other device.
This accessory is available now for $99.
Build and Design
Although it is called a “pencil”, this accessory looks more like a magic marker. It’s thicker than the trusty pencils we all used through grade school, but not larger than many markers used by artists. This stylus is very smooth but not so slick that it can’t be easily held.
It’s round rather than hexagonal, and is available only in white. For those who like specifics, the Apple Pencil is 6.9 inches (175 mm) long and 0.35 in. (8.9 mm) thick.
The weight is somewhat offputting at first. It comes in at 0.73 ounces (20.7 g), which makes it heavier than just about any other writing or drawing implement out there. That said, after a bit of use the weight becomes unnoticeable.
There are no buttons or eraser, so the only functional part is the writing tip. This will wear out over time, so it can be easily unscrewed and replaced. A spare tip comes in the box, and Apple promises it will sell additional replacements at some point in the future. The company recommends that people who use this stylus not have a screen protector on their iPad, as this would increase wear on the tip.
UPDATE: Apple has begun selling a 4-pack of replacement Apple Pencil tips for $19.
Because this is an optional accessory that many iPad Pro users will have no use for, there’s not a slot built into the tablet to hold Pencil. Some third-party cases have loops for this, but not the Apple Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro.
Drawing with the Apple Pencil and iPad Pro is as close a simulation of using pen and paper as anything we’ve tried. We tested it by drawing quickly and slowing, and moving the tip onto and off of the edges of the display. We found no lag and no skipping, and no distortions in the lines, wherever we used the stylus. Angling the tip to get different size lines, as well as using greater and lesser amounts of pressure to accomplish the same thing, worked as expected.
Apple has not revealed how many levels of pressure sensitivity this accessory offers. We can say that it seems to have enough.
The process of varying line width by angling the stylus is generally intuitive. Exactly how this functions varies between applications and the type of virtual pen or pencil being drawn with, though.
In our tests, we judged that palm rejection works quite well. Whether using the left or right hand, resting the side of a palm on the iPad Pro’s screen doesn’t result in unwanted lines appearing on the drawing. And this feature is universal, not requiring applications to be re-written for the Pencil support. An issue with palm rejection is that the software will sometimes delete lines drawn too close to the palm. Apparently, it is mistaking these for inadvertent touches.
The lack of an eraser slightly limits how useful the Pencil is for taking notes. Those long accustomed to pencil and paper are going to miss flipping the stylus around to correct a mistake, but artists aren’t likely to notice as most of their tools don’t come with built-in erasers. Naturally, a good note-taking app is necessary — we tested this accessory with Wacom Bamboo Paper.
Beyond drawing, the Pencil can be to do most of what a finger does, like opening apps, but there are exceptions — it can’t be used in gestures that involve sweeping in from the edge of the screen or resizing windows. This was a decision by Apple to prevent people who are sketching with this stylus from accidentally opening the various windows that are involved by pulling in from off the edge of an iPad’s display.
As part of our tests, we let a commercial artist try the Apple Pencil, iPad Pro, and Pixelmator, and while she was initially skeptical, she ended up quite pleased. This is someone who has never warmed to using a Wacom tablet with a Mac, or liked drawing with a mouse, preferring to hand draw and then scan. However, she found that drawing with the Pencil quickly began to feel natural in the way that using a Wacom tablet or mouse never had.
She had also been ambivalent about using previous iPad models for sketching because she felt the size of their displays to be limiting. This wasn’t an issue with Apple’s new 12.9-inch model.
That said, the lack of “tooth” (texture) on the screen isn’t ideal. This artist pointed out the slick screen makes it harder to draw smooth curves. But it’s something she thought she’d eventually get used to, while also hoping that developers could take care of this issue with clever software for curve correction.
She ended by pointing out that while Pixelmator had much in common with the Adobe software she works with every day on her MacBook, it’s still limited. She would need to transfer any drawing she started on the tablet to her laptop to complete most projects.
To be used, this accessory first needs to be paired with an iPad Pro, which just requires plugging the Pencil’s Lightning jack into the equivalent port on the tablet for a few seconds. The two will remain paired until Bluetooth is shut off on the Pro. They can then be re-paired by repeating the above process.
There were no connection problems during the time we were testing the Apple Pencil. There were also no hassles with waking the stylus up after it automatically shuts itself down: once the two are paired, the stylus is always immediately usable.
As mentioned previously, this accessory will not work with any device but the iPad Pro. For example, plugging it into an iPhone 6s does not pair them, and without this step the stylus does nothing.
The Apple Pencil is rated to last 12 hours on a single charge. In out test, an hour of heavy use drained the battery from 100% to 92%, so Apple’s estimate of battery life is roughly accurate.
Once this stylus has been paired with the Pro, a widget in the Notification window displays how much charge it has remaining.
If the Pencil eventually shuts itself off to save power, we were unable to tell how long it waited. This means that its battery continues to drain, even when it’s not being used. This can be prevented by unpairing it from the iPad Pro by temporarily shutting Bluetooth down, as there’s no off button on the stylus.
Recharging is done by taking a cap off the back end of the Pencil to expose a Lightning jack. When this accessory was first announced, the fact that it can be charged by being plugged into the iPad Pro’s Lightning port caused quite a hubbub, with many predicting that this awkward arrangement would inevitably result in the stylus being broken. As it turns out, there’s no real cause for worry, as a female-to-female Lightning Connector adapter that comes with the Pencil allows it to be charged with the same cable that charges the tablet. Plugging it into the iPad Pro does accomplished the same job, though, so it’s not necessary to carry the cable around all the time.
Apple promises that 15 seconds of charging results in 30 minutes of battery life. In our tests, a coffee break with the Pencil plugged into a charging cable resulted in bringing that battery up about 30%.
The Apple Pencil and iPad Pro make an impressive tool for sketching and drawing, and not a bad solution for note taking. Many third-party software developers are already moving to support all the features of this accessory.
This is a must-have those who have Apple’s new 12.9-inch tablet and will be drawing on it. People who got the Pro for other reasons do not need it, however.
With a price of $99, and working only with a tablet that starts at $799, there’s no doubt that this is an expensive product. But it performs like a premium one.
For comparison, the Wacom Fineline Stylus 2 is $59.95, and this only has palm rejection in apps specifically written to support this accessory. On the opposite end of the scale, those just looking for a basic stylus can easily find one for a few dollars, but this will always lack pressure sensitivity and palm rejection.
It’s an open question whether Apple’s next 9.7-inch model — tentatively called the iPad Air 3 — will support the Pencil. It’s quite possible this feature will be reserved for the Pro line, so those who really want to use this accessory should start saving up.