The Apple Pencil: Not a Home Run, but Definitely a Triple

The Apple Pencil is a reinvention of the stylus

The Apple Pencil is a device bound with beauty, style, technological grace, and imperfection. Perhaps the best and most accurate stylus on the market, the Pencil is the stylus that isn't a stylus. And while Apple has a knack for combining an elegant form with technological excellence, the quest for style seems to have gotten in the way of usefulness with the Pencil.

As you might expect, the Apple Pencil has the same basic form factor of a #2 pencil, minus the hard edges and the yellow color. In fact, the Pencil is about the same length as a brand new #2, which makes it one of the longest styluses on the market. Even the tip has the form factor of a sharpened pencil, and the only real thing the Pencil is lacking other than color is an eraser, a feature exhibited by much of its competition.

The original Apple Pencil.
The original Apple Pencil. Apple, Inc.

The Apple Pencil Fresh out of the Box

Getting up and running with the Pencil is quite easy despite it not being a true stylus. Rather than working with a capacitive touchscreen in a manner similar to (but more precise than) a fingertip, the Apple Pencil uses a combination of Bluetooth wireless technology and sensors embedded in the screen to detect the touch of the Pencil. This method allows the iPad to determine both the amount of pressure and the angle of the Pencil, which means the iPad can change the way the Pencil draws on the screen based on pressure and angle.

How It Works

In order to pair the Pencil with the iPad, you simply plug it into the Lightning port just below the iPad's Home Button. In place of an eraser, the Apple Pencil has a small cap that grips onto the Pencil by way of a magnet. Popping this cap off reveals a Lightning adapter similar to the end of the cable that comes with the iPad. When you plug the Pencil into the iPad for the first time, the devices will pair. All you need to do is confirm on the dialog box that appears on the iPad's screen that you do, in fact, want to pair the Pencil to the iPad.

This is also the method for charging the Pencil. It only takes about 15 seconds of charging to gain a half hour's worth of battery life for the Pencil, so while it might seem awkward to have the Pencil sticking out from the bottom of your iPad, you won't need to keep it there for an extended period of time. The Apple Pencil also comes with an adapter that you can use with your iPad's charging cable if you'd prefer to charge it via a wall outlet.

About That Cap...

One thing about that cap: it's going to be easy to lose. It holds in place fairly well when it is popped back on properly, but there's a way to insert the cap where it doesn't seal with a click. In that instance, it's easy for it to go flying, and based on its shape and size, it can be easy to lose.

But that is a minor annoyance compared to the feel of the Pencil itself. It's slick. By stylus standards, it's very slick. This may actually help after you get used to it because the Pencil becomes very fluid in your hand, but at first, it has a very awkward feel to it. The Pencil is also larger and heavier than most of the competition.

The Best Stylus on the Planet?

Once you pair the Apple Pencil and start using it (we suggest going straight into the Notes app to play around with it), it is easy to tell this is an Apple product. The screen scans for the Pencil a whopping 240 times a second, and if that's not enough, the iPad uses predictive algorithms to guess where the Pencil is at and where it is going. These combine to create a very responsive stylus.

And remember how it's the stylus that isn't a stylus? The downside of not using a capacitive interaction between the Pencil and the iPad is that the Pencil can do some but not all functions of a finger. For example, you can open an app with a tap, scroll through lists and push buttons, but you cannot use it to activate the iPad's Control Center or Notification Screen. The uses become limited within apps as well, though it can easily select different tools from a drawing app's menu.

Palm Recognition Is Great

While this might sound like a downside, it has a definite upside: The iPad is perfect at distinguishing your finger or palm from the Pencil. It may take apps a little time to utilize this information, but even from the launch, apps do a great job of distinguishing an accidental finger hitting the screen or part of the palm on the corner of the display from the Pencil itself, so you don't get accidental hiccups in your use of the Pencil.

Fantastic for Artists

The Pencil is great for jotting down notes and drafting, but it really shines in the hands of an artist. And as its name suggests, it is at its best when it is a pencil. The Apple Pencil is capable of drawing a very narrow line with precision, but it also adjusts to the pressure used when touching the screen, which can create a thicker line. The Pencil also detects the angle at which it is held, so you can use it shade an area just as if you were using a pencil or a piece of charcoal.

Some Downsides

The only real drawback of the Pencil from a use standpoint is the software available for it. There are plenty of great apps from Paper to Procreate, which may be the best overall drawing app on the iPad. But there's no full-blown Illustrator, Photoshop, or Painter 2016. The iPad Pro has a big boost in speed over previous iPads, so perhaps we'll see these apps come to the iPad sooner rather than later, but until then, the software side might hold the Pencil back.

Speaking of the iPad Pro, at the time of this review, it is the only iPad capable of working with the Apple Pencil. This is mainly because the Pencil requires specific sensors embedded within the screen, so an iPad has to be made for the Pencil as much as the Pencil is made for the iPad. This iPad Pro requirement should change in the new future when the next iPad is released, but until then, the only way you can use the Pencil is with the iPad Pro.

Is the Apple Pencil Right for You?

As great as the Pencil is at taking notes, it is really made for those that are going to put a stylus through the wringer. The Apple Pencil is best in the hands of an artist or a user who is going to use the Pencil to create. There are cheaper styluses on the market for taking notes and they don't have the iPad Pro requirement. But if you want the best stylus on the market, it's a no-brainer. The higher price of the Apple Pencil is definitely worth the advanced sensor and a new way of using a stylus with the iPad.

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