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Apple Pencil review: Much sharper than the average smart stylus

Jackie Dove | Nov. 26, 2015
Apple's pressure-sensitive writing tool is at once completely sophisticated and totally easy to use.

ipad pro

Apple’s pressure-sensitive Pencil is a home run, exhibiting remarkable performance on the new iPad Pro, but that should not come as a shock: The two were engineered from the ground up to work together and only with each other.

The iPad screen recognizes when you are using the Pencil, and in response, dynamically boosts its scan rate to 240 times per second (twice the speed it scans for your finger) to minimize latency, the time between the Pencil’s point touching the glass and a mark appearing on the canvas. Simultaneously, the Pencil’s sensors work with the display to detect its position, force, and tilt via APIs in iOS 9.1 that not only register current location but predict future movement.

ipad pro apple pencil ruler 
The Notes app has a drawing screen, complete with a ruler for drawing straight lines. Credit: Susie Ochs

Press lightly to get a thin stroke, press harder to get a thicker stroke, and rub lightly with the side of the Pencil’s tip to get shading action, just like using a regular pencil, though the quality of that shading depends on the app and the brush you choose.

Sketching and writing

Straight out of the box, Apple’s Pencil is a joy to use. You don’t need to do any elaborate pairing or visit the Settings app—just plug the Pencil in to the iPad Pro’s Lightning port to pair it, then go to town. It works as a stylus with any app, letting you launch, navigate, scroll, and complete basic operations. You can even trace over a regular sheet of paper.

pencil tracing through paper 
So what if you think you can't draw? The Pencil even lets you trace through a regular sheet of paper.  Credit: Jackie Dove

But Pencil doesn’t do everything. Edge gestures to access Notifications or the Control Center don’t work, and you can’t use it to open a second app in Slide Over or resize apps in Split View. You must still use your finger for those functions, and I’m good with that because it’s not necessary, and you don’t want to accidentally invoke functions with Pencil.

I tested the Pencil with Evernote, Notability, Adobe Photoshop Mix, Fix and Sketch, Complete Anatomy, LiquidText, Pixelmator, Procreate, Paper, Notes, Apple Photos, and iMovie, along with the iPad’s built-in apps. Remarkably, each app performed as advertised, and in accordance with its own conventions, including Notes’ nifty onscreen ruler that helps you draw a straight line. The only anomaly was the reference app Complete Anatomy, aimed at medical students, which suffered from a slight lag time when I used the Pencil to annotate the text.


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