By Dan Moren
June 15, 2017 12:00 PM PT
The Apple Pencil from a non-artist’s perspective
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
I hadn’t previously given too much attention to the Apple Pencil, largely because Apple’s initial messaging around the product had really pushed it towards artists—and if there’s one thing that’s pretty clear, it’s that I am not much of an artist.
In recent months, though, I’d started to cave a bit. People showing off note-taking apps and PDF annotations made me wonder if maybe there weren’t use cases even for the artistically-challenged among us. But it was Apple’s demo at WWDC of the new Pencil-related features in iOS 11 that tipped me over the edge. So when I ordered a new 10.5-inch iPad Pro just hours after the keynote, I thought “what the hell?” and threw an Apple Pencil into my cart as well.
I may be a johnny-come-lately to Pencil fandom, but now that I’ve been using it for a few days, I’ve really been digging it. It hasn’t magically turned me into an artist or even really improved my atrocious handwriting, but there is something delightful about putting it to the iPad screen and seeing lines appear with all the fidelity of a physical pen and paper. There’s something very natural about holding the Pencil, perhaps because I’m of a generation that came to computing only part way through my youth, so all those habits with writing implements are still ingrained in me. It’s also just a pleasing piece of hardware in the hand, and I’ve taken to just twiddling it in idle moments.1
If anything, my limited time with the Pencil has left me wanting even more from it. So I’ve compiled a quick list of three things that I think would make the Pencil even better.
Handwriting to text
One of the features Apple showed off in its preview of iOS 11 was the ability to write in the Notes app and have iOS turn it into searchable text. That’s pretty cool, and third-party apps like Good Notes have already implemented similar features. But, to my mind, it doesn’t go far enough.
What I’d really love to see is the ability for that handwriting to be turned into actual typed text. And I’d like to see it everywhere across iOS. So, for example, when somebody sends me an iMessage and I’m already holding the Pencil, I could quickly scrawl a response and have that interpreted, turned into text, and sent back.
There’s plenty of precedent here. Remember the Newton? Yes, its handwriting interpretation abilities were famously mocked in the early days, but as Apple continued to develop the tech, it got more and more impressive.2 Apple later started building some of this technology into the Mac with the Inkwell system, a “hidden” feature that only showed up for those who were using graphics tablets.3
I envision this feature working in a similar fashion as Siri Dictation, with the interpreted text showing up in blue underlines and the ability to quickly tap a word to correct it. (Finding a way to markup existing text with the Pencil might be more challenging, but you can get by with using the onscreen keyboard for that at least initially.)
One major reason I think this would be a welcome feature is that if you’re already holding the Pencil and navigating the iPad, as I’ve found myself doing and as I’ve seen other Pencil aficionados doing, it’s a pain to have to put it down and type on the keyboard to answer a message or write a quick email. The other alternative is to peck out a message by tapping the onscreen keyboard with the Pencil, and that’s frankly not much better. You’ve already got a writing implement in your hand—why not just use that?
That leads into my next point, one that I can’t believe hasn’t been addressed yet. Why, oh why, is there not an easy place to store the Pencil? It seems like a missed opportunity not to have a way to magnet or clip the Pencil to your iPad when not in use. Even just a loop on the hinge side of the Smart Cover would be a welcome addition. As it is, I’ve ended up simply carrying the Pencil around loose, and that seems like a recipe for losing or dropping it.
At WWDC, Apple did announce two Pencil-related accessories: the first is a leather sleeve with a little pocket for the Pencil, which looks very chic—but I don’t particularly want to carry my iPad around in a sleeve, and leather isn’t really my aesthetic. The second is a leather Pencil case…which looks to be just a sleeve that you can slip it in. That’s it. I assumed at first that it would have magnets in it that would let you attach the sleeve to your iPad or Smart Cover, and apparently I was not alone in that. But nope: it’s just a sleeve.
Fortunately, third parties have apparently taken advantage of this void. I’ve already ordered a magnetic holder for the Pencil; I’ll report back when I’ve had a little more time to test it out.
As with so many features that differ between the iPhone and the iPad, it’s weird jumping between the two devices and having a feature on one that doesn’t work on the other.4 I’ve found myself tapping on my phone with the Pencil a number of times in the past few days, and I’m disappointed every time that it doesn’t at least function as a basic stylus.
Frankly, I’d like to see full-fledged Apple Pencil support for the iPhone in an upcoming model. To me, the iPhone 7 feels perfectly natural to hold in one hand while writing on it—it’s about the size of a reporter’s notebook. Yes, I’m sure that Apple would take some guff for building stylus support into its smartphone, but the company’s never been one to shy away from self-contradiction.
I’m sure adding Pencil support to the iPhone isn’t at the top of the list for Apple, but given that there are many more iPhone owners than iPad owners (and specifically of the Apple Pencil-compatible models of the iPad), it might be an opportunity to broaden the appeal of the accessory, and perhaps encourage third-party developers to create even more interesting applications for it.
As I said up top, I’ve only been using the Pencil for a few days now, and those are the things that have jumped out to me in that time. There are a few other smaller ones as well: for example, I think it’d be awesome if you could flip over the Apple Pencil and use the back end to erase. But that would require relocating the Lightning connector and finding a different way of pairing/charging, so I doubt Apple’s likely to do it anytime soon.5
And, speaking of charging, while I admire the Pencil’s sleek lines, it would be handy to have some sort of visual indication when it needs charging. Currently you need to rely on checking the Battery widget on your iPad, which isn’t always at hand. Fortunately, the fast charging means that even just a few seconds of plugging it in can generally let you finish whatever you were doing.
(I’m also a little bummed that the Apple Pencil is just slightly too heavy and long to fit behind my ear, as a traditional pen or pencil would. It’ll stay there for a few seconds, but then I’m always worried it’s going to slide off, so, oh well.)
All in, I’ve been very impressed with the Apple Pencil. It’s exactly the kind of device that we’ve come to expect from Apple—I haven’t spent any time with the much-beloved AirPods, but I imagine that they evoke a very similar feeling. It certainly isn’t a cheap piece of hardware in construction or price, and I imagine that it’s a splurge for most iPad users—especially non-artists like me. But if you’ve been curious about it and you’re in the market for a new iPad Pro, I have to recommend indulging that curiosity, especially with iOS 11 coming down the road. You may find yourself as delighted as I’ve been.
- Eat your heart out, fidget spinners. ↩
- You don’t have to look very far to find die-hard supporters of the Newton. They’re still out there. ↩
- Or were willing to hack their systems just so they could mess around with it. ↩
- Exhibit A: 3D Touch. ↩
- Not that the current “sticking out like a vestigial tail” charging method is particularly elegant. Some sort of wireless charging would seem ideal, but it’s still early days in that department. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is now available for pre-order.]
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