Almost Completely Familiar
I've craved the iPad Pro and Pencil really since I bought the first iPad and fell head over heels in love with it. I can only imagine that it’s a matter of time before the rest of the iPad line-up is revised for the Pencil in 2016 (which I think will go over quite well, as the Air is the perfect form factor for quick notes and scribbles).
Above all, now that it is here, I couldn’t be more satisfied with the result. First of all, it lovingly echoes the look and feel of the early iPods, with their shiny white and silver aesthetic, expensive, solid heft, and cut-to-the-bone simplicity. The end-cap is fiddly in a ‘just so’ manner one would expect from The House of Ive, and I can’t stop twirling it every given opportunity like I obsessively do any pencil or pen in my reach.
Everyone’s first experience is an instant success as they naturally draw across the screen and watch the Pencil leave a perfect carbon trail in its wake. Many have to be reminded to vary the pressure and angle like they would a real pencil, probably because somewhere in the back of their mind they still think of it as a stylus, or what Ive calls ‘a product that’s about technology’. This is usually followed almost immediately by disappointment as they flip it over to erase their scribbles, with no result. Looking forward to seeing that rectified in Pencil 2.
While its visceral feeling makes for a great demo, it isn’t until you get the iPad Pro and Pencil alone for a while, preferably with an app like Paper, and drift off; not to ‘try it’, simply to do. Rule of thumb: If you have to force yourself to do something, maybe it's not something you really want to do.
The Pencil is often talked about as if it was somehow only relevant to ‘creatives’, which is a strange typecasting to put on it right out of the gate. More importantly, it’s a damn pencil. It's relevant to anyone who likes the flexibility of, oh, you know, a pencil.
Or as Jony Ive so eloquently put it, it's for ‘making marks’, be they writing or drawing, or best of all, both of them together.
That's a lot of praise, and there's more where it came from. It's expensive at $100. I would pay twice that.
Remarkably without the Pencil, the iPad Pro is simply a very large iPad. With it, it is something new altogether; transformed from an oversized, unwieldy screen, into a playful canvas of limitless possibilities. Despite whatever concerns that exist around super sizing iOS from its origins as a phone OS into a modern multi-tasking productivity platform, when you're lurched over the screen it feels entirely natural. In fact, the iPad Pro's unwieldy nature dissipates when it's flat on a table, allowing for easy rotation in-place to accommodate new views, odd angled pen strokes and stints of typing.
I can't speak to how well Microsoft's Surface performs this function, but despite some great progress on the hardware side of things, my thoughts about Windows as a touch-ready operating system, and as a consequence everything on Windows, says it won't equal the focus and simplicity of the iPad.
The various ink engines used by pen-friendly apps soon start to show some of their quirks. My personal favorite by far is Paper, despite the fact that it is rather laggy compared to the gold standard of Apple's own Notes. Enough to notice in comparison, but not enough to get in my way. Paper allows me to work in a fashion that reminds me of the never-to-be Microsoft Courier tablet (and for good reason; the founders worked on that concept), and affords a kind of creative thinking that intermingles typing, freehand writing, drawing and images with age-old software tricks like copy, cut and paste.
On the surface of it, it seems almost silly to surmount the steep technical challenge of emulating paper digitally. Until it's there, and you realize just how freeing it makes you; how pliable it is compared to its real-world counterpart, and how powerful. How being able to move and duplicate your marks changes the very nature of them.
There are of course a few wrinkles, if ever so minor.
One of the impressive things about the Pencil is how you can tilt it and have the pencil turn from line to shading, as demonstrated on Apple's Pencil page.
Meanwhile in the real world simply tilting a pencil like that does not in fact result in shading. Real-world shading happens in the intersection of a complicated mix between the pencil's angle, applied pressure, softness of the lead and the give and material of the underlying surface. Tilting a real pencil like in the image above will most likely give you a line, even if the pencil tip is as blunt as the Apple Pencil's, but every single ink engine gets the pressure part of the equation wrong, using it only to change the opacity of the shading, so to speak.
This might seem slightly pedantic, but the implications for the user is quite dramatic when in the midst of flow as you absentmindedly try to make a line with the pencil at an angle, as you would with a real pencil, only to have it come out, unexpectedly, as shading. Undo to the rescue, but nevertheless the user's flow suffers.
This is a problem for the developers of the individual ink engines to solve, and perhaps for Apple to help along as this evolves from a 1.0 to an integral part of our day-to-day. And there are other similar issues, like how most erasers are too perfect, of all things, ignoring the rules of traditional pencil erasers.
It falls, I think, to Apple to lift up their developers by providing better starting points. Some of this they already do through new APIs in iOS 9.1 (coalesced and predictive touch), but it needs to be trivial for developers to include top-of-the-line marking functionality in their apps.
The iPad Pro has a long way to go, yet in a year packed to the brim with grand new Apple initiatives, I have a feeling that I will be giving up the Pencil last.