Reflecting On The Past Year of Apple Pencil Ownership

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When I first bought the Apple Pencil in late 2015, I thought I’d bring it everywhere. It was one of the coolest iPad accessories I’d ever seen, and the low latency and high accuracy for drawing and handwriting was just unbelievable. I’d used a lot of third party stylii — including the Pencil by Fifty Three — before the Apple Pencil’s release, but none of the competitors even came close to Apple’s product.

What I thought I’d use the Pencil for

I thought the Pencil would open up a whole new world of iPad usage for me; I was toying with the idea of bringing a paper notebook with me everywhere, but the Pencil and iPad Pro seemed like an amazing alternative.

Evernote had introduced their handwriting capability by that point, which allowed me to insert an entire screen’s worth of doodles or writing into a note. What’s more, these handwritten notes could also be detected by Evernote’s OCR, so that I could search for my handwritten notes later on.

This sounded amazing, but the issue for me was that Evernote’s handwriting module was never paginated. Instead, each new drawing was center-aligned in the note, like a new picture. This makes sense for a single drawing sharing a page with typed notes and imported pictures, but it never felt natural to me to swipe vertically through several screens of handwriting.

Evernote’s handwriting engine was based on Penultimate (which they purchased a few years ago), and Penultimate still features a paginated interface for its notebooks. I spent a few weeks trying Penultimate, OneNote, and Paper as notebook replacements, but none of the apps stuck for very long as a substitute. A real notebook was simpler and easier.

Some part of this may be my iPad Pro’s size — at 12.9 inches, it’s really more the size of a small sketch book than a notebook. It’s not something I can casually take out of my bag and doodle a note on.

What I actually used the Pencil for

When I do take the time to sit down and drawing on the larger iPad Pro, it is still a really wonderful experience thanks to the Apple Pencil. I create occasional diagrams for work and export them to PNG with full transparencies, and Procreate makes that a breeze to do. I’ve also used Paper note for notes, but for little sketches. It’s fun to swipe between the pages after a few months and see the different designs I’ve come up with.

However, these really are my two major activities with the Pencil: two different types of drawing. I’m glad that I got a Pencil because I really wanted to check the technology out, but like with this iPad Pro, I don’t think I’ve really gotten my money’s worth from the purchase yet.

I think the Pencil, like the Smart Connector on the iPad Pro, is ultimately under-utilized technology. It’s the kind of accessory that could really change the way I accomplish major tasks on the iPad. If iOS supported 3D touch via the Pencil, I could browse in Safari by tapping harder on a link to open it in a new tab, or lightly tap on a link to get a small thumbnail preview before really loading the page. Better Pencil integration could also be used in PDF apps to switch between flicking to scroll, and tapping harder to enter an “annotate” mode. It will probably be incredible for Lightroom touch-ups, but we’re still waiting on that update.


My point is that, although the Pencil already does a lot to realize the potential of apps like Procreate and Paper, I think there are far broader uses of the accessory that could generate a lot more sales for Apple. As much fun as this accessory has been to use, I don’t think I’ll be buying the next version until Apple really takes the time to think about how the Pencil enhances the iPad experience as a whole.

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4 thoughts on “Reflecting On The Past Year of Apple Pencil Ownership”

  1. Try using the Pencil with Notability… My favorite app— it’s transformed my work life… No handwriting recognition, but I don’t really like or want that anyway. I tag notes so I know what to find and search and use the ‘dividers’ for my notes. I now can carry a file cabiinet worth of notebooks with me… can add pdf’s of documents to annotate, colored pens and highlighters to also emphasize my notes… Before the pencil, it was moderately useful at best with latency of other styli— and I tried a lot of them!!!

  2. This is one of the reasons why I own a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. And a MacBook Pro. I have to use the S-Pen. Great article. Thanks for the information.

  3. I’ve said this before – but I find the combo of iPadPro, Pencil and OneNote to be near perfect. It sounds like it would provide you with what you need…. Infinitely expandable pages, automatically dated on creation, a useful file system and OCR so it searches on writing, auto syncs with the Cloud and accessible and usable via Mac version. Pages irrespective of size are emailable as single page PDFs. And I’m not even a Microsoft fan!

    I got the 9 inch iPadPro as I thought it would be more useful more often than the 12 inch version – my observations of people using 12 inch version versus me using my 9 inch shows I was right (confirmation bias perhaps?), although sometimes I suffer from screen size envy ;)

    OneNote is my go to App, and almost all I use the iPad for…

    Having said that, the Pencil isn’t a direct replacement for a mouse. Creating content such as presentations in Keynote is still a chore – selecting multiple object to group them for example is still clunky, the Pencil is of no use here. Apple don’t seem to have optimised their own apps for Pencil usage.

    So for certain use cases the Pencil is excellent, in others it’s still too compromised.

  4. I suspect your experience with the Pencil and iPad Pro are the direct result of the apps you’ve chosen. I purchased both for similar reasons as you; but my experience has been the polar opposite: ALL of my note taking is accommodated by the Pencil and iPad Pro using NotesPlus and occasionally Notability.

    NotesPlus is my default notetaking app because the UI is so intuitive and light that it is like virtual paper sheets in a notebook — plus all of the benefits of being digital: I can draw free form or use shape recognition when I need something more formal; I can write effortlessly in my natural handwriting, convert it to text and copy and paste it into an email or other doc; I can import and sign/annotate PDFs; I can organize notebooks into folders; I can export my docs in a number of formats including PDF; and I can record audio while taking notes.

    It is this last use case where Notability shines for me. Imagine taking notes while recording a lecture or meeting. When reviewing your notes, simply tap a section of your handwritten notes and immediately hear the audio that was recorded at the time that note fragment was written. Super cool!

    I’ve tried Evernote, PenUltimate, One Note, MyScript and a host of other note taking apps over the years and none have bumped NotesPlus from my dock nor displaced Notability as my standby app.

    I’m willing to bet that you will change your mind about getting your money’s worth from the Pencil and iPad Pro after one week of using NotesPlus. Try it. I dare you ;)

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