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Review: Pencil Stylus for iPad

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I’ve had about four months to use the Pencil Stylus from FiftyThree, and I think it’s now safe enough to call this purchase a success. I was initially worried by reviews I’ve seen on Amazon that suggest that the Pencil can’t hold up for very long before breaking, but I’ve been taking the stylus around everywhere with me for a few months now, and it’s handling everyday wear and tear just fine. The rubber tip and eraser require a bit of a wipe down every few days, but that has been the extent of the upkeep.

I bought the Pencil because I wanted a solid stylus to help me draw more accurately within the Paper app. Pencil nails that with its great build quality and interesting material choices. I like that this stylus is made out of wood, yet still feels right at home alongside my aluminum iPad.

I also really wanted to try out the Pencil’s extra features that tie into the Paper app, like the way you can turn the whole stylus around and then use it as an eraser. That simple action is so ingrained in me from years of practice in elementary school that it felt instantly familiar, even though it was a completely new feature in the context of my iPad. I can now attest that this isn’t just a cool skeuomorphic gimmick, but a genuinely useful feature. Having the eraser always available without having to switch brushes within Paper makes the whole drawing process feel more fluid. One less panel to pull up, and a few extra taps saved each time.

Surface Pressure

I can’t say I’ve taken as much advantage of the Surface Pressure feature, which mimics the concept of pressure sensitivity in the stylus without actually implementing it at a hardware level within the stylus. Surface Pressure does work, but it’s harder to control than with a real brush or pencil. I feel as though adding pressure widens the strokes very suddenly, instead of gradually, which doesn’t really translate into a useful extra level of control over the Paper app. Sometimes it’s just easier to make thicker strokes out of many smaller ones, or by dragging the stylus very quickly across the screen (another way to simulate more pressure within the Paper app).

Battery Life and Charge

The Pencil usually lasts a few weeks for me in terms of battery life, but that’s because I don’t tend to use it for very prolonged session. I tend to sit down for a 15-20 minutes at a time to sketch out a new design idea, and then leave it for a few days.

Charging the Pencil is easy, and I love how everything I need is encapsulated in the stylus itself. All I have to do is pull on the rubber tip to reveal a USB port, which I can then plug right into my laptop for charging. There’s no way to tell the charge from the Pencil itself, but the Paper app can report on battery life when the Pencil is paired.

Palm Rejection

This was one of the features of the Pencil I was most curious about. Good palm rejection is key to completing the illusion that the Pencil isn’t a stylus on a digital tablet screen, but just a drawing tool that you’re pressing against a blank canvas. The good news is that palm rejection really does work quite well within the Paper app. There are a few misses here and there where my palm triggered some panning or blurring by accident, but I’d say the algorithm works about 95% of the time.

The caveat is that for any palm rejection to work well on an iPad, I have to turn off the iOS multitasking gestures, which I really love to use. I actually barely use the Home button on my iPad because I prefer to use four finger gestures to swipe between apps, or five-finger pinch to return to the home screen.

Conclusion

I bought the $60 wooden Pencil because it liked the way it looked, and I also thought it would be cool to hang the stylus off of my Smart Cover. The former is still totally true, but the magnetic cling isn’t quite as useful as I had anticipated. I can stick the Pencil to my Smart Cover before I stick the iPad into my bag, but I still end up finding the Pencil at the bottom of my bag when I get home anyway. Knowing what I know now, the cheaper graphite version would have been just fine.

It’s been over a year since the Pencil was released, and FiftyThree has yet to announce any successor. Instead, they seem to be focusing on the software end of things and finding more cool ways for the iPad to work even better with the Pencil that’s already in people’s hands. I think this is a really great product strategy and shows that FiftyThree still has their eyes on the prize as a software company. It’s very common for tech companies to release hardware updates on an annual basis, and I like that FiftyThree is bucking the trend with the Pencil. I’m quite happy with my purchase, and I can honestly say that this stylus is the only one I would recommend to people interested in doing more drawing on their iPad.


Thomas

My name is probably Thomas (yes, it is). I'll be able to help you figure out why Evernote isn't syncing, or recommend your favourite new RSS reader to you. That's partly because I am enamoured with the iOS ecosystem and hardware, but mostly because I'm Canadian.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Pencil Stylus for iPad”

  1. Nice review! I shall have to give the Pencil a try. The palm rejection tempts me. (I don’t use the shortcuts on the iPad; can never remember them!)

    Off-topic question: where did you get that cool cardboard mannequin?

    1. Oh wait; that’s wood, not cardboard. My eyes are rotting away in my head….

      The question still stands; but substitute “very thin wood” for “cardboard.” ;)

  2. Great review. I’ve picked up the Pencil in the Apple store so many times, but always put it back, questioning it’s usability versus expense. A review that feels pragmatic and useful – I’m off to the Apple store !

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