AMITIAE - Saturday 28 November 2015

Apple Pen: Enhancing Productivity with the iPad Pro

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers

Apple Pen

Whatever has been written about the new iPad Pro, in the few days I have had access to one in Bangkok, I am finding it a device that is allowing me to be unusually productive in much the same way as the MacBook I also use. That may appear odd, as the different operating systems (iOS and OS X) should be making me work in different ways, yes? No.

Rather than fretting about the structure, the materials, the different apps (some are available on both platforms and I am revelling in that), I work. I am writing this on the iPad Pro, using iA Writer, just as I would on the MacBook or MacBook Pro. It is the task that drives me, not the restrictions of the operating system. Working is helped in a couple of ways, most notably the Smart Keyboard (more on that later), and the Apple Pencil.

Months ago, I hunted around for a decent stylus; not because I draw, but because others do. Apps developed for iOS were beginning to benefit from the use of the stylus in some hands. I failed high school Art classes dismally, even though I was taught by the cartoonist Dish, and one of my forebears is the famed engraver William Harvey.

I was not impressed by what was available in Bangkok shops then (I am still not), and eventually bought the Pencil by Fifty-Three online, in large part because I had always been so impressed with the app, Paper. I reviewed that last February and handed it on to a friend who does draw. The broad and flattened sides of that have little connection to the Apple Pencil which has a number of advantages, although the price of $99 is a little high, especially for a device that is so easy to lose. The price in Thailand is 3,900 baht slightly more than the converted US price with 7% VAT factored in (3,795 baht).

Apple Pencil
Apple Pencil and Charging Adapter

The plastic tube that is the Apple Pencil, looks and feels just like a real pencil and is nicely balanced. The nib imparts just the right pressure when touching the screen and - although this was demonstrated to me when I collected the device - there is zero lag in input. As the tip is drawn across the screen, so input appears with no latency.

A useful tear-down by iFixit shows the clever design inside, including the folded-over circuit board with its 5 processors including a Qualcom Bluetooth chip. The way the Pencil is paired to the device is rather clever and uses hardware and software. The Pencil is connected to the iPad Pro via the Lightning Port. The connector is revealed by sliding off the "eraser" from the top of the Pencil. The first time there is a connection, the devices recognise each other and the user is asked to confirm the pairing. That's it.

Apple Pencil Apple Pencil Apple Pencil

The Lightning connector also has the function of charging: connect and charging begins automatically. There is also a super-charge function with a 15 second connection providing enough power for 30 minutes use. A small connector in the Pencil box is available for charging with a cable. It fits onto the end of the Lightning connector and a USB-Lightning charger can be connected. There is a right and wrong end. A small icon on the adapter shows the end which fits the Pencil; although connecting the cable it is obvious - by feel - if the wrong end is used. There is no indication when it is charged. There are no lights, no switches or other complications. It is always on, always ready to work.

Apple Pencil
Apple Pencil and Charging Adapter - note the icon

The size of the adapter, the spare nib that comes in the box, and the Pencil itself, worry me slightly because these are easy to mislay or lose (or be stolen). It will not be a catastrophe if the adapter is lost, although it would be less convenient and a new one would have to be bought. As the Pencil itself is in short supply currently, there is no indication when (or if) spares would be available. I am keeping the Pencil safe in my bag when it is not in use, but I did manage to walk out of the office one evening in the week, leaving it on my desk. No matter, I still have my fingers.

Apple Pencil Apple Pencil Apple Pencil

The tip is thin and draws the thin lines, while when the pencil is angled, the output on the screen is broader, just like when we use the side of a lead pencil to draw. Not all apps will support using the Pencil. Although I did some drawing in Paper, I was disappointed to find that ArtRage allowed no input for the device. On the other hand, following up on an online comment from Karan Varindani, I downloaded Notability for iOS and the Mac ($5.99 each) and my work options expanded greatly.

I do not have the best handwriting in the world: sometimes my students have to ask me to translate my editing comments on their writing. I found that in experiments - quite early days yet - using Notability, I was able to write quite clearly on the screen; and the tactile feedback is good. There is a slight friction that makes it feel right: some styluses feel as if they are sliding on the glass screen.

It may be idiosyncratic, but I sometimes work with a pen in one hand, jotting down ideas on (real) paper when necessary. This is especially the case when I write a first draft and do not go directly to a computer (or iOS device - I will start in iA Writer on an iPhone if that is what I have). With the Apple Pencil in my hand I am also using this as a useful pointer, for example in selecting apps, or in Photos when editing.

While the basic iPad can be used without any form of stylus, some apps produced in the last year or so, will benefit from the use of such devices. The iPad Pro with its larger form works better on a table than in the hand and like the original drawing tablets (e.g. Wacom) the style of this larger device does work so much better with the Apple Pencil. The two complement each other and so users benefit by having it available, despite its relatively high price.

See also:

Apple Smart Keyboard: More Productivity with the iPad Pro

Apple Charging: iPhone 6s and Apple Watch Docks

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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All content copyright © G. K. Rogers 2015