On the whole, I think most reviewers have been too dismissive of the Apple Pencil. There’s no question in my mind that the Apple Pencil is a boon to digital artists. The pinpoint accuracy and the incredible palm rejection make for the very best drawing device I’ve ever used on iOS, but I think the Pencil has a wider appeal than that.
There are lots of pen-and-paper users out there, and I’ve actually spent a fair amount of time and money over the past year in an effort to become one. I acknowledge how silly that sounds, but digital has always been a more comfortable medium for note-taking than a paper notebook, at least as far as I’m concerned. Digital notes can be tagged, duplicated, and synced to any of my devices. I also type far faster than I can write.
But there is no denying there’s a romantic aspect to writing with a real pen, even to a zero-and-one digital loyalist like myself. The scratchiness of a fountain pen on good paper, the sensation of posting a cap before you write, and the way the ink flows over the page — all of these sensations are satisfying in a similar way to typing on a great keyboard. There’s a lot to delight in when you’re writing with quality tools.
This is where the Pencil comes in for me. With the introduction of this accessory, Apple has suddenly given Evernote, Paper, and their own Notes app far greater appeal. There are many instances where text notes don’t fully capture an idea, where a quick diagram would do far more to preserve a memory or train of thought. However, creating these diagrams with any degree of accuracy has always taken extra effort on the iPad. Keeping the palm off of the screen has always been of paramount importance, lest you accidentally activate a multitasking gesture, or leave weird marks on the page from where your palm was resting. All of the third-party stylii with palm rejection only worked about 50% of the time because they were at odds with multitasking gestures built right into iOS. Prior to the Pencil, writing and drawing on iPads always took a considerable degree of contortion to succeed in.
Apple’s Pencil is noteworthy because it breaks all of the rules that other stylii had to abide by…and it just works. It has the power to turn metal and glass into something similar enough to paper. I don’t think it’s overdramatic to say that it sets the form factor free. We’ve been able to use iPads as little writing laptops for a few years now, but the Pencil is what allows you to use an iPad like a blank sheet. You can rest your hand anywhere on the screen when you want to write, and drawing feels very natural, especially when you can physically rotate or tilt the entire canvas. This is something that no other iOS or OS X device can do as well, and it’s a a very powerful selling point for the iPad platform.
In preparation for this article, I’ve spent a lot of time on the iPad Pro in a particular set of apps that have fine-tuned their experience with the Pencil.
Procreate is probably one of the best drawing apps I’ve ever used, and even though my focus in this article is on note-taking, this app is so good that it still deserves a quick mention. This is a class leader in terms of iPad apps. Instead of feeling like an anxious user waiting on more powerful features, Procreate gives me the distinct feeling it’s simply waiting on input. It’s all ready to go.
Evernote’s most recent update has begun to add the drawing and writing features from its Penultimate app. This is interesting because Evernote has some fantastic optical character recognition capabilities built into the service. The drawing tools within Evernote are limited to a pen, highlighter, cutting tool, and eraser, but that’s really all you need for quick sketches and meeting notes. I was never a huge fan of Penultimate’s inking engine, but it works very well with the Pencil.
It has been really useful for writing out article outlines and then shifting text around using the cutting tool. The only thing missing for this workflow is zoom functionality and buttons to quickly jump between drawings inside of the same note.
Zoom functionality would help me add finer detail to notes, but also make it possible to edit iPad Pro notes on my iPhone. As it is now, the Pro notes are just too small for me to change in a meaningful way on my 6S’ screen. Drawings within Evernote could also benefit from a sense of continuity. If you have multiple drawings within a single note, it can be a little laborious to switch between them to view them in fullscreen. A set of arrow keys along the top toolbar would really help to alleviate this issue. Evernote already has a set of back and forward buttons when navigating between linked notes, so there’s already a precedent within the UI for this kind of functionality.
It’s early days yet for drawing and writing within Evernote, but the feature is already very usable on the iPad Pro. I’ve created a number of handwritten notes and was delighted to see how well Evernote could parse my handwriting and make it searchable. If you’ve been craving the freedom of handwritten scribbles but the searchability of digital notes, you no longer need to compromise. Everything is ready to use right now within Evernote.
Paper offers some interesting contrast to Evernote. As I mentioned, Evernote drawings and notes lack a sense of continuity. This is something that physical notebooks provide so well. You can track your train of thought across multiple pages in a physical notebook by flipping through them. There’s no equivalent method of paging through your notes in Evernote.
FiftyThree has approached this disconnect in their Paper 3.0 update by turning pages into collections that they call Spaces. You have the flexibility of seeing Spaces as a grid, but you can also flick through pages much like you would those in a book. When you reach the end of a current row of pages, you’ll automatically switch to the next one.
Paper also does a great job of melding the very best aspects of digital and analog notes. Whereas Evernote favours text and imported files, Paper prioritizes the blank page, and allows you to add extra information to it. Each sheet starts out blank, but you can import a single picture to have it become the background of that page. From there, it’s easy to shine a spotlight on a portion of the image and annotate it. You can even add text notes directly to a specific sheet within Paper, and these notes can be found in Spotlight.
There’s a ton of potential in Paper as a journal, digital notebook, and sketchbook. If FiftyThree are able to introduce a reliable syncing engine, Paper could be a very exciting candidate as a primary note-taking app.
Apple really upgraded the Notes app experience in iOS 9 by adding rich text notes, attachment support, and sketches. Notes is also the very best experience as far as Pencil latency and accuracy go. It may be missing convenient cutting tools to let you move and resize sketches, but Notes currently has the smoothest ink and pencil flow by a long shot. It really feels like Apple honed every aspect of drawing and writing within Notes, and it’s easy to treat a single note like a mini notebook by adding multiple sketches to it.
There’s also a dedicated filter for sketches in the Attachments Browser, so you can quickly take a look at all of the sketches you’ve ever made, regardless of which note they’re located in. This adds a lot of flexibility to the official Notes app because you can search for notes by text, scroll through all of your notes in chronological order, or swipe through specific types of attachments.
Sketches and handwriting created in Notes on the iPad Pro play nicely with other iOS devices. This is something that Evernote and Paper don’t address as well. Paper lacks any sync engine to get notes from an iPad to an iPhone, and Evernote sketches don’t have any zoom capability. Notes is great because it syncs across devices and supports zoom, so you can make little tweaks to sketches or handwritten notes from an iPhone.
The more I write about Notes, the more I end up wanting to use it…but Paper and Evernote still feel more powerful because they let me reorganize my information at will. There’s something about the Notes interface that still feels too rigid to me.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention OneNote somewhere in this article, but I also don’t have much to say about it because it isn’t really the app for me. OneNote earns points for syncing across iOS, OS X, and Windows, and for supporting drawings in an even more fluid way than the other apps I’ve mentioned. You can draw directly on top of a table, right over images, and use markers to highlight text you’ve written out. No other app can do this.
The big caveat is that inking in OneNote doesn’t feel quite as good as in Evernote, Paper, or Notes. The strokes aren’t as accurate, so my handwriting often looks a little sloppier, even when I zoom out. If you’re already a OneNote user then the Pencil support will only make you happier with the app, but the inking experience within the app needs to improve before I’d consider it for note-taking.
Handwriting and Drawing in Split View
One of the coolest multitasking benefits of the iPad Pro is that there’s enough space to read source material and take handwritten notes, simultaneously. I write with my right hand (even though I’m normally left-handed), so I usually keep my note app in Split View along the right hand side. Paper isn’t usable in this mode because it doesn’t support iOS 9 style multitasking yet, but Evernote, Notes, and OneNote are great candidates for this view. Procreate also works in Split View, but I don’t use it for notes.
This can be great for cases where you just don’t have the room or setup to type comfortably, like on small cafe tables or airplane seats. As long as you can lean the iPad Pro on a limb or a surface, it can be very comfortable to write in Split View with the Pencil. This setup is a great alternative for note-taking in situations where a laptop simply wouldn’t fit.
Then there’s the smoother workflow of writing and reading with a Pencil, as opposed to reading and typing with a software keyboard. Split View is good in both cases, but it’s a lot better with the Pencil because the reading experience isn’t interrupted while you take notes. There’s a modal switch required to use the software keyboard. Half of the vertical space on the iPad (in landscape mode) is suddenly lost to the keyboard, and it’s easier to lose your place on the page as the keyboard pops in and out. In contrast, The Pencil doesn’t affect any of the app layouts as you draw on the screen.
I haven’t tested the iPad Pro with a hardware keyboard as intensely, but I have used it on a stand paired with my Logitech Ultrathin. Split View note-taking with a keyboard is also quite good, but you end up reaching forward very often to tap or scroll forward on the page. It’s much easier to do this with the iPad resting flat on a table and a Pencil in one hand. I use my left hand to scroll on the source content and use the right hand to take notes.
The Pencil is currently sold as an extra accessory for $99 USD, but I think it really helps to define what the tablet form factor can be. Palm rejection and pixel-accurate drawing are exactly why a slate device can be so liberating to use, and it has felt revelatory to use the Apple Pencil on this iPad Pro. The iPad Pro now lets me hand write my notes in a way that is impossible to replicate on an MacBook or iPhone.
The Pencil also allows me to carry fewer items around. My everyday carry used to be the Air 2, a keyboard, a notebook, and a set of pens. However, with an iPad Pro around, a Smart Keyboard and a Pencil are all I need. It’s lighter than my previous setup, and there’s significant space savings as well, which allows me to use my lighter bags more often.
Apple’s Pencil isn’t cheap, and I really wish it wasn’t an extra $99 USD on top of the purchase price, but I think it defines what this new tablet can do. The iPad has been my light writing and browsing machine for a while, but with the Pencil, it has suddenly becomes my notebook as well. I’ve been using this combo for about 10 days now and I still don’t think I’ve had enough time for that to properly sink in yet.