Some Thoughts on the Apple Pencil

I got a 9.7″ iPad Pro yesterday; I hadn’t planned to upgrade, but it turned out that it was useful to hand down my iPad Air 2 to my partner, whose iPad 3 is showing signs of age. Naturally, since I bought the iPad Pro, I had to get the Pencil.

I’m intrigued by the idea of using a stylus to write on the iPad. I actually envisage using it to take notes and mark up PDFs. As such, I bought the $8 GoodNotes, on the recommendations of several friends who already have the gargantuan iPad Pro.

Now, I have to come clean: my handwriting is horrible. It always has been, no matter how much I was shamed when in grade school. Also, I rarely write by hand any more; it’s quicker for me to dictate into my iPhone or iPad, though I do keep a pad of paper and a pencil on my desk to take notes during the day. (And I’m a big fan of pencils, even though I don’t use them much…)

So the idea of writing on the iPad made me hesitant. Here’s an example:

Handwriting

I can read it just fine, so if I take notes and just want to read them, it’s no problem. However, I may also want to benefit from GoodNotes’ built in OCR capabilities. (You use the lasso tool to surround text, then tap the selected area, then tap Convert.) I’ve been around Apple products to have used a Newton a bit, back in the day, so I wasn’t expecting much. But to my surprise:

Recognition

This is just one example. In my testing yesterday, I found that GoodNotes’ OCR is about 98% accurate; and when it’s not accurate, it’s my fault for making letters that overlap. This is simply astounding.

As to the Pencil itself, I have a few gripes. It’s quite slippery. The plastic is very smooth, it’s hard to pick up off my desk, and it’s slippery to hold. I prefer the knurled grip area of a pencil like the rOtring 800 mechanical pencil, which I use daily to take notes. I’ll eventually put something on the Apple Pencil to make it easier to hold, such as a piece of tape, but Apple should have considered this. (Or they could have made it hexagonal, like real wooden pencils.)

Pencils

The Apple Pencil is also an inch or so too long. My guess is they calculated the size for artists who hold a pencil far from the tip when shading, but it’s much more than anyone needs if they’re only writing. And the Apple Pencil suffers from the problem most styluses have: a lack of resistance. It’s too smooth against the iPad Pro’s screen. The drag you feel when writing on paper actually helps you write better by slowing you down.

Aside from those caveats, the Apple Pencil feels good in the hand. It has the right heft, not too heavy, not too light. However, it’s missing one important feature. The lack of a clip means that if you put it onto a desk or table that is not perfectly flat, the Pencil will roll. People have already realized that they need to add a clip to the Pencil, and it’s a shame to have to do that.

I’m looking forward to using the Pencil more to take notes on my iPad; maybe if I write more, my handwriting will improve. I’m a big fan of analogue tools – including pencil and paper – but the OCR available in GoodNotes is nearly magical, and means that I can take a lot of notes and not have to type them into my Mac later.

10 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Apple Pencil

  1. Go to Staples.com and search for pencil grips — they should make your gripping and rolling problems a thing of the past, and they are much better looking than tape!

  2. The stylus in my Samsung tablet is also pretty good, with excellent handwriting recognition built in to the tablet software. It has the added advantage of not requiring charging and being small enough to stow inside the tablet.

    This is the first time I’ve seen mention of handwriting recognition using the Apple pencil: can you use it to write text in, for example, a Word document? I think my iPad 3 is a bit geriatric for this new tech!

    • Handwriting recognition is a feature of the GoodNotes app, it’s not part of iOS yet. And the Pencil only works on the two iPad Pro models.

  3. I’m soooo tempted to get the iPad Pro and pencil for work bc I take a lot of notes during meeting that I later need to re-type on my PC. Note taking and OCR IS THE REASON I would buy it. NOt really interested in all the rest. I have my iPhone 6S Plus for that.

    Your article has practically pushed me over the edge and I much appreciate your objective gripes instead of gushing praise or hateful criticism.

    I would really like to ask you, more than just the “My handwriting isn’t very readable”, to share, if you can, longer texts you’ve converted, a few paragraphs or something like that. I WOULD BE ETERNALLY GRATEFUL for it!

    • I did test longer bits before I wrote the article. It was, as I said, about 98% accurate. Note that you can’t OCR several pages at once; you have to select text with the lasso, so that limits you to a single page. My guess is they’ve used that limit because it’s harder to do multiple pages, but I’m not sure.

  4. I would recommend the app Writepad Pro over GoodNotes, the text recognition functionality is far superior to GoodNotes.

  5. I’ve had the Apple Pencil since the original iPad Pro came out.

    While it started out as nothing but win, it’s turned out to be a disappointment for a single reason.

    With time, it gets very “sticky” moving on the tablet. It gets especially grippy on the screen as the tip heats up a bit (if you sketch, and you cross-hatch, you’ll know what I’m talking about). The tip also seems to soak up finger oils.

    I can give the tablet a nice thorough clean with any one of plain cotton cloth, microfibre, and faux suede. The pencil still grabs. I can clean the pencil tip. It still grabs.

    I’ve found that, temporarily, using something like nail polish remover (possible also simple rubbing alcohol, but I don’t have any to try) will clean the tip enough to restore near-new performance. But it doesn’t last.

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