Apple Pencil

At this point it probably goes without saying that Apple Pencil has been one of the major points of focus for this tablet. With the iPad Air 2, I noted that a proper stylus and keyboard would go a long way towards making the iPad more productivity focused. It turns out that Apple’s solution to the stylus part of the equation is a custom design that they call the Apple Pencil.

As best as I can tell, this stylus is at least somewhat capacitive-based. If Apple’s marketing material is accurate, it mentions a change from the 120 Hz sampling rate of the capacitive touch screen in normal use to 240 Hz when the stylus is detected. In addition to simple touch, the stylus measures pressure, azimuth, and altitude. When discussing azimuth, we’re basically looking at the angle that the stylus makes with the plane of the display, while altitude is the angle that the stylus makes relative to the normal of the display.

Charging the stylus is pretty simple. Included in the box is a female to female Lightning connector, so you can use a Lightning to USB cable to charge the stylus with either an AC adapter or a powered USB port. Of course, there’s also the case where you’re trying to charge the device on the go, in which case the stylus can be charged directly from either the iPad Pro or an iPhone. A lot of people have pointed out that this is a rather inelegant method of dealing with charging on the go, but given that the primary method of charging is through a Lightning connector I don’t really see any other solution to this problem, especially without compromising the ergonomics that come with the current design. Charging the stylus happens quickly enough that I never felt that it was a limiting factor in usage.

Apple Pencil itself is a comfortable instrument to write with. Unlike most styluses on the market designed to fit in a tablet or smartphone the body has a sufficiently large diameter that gripping it isn’t difficult for extended periods of time. The pencil also has an uneven weight distribution, which means that it won’t roll off of tables, though not so uneven that it's noticeable in the hand. The one problem worth noting here is that Apple Pencil is glossy plastic. After extended use I noticed that finger oil and lint had a tendency to produce an uncomfortable sensation. A matte soft touch texture may make more sense here, but that would introduce additional issues with the finish wearing off with extended use.

Credits to Nina Ling and Cory Ye respectively

Of course, the important part here is writing with the stylus. Although I’ve already discussed the application of note taking in class before, in the time since my initial remarks on the iPad Pro I decided to do an entire project report on Apple Pencil in order to get a better feel for the stylus and its usability. This was done for a digital logic project in which we were required to draw out finite state machine diagrams, truth tables, block diagrams, and other portions of the design. I would estimate that over the course of this project, I spent at least 4 hours a day using the iPad Pro for 2-3 days.

One of the most immediate observations I had was that in some ways, the iPad Pro with Apple Pencil is far and away superior to pencil and paper. Even using the rather spartan Notes app this became clear. There were multiple cases throughout this project where a change that would have been difficult to make with pencil and paper was relatively simple to do so with Apple Pencil and the iPad Pro. For example, in cases where extra precision was needed it was possible to zoom in to erase a portion of text precisely. When an erasure was done poorly or on accident, reverting it was trivial as well. The project report, which eventually spanned 16 pages in length was synced to iCloud and was accessible from laptops and smartphones, which meant that it would be difficult, if not impossible to lose accidentally. It’s also noticeably more convenient to carry around an iPad Pro rather than a folder filled with paper. Along the same train of thought, drawing long truth tables with the straightedge function of the Notes app is much easier than carrying around a ruler everywhere. It was also great to have the project requirements and the notes application open side by side, which meant that there wasn’t a need to print out the project spec.

One notable problem that I did encounter with the Notes app is when the work I was doing spanned more than one page/sketch. An example of this would be cases where I would have to construct a state table based upon a state diagram that was sketched based upon the project requirements. If the state diagram was on a separate page, then I would simply have to switch back and forth between the two sketches or save the relevant sketch as an image to view in the gallery application, which felt a bit clunky.

The other issue, as it turns out, was getting the sketches off of the iPad Pro onto my laptop once I was ready to turn my work in. On the plus side, because all of my sketches were already digitized there was no need to locate a scanner and generate images or PDFs. However, the Notes app felt noticeably constrained in terms of export options. For example, there was no way of turning the 16 sketches I had drawn into a PDF on the device. I also discovered that as of iOS 9.2 attempting to save all sketches as images was broken as only 5 of the 16 sketches were saved to the gallery. Exporting the sketches by attaching them to an email was also unacceptable as the email export resolution was nowhere near native resolution. In the end, in order to get all of the sketches I had made off of the iPad in full resolution I had to manually select each sketch and save it to the gallery, before uploading all of the images to Dropbox. From my laptop, I could then put all of the images together into a PDF or some other acceptable format for submission.

However, despite these issues I found that the iPad Pro was remarkable for doing what very few tablets have really succeeded at. The iPad Pro actually feels comparable to pencil and paper to the extent that I never once felt like I wanted to go back to pencil and paper while doing the final project. Both the display and the stylus have sufficient resolution to the extent that precise work is easily achieved. The feel of the stylus feels like a good pen or pencil, without odd weight distribution problems.

Latency is also exceptionally low compared to most consumer solutions. Out of curiosity, I borrowed a Wacom Cintiq connected to a Macbook Air with an Intel i5 4250U CPU (Haswell 1.3/2.6 GHz) to do a basic latency comparison. Using Adobe Photoshop on the Wacom Cintiq and Adobe Photoshop Sketch on the iPad Pro and a high speed camera, I attempted to characterize latency by using a simple pen tool (3 px, full flow) by measuring the delta in time from when the pen was at a specific point and when inking reached the same point.

Stylus Latency - iPad Pro vs. Wacom Cintiq
  iPad Pro
(Photoshop Sketch)
Wacom Cintiq
(Photoshop)
Latency 49ms +/- 4ms
(3 frames)
116ms +/- 4ms
(7 frames)

After a few trials I measured an approximate latency for the iPad Pro of roughly 49ms or 3 frames of delay, while the Wacom Cintiq in this configuration had roughly 116ms or ~7 frames of delay. It’s worth mentioning here that the camera I used was recording at 240 FPS, so these figures could be off by around 4ms even before accounting for human error. Although the Cintiq 22 HD does have higher latency, I wouldn’t put too much into this as it’s likely that a more powerful computer driving the display would narrow, if not eliminate the gap entirely.

For reference, I estimated the Surface Pro 3 to have about 87 ms or 5-6 frames of delay, and the Surface Book to have about 69 ms or around 4 frames of delay. However, in the case of the Surface devices I was using Fresh Paint, which is a drawing application that isn't exactly comparable to Photoshop but is sufficient for comparison purposes. To give an idea for how much the application has an effect on latency, the Apple Notes app has roughly 38 ms or around 2 frames of latency from when the stylus tip passes over one point to when the inking reaches the same point.

While not strictly hardware, the software equation is really a critical part here as there are actual applications for the Apple Pencil which make it possible to use right now. An example of this would be OneNote, uMake, and Adobe Comp CC/Photoshop Sketch. Some of these applications work shockingly well like Photoshop Sketch, while something like OneNote feels relatively sparse by comparison as pretty much the only thing you can do with the stylus is draw simple lines with pressure sensitive thickness, with some automatic conversion of drawings to basic geometric shapes. With the right software, I can easily see the iPad Pro completely displacing traditional note-taking in light of obvious advantages that would come with OCR and digitizing notes for easy search.

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  • MaxIT - Saturday, February 13, 2016 - link

    There is one reason for that: most PCs are just cheap computers compared to Macs Reply
  • ddriver - Sunday, January 24, 2016 - link

    "90% of the professional software development studios I work with are almost solely Mac based"

    That has got to do with the urban legend, begot during the time of apple's pathetic "mac is cool, pc is for dorks" ad campaigns. Ignorant people with no tech knowledge genuinely believe the macs are a good deal. And while the hardware is OK, it offers too little value for the cost, software is... meh... more professional grade products run on windows than on macos. There aren't any notable macos exclusives, there are some professional products which do not support macos.

    The ipad "pro" software wise doesn't offer anything on top of the regular ipad, the same cheap, crippled, rudimentary applications. It is a little bigger and has a pen with the world's lamest charging implementation, that's about it.

    There is no software for the ipad a professional musician or produced could use, the apps which exist for that platform and light years behind the professional software you can run on a windows tablet. None of the professional DAWs, editors, synthesizers, effects or samplers are available for the ipad. Usually the companies which make such professional products have offer very basic and very scaled down versions of their flagship products, far below the requirements of professionals, really only suited for amateur beginners.

    That pretty much sums the ipad "pro" - it is a product for "professional" amateurs :)

    iOS is a walled garden, apparently, because apple deems its "smart user base" too dumm to deserve freedom and flexibility. And professional apps need that much as professional users do. Even if there are professional apps, they sure as hell won't be available on the apple store, and would require to root your device and void its warranty so it can be used.

    "but everyone who thinks that the surface pro 4 is even remotely in the same category of device, is utterly smoking crack"

    DO'H, of course they are not, the surface pro is a real professional computer inside a tablet, the ipad is a hipster/child toy inside a tablet.
    Reply
  • Constructor - Sunday, January 24, 2016 - link

    This is exactly the same type of argumentation that tried to "prove" that personal computers had to be "useless toys" – no, that graphical user interfaces were only for "useless toys" – no, that those silly laptop computers could only be "useless toys" – no, that touchscreen smartphones without hardware keyboards could only be "useless toys"...

    And now, after all these prior predictions have already crashed and burned, tablets are your last and only remaining hope that your oversimplified conclusions from your own preconceived notions might maybe not share the same fate.

    Good luck with that! B-)
    Reply
  • darwiniandude - Monday, February 29, 2016 - link

    iOS and OS X are low latency end to end, with built in audio hardware. Windows is not. iPhone 5s, iPad Air1, iPad mini 2, onwards, can record from 32 simultaneous inputs onto separate tracks with ease till their disk is full. And it's 100% solid. There is much capable and professionally usable iOS music software. And robust plugin and Interapp audio communication logins. Reply
  • jlabelle - Thursday, January 28, 2016 - link

    "the surface pro 4 (a mildly crappy laptop with a touchscreen that makes a bad, thick tablet and an underpowered, overheated laptop)"

    Strange way of seeing things when the surface Pro 4 is pretty much : 1/ the thinner laptop existing
    2/ the higher end version is like several order of magnitude more powerful than the MacBook and 3/ it has the same Intel processor as most over high end laptop and overheat the same way and it has an option of having a fanless / staying cold core M if this is your thing
    Reply
  • darwiniandude - Monday, February 29, 2016 - link

    Music applications iOS is the only game in town. Windows doesn't have low latency except if you use external audio hardware. Many PC notebooks even then cannot achieve low latency due to design flaws. A client recently bought an AUD$3500 Alienware purely for running Tracktor. Spent 6 months trying everything including reverting to Win7. It just crackles and jumps. I worked in the music industry building audio PCs for 8 years and I had a look over the system and tried everything. No dice. I told him it won't work. He bought an AUD$2500 MacBook Pro, installed Tracktor, works faultlessly. Of course.

    The issue here is more the Alienware craptop where audio is no priority at all, than Windows. Windows has the horrible burden of trying to support every combination of everything. I know this. But for some professional allocations there is no way I'd ever run a Windows system anymore.

    Look at anyone performing live with music. It's all Mac / iOS. The sound engineer guys will use a PC laptop because of the old editor utilities for audio equipment needing RS232 etc, but the music you hear is coming off Apple gear.
    Reply
  • leemond - Thursday, February 11, 2016 - link

    you took the words right out of my mouth! throughout reading this article i cannot fail to see the thinly veiled adoration for Apple held by the author and it is telling in the way he wields the pseudo negatives statements against the product. i was expecting an unbiased fair appraisal of this product but what i got was the Apple store salesman dressed up as an annnandtech reviewer. This product is simply two things the original iPad is not, 1) bigger and 2) has a pencil....not revolutionary and also not that impressive a feat....apple have lost the wow factor that won them so many new customers and they only have these fanboys left to applaud fanatically like a north Korean Army officer listening to KJU.. Reply
  • Constructor - Friday, February 12, 2016 - link

    Your own post positively reeks of a fanaticism which is simply absent in the article outside of what you're projecting into it from yourself.

    Major and remarkable features are:
    • A highly advanced CPU which has effectively closed the gap to Intel's Core i architecture at comparable TDP.
    • The Pencil which is at the very least among the best on the market.
    • A crazy-good speaker system for its size class which actually makes listening to music or watching movies enjoyable.

    Beyond that, yes, it is "just" a bigger, faster, better iPad, but as long as you're not looking for an awkward hybrid device, that's actually a plus.
    Reply
  • jlabelle - Thursday, January 28, 2016 - link

    It is utterly non sense. W10 is not more or less "insecure loaded-with-spyware-at-the-factory desktop OS" as OS X.
    If you want to have the same "secure" experience as an iOS tablet, just install only applications from the Windows Store and it will be the same. If you want to use more powerful program or software that do not exist in the Store, you must like OS X take care of installing them from a reputable source. Nothing complicated.
    Also, this is also utterly ridicule to claim that there are no good Windows Store app. There was examples given on the previous pages. There are plenty and you know that. You have ven some which are still quite unique like Polarr or DrawboardPDF.
    I know Apple users have a hard time (and the reviewer as well) understanding that having an Apple tablet and an Apple laptop OS is even more a Frankenstein experience than having only ONE OS with ONE UI, able to run ALL type of applications and able to support ALL type of inputs so you can choose what is best for the task at end.
    People consider that EVERY tasks that you have to do with a tablet is best without keyboard or mouse or pen. This is simply not true. Typing a long text with the on-screen keyboard is an exercise in frustration.
    Also people consider that EVERY task on a laptop is best without touchscreen or pen. This is also wrong. Annoting a PDF, surfing the web, manipulation by hand an object of a webpage is much easier with touch or pen.
    Having to go back and forth between 2 different devices that have silos input method IS what is a Frankenstein experience in my view.
    And last point, the Surface has provided a "paper and pencil" experience since 3 years, much prior Apple and is still providing a top notch experience, with a pen autonomy of more than 1 year, interchangeable tip and great performance.
    Reply
  • MaxIT - Saturday, February 13, 2016 - link

    Wrong because you said so ?
    Surface are just half baked solutions to a non existent problem. There are tasks where I require a tablet and tasks where I require a notebook. I don't want an half baked solution not good as a tablet nor good as a notebook....
    Reply

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