Affordable Tech: Digital Drawing

Affordable Tech: Digital Drawing

Gemma Church gets to the point - are the new stylus pens mightier than the sword?

The recent launch of the iPad Pro was, for many freelance designers and artists, a dream come true. Anyone who’s ever tried to draw on an iPad knows its limitations in terms of canvas size and the level of detail available. The iPad Pro is a larger, more powerful iPad with a secret weapon – a stylus known as the Apple Pencil.

The Apple Pencil promises “precision that gives you the ability to touch a single pixel” – could this open the floodgates for digital drawing tech? And does such technology mean that high-quality equipment such as the Wacom Board (£249.99) is no longer necessary?

The launch of the Apple Pencil came as a surprise. Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, derided the stylus when the iPad was launched back in 2010. He declared that “if you see a stylus” on tablets, you know that the tablet makers “blew it”.

The context behind this statement is often overlooked. Jobs did tend to take back his own damning declarations, but the Apple founder was actually talking about the input method for the iPad during a time when the stylus was widely used by Microsoft’s tablets and Apple advocated a simpler input device, the human finger.

The world has continued to turn since 2010 and styluses aimed at the design market have sold in their millions under third-party brand names. The FiftyThree Pencil (retailing at £49.95) and Wacom’s Intuos Creative Stylus 2 (more on this later) are both examples of third-party styluses. Microsoft has continued to develop its stylus technology and its latest Surface Pro 4 tablet comes with an updated and improved stylus, known as the Surface Pen.

Whatever Apple’s motive is, the Pencil pushes the iPad in a new direction: toward creatives and designers. That is not to say the stylus is not a great option for regular users. Styluses offer freelancers an intuitive and professional method to sketch out ideas, and to take and save notes.

Stylus technology has vastly improved in recent times in terms of sensitivity, reactiveness and design. The styluses on offer from the likes of Microsoft, Apple and other third-party providers give users an experience akin to a pen and paper. Many have established a considerable fan base within the freelancer community. Let’s take a look at the Apple Pencil alongside some of these other styluses now.

Apple Pencil

  • App compatibility – third-party app support for the Pencil will be strong. Microsoft and Adobe are already on board.
  • Sensitivity – Apple hasn’t shared any hard data on this, but has revealed that the Pencil can sense multiple layers of pressure, the angle and the orientation of the stylus, promising to provide a textural experience. The iPad’s touch subsystem also now scans twice as often to capture more points per stroke.
  • Easy to charge – a built-in lightning jack gives you 30 minutes of juice in just 15 seconds and the Pencil has 12 hours of battery life, according to Apple.
  • Latency – the Apple Pencil promises negligible latencies, offering a subsystem that scans its signal 240 times per second.
  • Poor design – the Pencil is an oddly large, plastic-like device that does not tally with Apple’s typically sleek designs. Some designers have complained the Pencil is slippery and difficult to hold.
  • Easy to lose – the Pencil is cylindrical, so it easily rolls off surfaces. There’s also no storage facility to stash the Pencil away.
  • Limited iPad support – the Pencil is not compatible with any iPads other than the iPad Pro.
  • High cost – the Pencil will cost £79, you have to use it with an iPad Pro which starts at £679.

Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus

  • Sensitivity – reacting to the slightest variation in pressure and with a thinner 2.9mm writing tip compared with its previous model, this third-party stylus offers 2,048 pressure levels.
  • Rechargeable – fitted with a rechargeable battery and a built-in lightning jack. The Wacom Stylus can also be charged via a USB cable with a battery life of 26 hours.
  • Cost – RRP £62.76, the Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus 2 is a comparable price to the Apple Pencil, but works on most iPad models.
  • App compatibility – app compatibility is not great (which is a problem with many third-party iPad styluses) but Wacom claims the stylus is compatible with 17 apps including Autodesk SketchBook and Adobe Photoshop Sketch, at the time of writing. The device also does not work with the iPad Air 2.

Surface Pen for Surface Pro 4

  • Sensitivity – the new Pen from Microsoft offers 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, an improvement on its predecessor.
  • Cost – the Pen is free when bought with the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or £44.99 when bought separately.
  • Sleek design – the Surface Pen is redesigned to feel more like a pencil. With one flat side, the Pen is comfortable to hold and your index finger rests just above the main function button on the flat end. It also incorporates a magnetic strip for easy storage on the side of the Surface tablet.
  • Battery life – the Pen is battery powered by an AAAA disposable battery which, according to Microsoft, will last a full year. The magnetic clip mechanism helps extend the battery life by turning the pen off once it is connected to the tablet.
  • Incompatibility – not all third-party apps are compatible. Also only compatible with Microsoft’s Surface 3 and 4 tablets.

Mightier than the sword?

Stylus technology is improving to match user demands in terms of cost and experience within the digital drawing arena. There are still some unknowns around the Apple Pencil, but its release is a clear signal that the stylus market is far from defunct. Within the freelance community, your choice of stylus depends on your line of business. Designers and creatives will benefit from highend stylus tech, such as the Apple Pencil, Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus 2 or Surface Pen, as these tend to offer a better overall drawing experience. If you just want a high-tech method to scribble down a few meeting notes, then a high-end stylus with its high-end price tag could be a false investment. Whether the Apple Pencil will be embraced by the wider freelance community is as yet unclear. Dedicated products for drawing are still preferred by many. Designers and non-designers do seem willing to try the Pencil, and it provides a great on-the-go option. However until costs come down and the stylus design improves, it could fail to win the hearts, minds and budgets of the freelance world.


Article by Gemma Church

Gemma is 'the freelance writer that gets tech'