Pencil iPad stylus review: 'Stylish and serious - this might make an artist of you yet'

£49.99 (graphite); £64.99 (walnut)

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The Independent Tech

Most drawing apps for tablets make you feel like a child. The glassy feel of the display, the lack of pressure sensitivity, and the slight lag between your touch and the marks appearing onscreen can shatter the daydream of evenings spent idly - but beautifully - sketching. Artistic ability and patience are always the key to achieving this, but if these are in short supply then most tablet users agree that a stylus can also bridge leap this gap.

And as for styluses, the best we’ve used to date is the Pencil by US company FiftyThree, which has just recently launched in the UK. It's not just the stylus you're buying but the hardware as well, with the purchase unlocking a range of tools and features in Paper, the company’s well-received iOS drawing app. Pair them together and you have what FiftyThree is the best way to get your ideas out your head and onto the page screen.

The design of Pencil itself is exemplary. Available in either graphite or walnut, it’s a squat, slightly angular thing, shaped like a carpenter’s pencil with plastic nubs on the bottom and the top that work as pencil (or pen, marker, paintbrush, etc) and eraser. It connects to the iPad over low power Bluetooth as painlessly as you like, with the inside of the thing pulling out to plug into USB ports for a charge. FiftyThree says it’ll last around a month on a single charge, and though we didn’t need to plug it in our week reviewing it, this might of course vary if you’re using it professionally.

 

Once it’s lost its charge, Pencil works as an ordinary stylus, but it’s all the Bluetooth and app-enabled functionality that make it useful. There’s a ‘palm rejection’ function that means you can rest your hand on your tablet without fear of smudging (such a retro problem) and a speed sensitivity that lets you vary the thickness or opacity of your line by drawing faster or slower.

Inevitably, all this still leaves leaves a lot to be desired when compared to the real thing (there’s no friction; no physical correspondence between the ‘give’ in the plastic nub and the flexibility of your virtual marker) but it’s still an infinitely better tool than you finger – although we would have preferred a slightly thinner tip for more accurate line drawing.

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As it’s all digital, FiftyThree will also be offering sporadic updates that increase Pencil’s functionality, with a new feature named Surface Pressure that allows you to shade with the flat edge of the tip slated to hit the app with the launch of iOS 8 this autumn and the promise of real pressure sensitivity in the future – not just this fast for thin, slow for fat stuff. Software updates for your sketchpad are good - just don’t expect corresponding upgrades for your artistic ability.

Unfortunately, this might be the sticking point for some people. You can’t expect the right tool to turn you from an amateur into professional (although this has never stopped wannabe creative from splashing out on everything from Moleskins to expensive oil painting kits in the past). There’s also the price, with Paper costing £49.99 for the graphite version and £64.99 for the walnut. Both are very handsome, but with products from the likes of rivals like Wacom costing half as much you do feel like you’re paying for the design.

And is it worth it? Well, yes, if you like the sort of thing, it is. Pencil feels great in the hand and Paper is one of those apps that you can sell the iPad with – it's smooth, stylish, and does everything it can to enable rather than trip you up. Pencil won’t make you into an artist just by picking it up but it might get drawing and trying to draw more - and that's always the first step.

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