Pencil. The Best Stylus Built for Paper by 53?

Pencil. The Best Stylus Built for Paper by 53?

For the last month I’ve had the privilege of using FiftyThree’s first hardware product, Pencil. A Bluetooth stylus that works exclusively with Paper for iPad, and delivers an experience unlike other styli on the market.

Look and Feel

The Walnut and Graphite finishes both look beautiful. If pressed to pick a favorite, I would probably choose Graphite, just because it feels heavier and more solid to me. But there is something nostalgic and comforting about Walnut’s wooden texture that makes it a close second.

Walnut and Graphite Pencils

If you haven’t noticed, Pencil is flat like a carpenter pencil, which keeps it from rolling about and getting lost1. Because of the wide and flat shape, I did find it uncomfortable to hold at first. After a few drawing sessions it was hardly a concern as my hand quickly adapted to Pencil’s contour.

Between the two finishes, Walnut is lighter and softer to the touch with a wood texture allowing for more grip. Because of Graphite’s slick finish I occasionally had to readjust how I held it. When trying to fill in large continuous tones of watercolor I noticed it sliding the most. Which was slightly annoying because I didn’t want to lift the tip off the screen to readjust my grip, ruining the smooth tone I was painting.

Similar to Paper, Pencil shares the same minimally designed aesthetic — that means no buttons, no battery indicator lights2, and no on/off switches. I love how the UI in Paper doesn’t get in your way, and it’s refreshing that Pencil’s design echoes this theme. Common tasks like erasing or blending become more natural, without the need to open the tool tray or press buttons. Want to erase something? Flip Pencil upside down and erase a mistake like you would “in real life.” Need to soften pencil strokes? Use your finger to smudge the pixels.

Pencil's battery charging in USB port
So I lied. There is one LED light hidden inside, only visible when charging Pencil via USB.

Just the Tip

Pogo Connect support

To be honest I was a little disappointed when I discovered Pencil’s tip wouldn’t be pressure sensitive and support for the Pogo Connect was temporarily suspended3.

As someone who relies on a Pogo Connect for the expressiveness it brings to Paper — giving that up and switching to Pencil full time is a hard sell. On the flip, Pencil is a perfect companion for casual doodlers and sketch note takers looking to experience everything Paper has to offer.

Closeup of Pencil's tip and replacement packaging

The tip is responsive and as accurate as one can expect from the limitations the iPad’s screen imposes on stylus makers. It is wedge shaped and offers a slightly finer point than the rubber nibs found on AluPens, Bamboos, and their capacitive tipped peers. Pencil’s tip also does a great job of repelling finger grease that accumulates on the iPad’s screen, unlike other styli I’ve used that simply push it around and obscure your drawing.

FiftyThree’s website suggests using the broad side of the tip to fill in large sections. Maybe it is wishful thinking on my part, but I got the implied impression that using the broad side would produce thicker marks. In my tests it just doesn’t work that way. I suppose it is faster to use the long edge to make marks faster so that’s a positive.

Pencil stroke with the tip Pencil stroke with broad side
As you can see, line weight isn’t effected by using the tip or the broad side. Bummer.

Is it Durable?

It’s by no means the best tip I’ve used in terms of durability. My first tip wore out after 3–4 hours of drawing, applying the same amount of pressure I use with a Pogo Connect. A pen’s tip that I can use for a solid 3 months, everyday, before it starts to show signs of wear.

I’ve since modified how hard I press and am happy to report that the replacement tip Pencil ships with is still going strong after ~15 hours. Drawing with the broad side appears to prolong life, reducing the amount of friction between the 14k gold plated tip underneath the rubber covering. Worth noting that even after wearing through the rubber, it was still completely usable, albeit with some black streaking4 across the screen.

Closeup of drawing with Pencil's broad side

Will it Blend?

For me Blend is the most exciting thing about Pencil. Sure a ton of other art apps have smudging and blending tools, but they all break the creative flow in their implementations. FiftyThree has made this valuable tool fun and more true to real drawing by allowing you to use your finger to blend while quickly switching back to Pencil to draw.

Blend speed comparison

If you take the time to experiment with Blend I think you’ll find it fairly sophisticated. Moving your finger slowly allows the pixels beneath to be pulled around and smudged like finger paints. Moving your finger fast over an area slightly blurs it which I’ve found useful in creating depth of field effects.

Constant Pressure is the Key

Varying the pressure to the tip while drawing often mistakenly triggers Blend. The software is usually pretty good at figuring out when you want to Blend and corrects itself before blurring something. But if you’re trying to draw lightly to preserve your Pencil tips then you and Mr. Rewind are going to become close friends because of it.

I’m curious to learn about the experiences of others using Pencil and Blend. As my tips have broken in I’ve noticed a loss of spring when pressing down, which appears to decrease Pencil’s overall sensitivity — causing Blend to trigger mid-stroke. Not sure if this is a common occurrence or a symptom of me pressing too hard on the tip. Chime in below with your observations…

What About the Eraser?

I’m not one for erasing and instead rely heavily on Rewind. But for those of you who do employ the eraser tool often, you’re going to love Pencil. Instead of stopping to open the tool tray, selecting the eraser, erasing your mistake, and going back to a drawing tool — you now can flip Pencil on its head and erase instantly. It’s not any more precise than the tool Paper shipped with, but it is way more convenient.

Pencil erasing with short edge Pencil erasing with long edge
Sadly using the short or long edge doesn’t effect the size of the eraser tool.

Palm Resters of the World Rejoice

Palm rejection has never been a concern of mine, but I know many have been waiting for a stylus that can enable it in Paper. I’m happy to say FiftyThree delivers on the following statement:

Rest your hand on the screen, write from any angle. No calibration or setup.

In my tests I had no issues drawing with my hands resting on the iPad’s screen. All of the expected gestures to pinch open the zoom loupe, rewind mistakes, flip through pages, and close the tool tray worked just fine — without causing stray marks and blends.

Final Thoughts

To sum it up. If you’re a casual doodler looking for a stylus that mimics a traditional drawing utensil and have need of palm rejection, then Pencil is your number 1 choice. On the other hand if you’re a pro-user who relies on a stylus with a pressure sensitive tip you’re going to be left wanting more from Pencil.

And if you’re new to Paper and haven’t purchased any of the tools from the free app, connecting Pencil enables all of them for 30 days. As long as you continue to use Pencil with Paper you’ll never have to purchase the extra tools, which helps take some of the sting off of Pencil’s price.

There’s a lot of opportunity for the built-in eraser and Blend feature, and I’m interested to see where FiftyThree takes them. I would love for an eraser that enabled control over what type of stroke you erased. This would be extremely useful for cleaning up a pencil sketch that might be exposed after inking or painting over. Or what if Blend smudged strokes based more on their real world properties — ink would blur less than pencil for example.

So many possibilities…

Questions

Want to know more about Pencil or the new features it enables — ask away in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer. For those who have enjoyed my set of Mastering Paper Guides I plan to add Pencil and Blend into the mix after I’ve had more time to experiment.

For giggles here's a time lapse of me drawing with Pencil. Check out my sweet green band-aid yo!

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  1. The Walnut model has a built in clip that allows it to stick to an iPad Smart Cover magnetically — magnets, how do they work? Cool party trick but not something I’ll use much.

  2. A LED light does exist, but it is not visible during normal use. When the battery is plugged into a USB port an amber light can be observed as it charges.

  3. The 1.5.1 update to Paper re-enabled Pogo Connect support. You can’t use a Pencil and Pogo Connect at the same time, but it’s easy enough to disconnect one and switch to the other if you’re looking to take advantage of Blend.

  4. Black rubber streaking from the tip taring was easily cleaned off the iPad’s screen by wiping with a cloth.