Pencil by FiftyThree Review

Pencil meets Paper

Pencil and Paper. Possibly the hardest things to replicate digitally, yet FiftyThree, a company born from the ashes of the Microsoft Courier project, have done a damn good job so far.

Paper was one those apps, that when it arrived kept to the sure-fire tried and tested app formula – do one thing and do it exceptionally well. Paper allowed you to draw. As you unlocked the other tools, it allowed you to sketch and paint. Later, updates would make the behaviour of those tools even more like their real life counterparts.

There was quite a debate over skeuomorphism a few years ago. As the fake leather and metal effects were dropped from app design, there was a key part of skeuomorphism not being discussed:

‘Skeuomorphism is the design concept of making items represented resemble their real-world counterparts.’

I’ve emphasised ‘items represented resemble’ there, as that’s the key part of skeuomorphisem in my opinion and one where FiftyThree excelled. They didn’t make the tools look like pens and paper, they made them behave that way.

All of that brings us to the Pencil. With Bluetooth 4.0 came some superpowers to Bluetooth. The 4.0 standard meant low power and proximity based technologies could be used and people came up with some great uses, the best known among them was the Pebble Smartwatch. At the same time, designers were working on ways to make the stylus better.

Famously, Steve Jobs joked about using a Stylus during the iPhone launch back in 2007. With the iPad and graphics apps, a stylus was rapidly becoming the best input device. Taking the position of being seamless and simple, FiftyThree came up with the Pencil.

The Pencil is, when you boil it down, a Bluetooth stylus available in Aluminium or Walnut. It’s got an internal battery and it has two ends, the tip for drawing and an eraser on the top. The Pencil weighs in at about the same as a regular metal pen, with it’s weight distributed along the length of the device. In the Walnut version, there is a real feeling of a natural device. As in, it feels exactly as it should.

To use, the Pencil quickly spoils you. Having the Bluetooth connection, you can be as light and as exacting as you like with your contact with the screen. This is quite different from using a stylus that relies on captive technology.  As you move the nib across the screen, the feeling is unmistakably rubber on glass and not ink on paper. The results however are more a kin to their real world counterparts.

Being liked with the device, it allows you to rest your hand on the screen and use your fingers for other actions like smudging or zooming in on your work.

Make a mistake and simply turn the pencil over and use the eraser as if it were a normal pencil. This interaction of software and hardware are where the words ‘resemble their real-world counterparts’ really hit home. This is not paper and pencil, but the way they behave is like paper and pencil. That is what makes this a great device to use and makes it very easy for me to challenge anyone that says you shouldn’t need a stylus. I shall simply retort, you can’t sketch with finger-paints, can you.

Should Apple bring there own out to match the iPad Plus, then I will definitely consider it but given that the team at FiftyThree decided to make their Pencil API open for other programs, I don’t know if I would invest in Apple’s. The Pencil works with the new drawing and vector apps from Adobe, which, is a revelations for someone working in design and using the Adobe CC suite of programs.

I would happily recommend the Pencil to anyone looking for a (smart)stylus for use on their iPad.




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