TECH

'Pencil' iPad Stylus By FiftyThree Review: The Best We've Ever Used

16/07/2014 12:51 BST | Updated 04/08/2014 16:59 BST

'Paper' by FiftyThree is ostensibly a very simple piece of software: it's a sketching app, no more or less, with the straightforward mission of replicating the 'feel' of ink, pencil and watercolours within an elegant pared down interface. It's creative, calm, and very neat.

It is also one of the very best apps in existence.

And that's not an over-statement. There just isn't anything else, on any platform, anywhere near as good. For artists, the 'flow' and feel of the natural drawing tools at its heart are both 'accurate' to real life and intensely pleasing in their own right. For 'non artists' (boo, no such thing) it's encouraging, and just as fun to play with. And its use of literal metaphors like page-turning and notebooks keeps things organised, intuitive and shareable.

Which is why their decision to make their own digital stylus is so exciting.

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The 'Pencil' by FiftyThree was announced in the US many months ago, but the stylus has only just been released over here. And let's get this out of the way early -- it's pricey. The 'graphite' aluminium version costs £49.99, while the 'Walnut' edition (made from sustainable hardwood) is £64.99.

That said, you get quite a lot for your money. The Pencil isn't just a dumb stylus, it's a complex Bluetooth gadget, with a month-long battery, that also comes with a full, free upgrade to all of Paper's premium tools, including new brushes.

It's also a very pleasing piece of hardware. The Walnut version is well weighted and balanced, there are no cables and it's convincingly professional in the hand. The downside is that there is no 'sharp point' - like many other styluses, the Pencil has a squidgy tip which makes drawing fine details difficult unless you zoom-in via a finger pinch.

Sketches We Made With 'Pencil'


Set-up is extremely simple. You simply press the Pencil's nib against the button on the app, and it connects automatically. It's very pleasing. From there you can use the Pencil to draw naturally, with the benefits of palm-rejection (the app knows to focus on the stylus) and an eraser on the reverse of the gadget. You can also use your finger to smudge your drawing, which is a great addition. (The stylus works on other apps too -- though not with the added Bluetooth features.)

To an extent, however, the benefits of the Pencil are hard to gauge at first. Paper already works brilliantly, and while it clearly knows how to interpret the Pencil's strokes more intelligently than with other styluses, the difference isn't always as obvious as you'd think. There's nothing - at this stage - so mind-blowingly different about the Pencil that you haven't already seen, or can't replicate with a decent cheaper alternative.

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At its best, though, the Pencil allows you to get to work on your sketches without thinking too much about the tool, utilising something designed specifically in concert with a great piece of software to get the most out of your ability. While it's not a precision drawing tool like a Wacom tablet, that really isn't the point of Paper anyway. It's about sweeping lines, quick sketches, ideas and dripping watercolour. To that end it works really well.

And the good news is it's getting better. FiftyThree has already announced that the Pencil will be using new APIs in iOS 8 (out in the autumn) to add pressure sensitivity, which will be a huge improvement and a great extra for anyone who's already bought one.

Until then, the Pencil will remain a very high-quality drawing tool -- probably the best we've used on the iPad -- designed to work with the best drawing app on the best tablet in the world.