Life with the Pencil
Apple’s Pencil has been around for over two years now, it has changed very little since the day it launched. For the most part, that’s a good thing: its pressure sensitivity and tilt detection make it an elegant, capable companion for artists and ardent note-takers. But does it work as well here as on an iPad that costs twice as much? Unless you’re a professional digital artist, the answer is “yes.” I’ve never had much of an eye for art, but our video producer Brian Oh — an Apple Pencil neophyte, mind you — found doodling on the 2018 iPad surprisingly pleasant. Ditto for the handful of children I yielded the iPad to over Easter weekend, though their work was largely lacking in, err, artistic integrity. Meanwhile, I spent most of my time with the Pencil jotting down quick notes marking up documents with Pages’ new smart annotations and found nothing amiss.
The only real difference between using the Pencil on a $650 iPad Pro 10.5and on a tablet that costs half that is the way it feels. The gap between the Retina display and the glass covering it means the pencil makes a more pronounced plunking sound than an iPad Pro when you tap the screen with it. Otherwise, it works as well as the first batch of Pros Apple released — you know, the ones before Apple started including 120Hz ProMotion displays.
To be clear though, most people won’t need to splurge on an Apple Pencil. I’ve loved my time with it, and it’s undeniably useful, but I can’t say its blend of utility and price is worth $99 for most people. (Sadly, the $50 Logitech Crayon unveiled in Chicago will be sold exclusively to educators). If nothing else, the Pencil’s journey down-market may offer a bit of insight into the future of the iPad Pro. After all, the Pencil was one of the Pro line’s marquee features; now that anyone who buys a new iPad can use one, it stands to reason that other factors will soon differentiate the Pro from Apple’s basic tablet. All of a sudden, rumors of iPad Pros with notches and even larger screens don’t just sound plausible — they seem probable.
There’s still some relatively lively competition in the premium tablet space, but down here in the budget zone, truly good options are harder to come by. If you’re not sold on the 2018 iPad, you may want to consider something like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S3. Sure, it came out last year, but it packs an absolutely gorgeous 9.7-inch Super AMOLED display and a thinner frame than the iPad. At $449 it’s more expensive than the standard iPad, but it also comes with one of Samsung’s S Pens right in the box for note-taking and sketching. Some will also welcome the ability to magnetically attach a keyboard, though in our experience, Samsung’s keyboard is pretty lousy.
If kicking back with a movie on a tablet is more your speed, the iPad might be overkill. Something like Amazon’s surprisingly decent Fire 10 HD tabletmay fit the bill better. It lacks access to Google’s services, but it’s quicker than we anticipated and its 1080p screen was nicer than we’re used to from Amazon. And the best part? It’s really cheap — just $150 for the base 32GB model. Meanwhile, Acer was the first company to unveil a tablet powered by Google’s Chrome OS. The timing of Acer’s announcement was seemingly chosen to take some of the wind out of Apple’s sales, and it’s mostly a play for classrooms, but Chrome OS is plenty capable if you have modest needs. Alas, it’ll still be a few weeks before we get to take the $329 Chromebook Tab 10 out for a spin.