Apple Pencil vs. Surface Pen

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The peculiar form factor that both the iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4 - although the Surface to a greater extent - bring to the table isn’t its only defining feature. Both bring with them the capability of writing and drawing onto a portable glass surface.

What I will commend Microsoft for is their foresight, being first to market with this idea, and their execution upon it being nothing less than great. Although how does the current iteration of Surface Pen stack up against the first iteration of Apple Pencil?


Before taking a look at hands-on testing, let’s look at their conceptual differences. Microsoft doesn’t just offer the ability to write on a screen. They provide additional conveniences and shortcuts that take into consideration some traditional, analogue behaviours in handwriting, then enhance them using digitisation.

Here’s what I mean. The Surface Pen has a thicker nubbin on the other end that acts as an eraser - as you’d expect in a real-life pencil. It also acts as a button, which can be used to activate some things on the Surface, most notably the built-in note-taking app, OneNote. As you’d expect in real life, the medium receiving input (the notebook) should be easily (if not instantly) accessible, and such is the case with the Surface. No need to navigate your way to the right app.

The Surface Pen also latches magnetically onto the body of the Surface. Again, you can easily slip a pen onto the side of a spiral notebook in the same fashion.

The Apple Pencil, on the other hand, doesn’t enable any of these. It is simply a writing device - nothing more and nothing less.

Although, let’s zoom out and look at the writing and drawing experience on iPad Pro holistically. You’ve got the fastest ever iOS processor running the device. As I said in the previous post, any friction brought about by unfamiliarity is eliminated thanks to iOS.

You can’t get to the writing app with the press of a button, but you can get there with the press of a button (the home button) and a tap on the screen (app icon). It isn’t that much harder.

The iPad Pro with Apple Pencil probably doesn’t lack as much as you think it does. Let’s say things were the other way around, in which the Surface worked with an Apple Pencil-like device and the iPad Pro had a Surface Pen-like device. The Surface runs Windows 10 - a full-fledged desktop OS. Without the convenient shortcuts brought by the Surface Pen, navigating to the right note-taking app through Windows 10 with a bare-bones writing device like Apple Pencil would be a hassle. That’s because Windows 10 wasn’t made for maximum convenience and usability on any other platform other than desktops and PC’s.

In fairness, both the Surface model (desktop OS + shortcuts via Surface Pen) and the iPad Pro model (mobile OS with no shortcuts via Apple Pencil) of regular usage are sustainable and reliable in the long-term, in that nothing impedes its usability over time. Here’s the thing, though. It’s easy to think that Surface’s shortcuts are smart and convenient, which they are. But the charm in iPad Pro that doesn’t exist in the Surface is the immediacy of understanding.

The Apple Pencil has no buttons. There is no obvious on or off switch, or state for that matter. As soon as you get it, you just start using it. As John Gruber puts it, it’s "the ultimate Apple peripheral”. The only thing that separates it from an actual pencil is the need to charge it, and even that is made a frictionless experience in the same way that thumb drives are common knowledge in its function and usage (besides the ejecting process).

It just works. Keep this in mind as we now look at hands-on testing.

Hands-on testing and Reviews

This test by Serenity Caldwell for iMore is probably the most circulated test out there, and for good reason. She’s been drawing on tablets for the past 16 years, and claims in her review that she’s struck gold with the Apple Pencil, going as far as saying “I have been waiting for the Apple Pencil for 16 years” and that "It beats Wacom at its own game.”

Another interesting comment: “It doesn't have any weird software glitches; it doesn't accidentally think you've made a hard line and dark black comes out of nowhere.” Again, little separates it from an actual pencil. It just works.

Here’s her hands-on test of Apple Pencil against Surface Pen on a Surface Book.

From what I gather, Apple Pencil isn’t just competing against the Surface Pen, but also professional-grade tablets such as the Wacom Cintiq, in terms of quality. But again, I can imagine the shot of Serenity directly sketching on Photoshop using the Surface Book to be massively appealing to professional artists and designers. I say let time go by until we see more professional apps come out, and I think they will even if it’s just out of the appeal of unlocking the Apple Pencil’s potential.

The technology to draw and animate digitally has been around for a while, and is now enhanced with this product. But is this the first piece of technology that can create the widespread adoption of digital writing?

Myke Hurley for Pen Addict ponders this in his review, and concludes that his writing needs are fulfilled in the Apple Pencil, from its weight, to its feel, its grip, and actual usage. He makes this claim towards the end:


"What I was looking for from the Apple Pencil was to be able to write naturally on the screen, in the size I usually write, and it visually match what I would expect to see. And it does."


I think in this case, the results matter most, and if the results that come from using the Apple Pencil almost perfectly replicates writing in real life (given the unavoidable limitations of digital simulation), then it’s mission accomplished.

I think that this matters more for writing than it does drawing, simply because artists have proven their ability to adapt their natural style of drawing to better fit the limitations of tablets. On the other hand, almost everyone writes - even in today’s digital age, it is a prerequisite for almost every occupation. Not everyone wants to or can adapt how they write naturally. Perhaps the Apple Pencil can finally eliminate that barrier, and enable digital handwriting on a large scale.

Long-term viability

I’ve said that both the Surface Pen and Apple Pencil are both long-term sustainable in their usability. Although this new platform - portable tablets that can be drawn on - shows so much potential, it would be criminal to measure it just by the usability of these devices over time. People, different preferences and all, need to find reason to really, really want it in order to get it.

They saw this with the original iPad, and made it the fastest selling consumer device of all time. But that demand withered quickly as its potential was squandered by a lack of vision and lack of support from third-parties, as I mentioned in a previous post.

With the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, Apple is hoping to rejuvenate that enthusiasm. The question now is, what will it take to fulfil the iPad’s potential in the long term this time?

It lies in what fundamentally differentiates the Surfaces and the iPad Pro from each other, which we figured out earlier. At the moment, the Surfaces runs on a desktop OS, which has access to desktop apps that don’t need further mobile optimisation, while the iPad Pro has better, if not the best, hardware.

For the Surface platform to achieve its potential, its hardware has to improve. Will Microsoft continue to take this platform seriously and continue to develop it? From what we’ve seen so far, the Surface line has been paid a great deal of attention since its inception, perhaps more than any other product line (hardware and software) from the past decade or two. However, Microsoft is a software and services company first, and have expertise and priorities in those fields above all else.

The fact that Windows 10 is a desktop-first OS is also worrying. I think Apple harbours the right approach in continuing to run iOS on the iPad Pro, despite its current lack of optimisation for the bigger screen. While that’s the case, iOS has an inherent level of usability that doesn’t change with the larger screen size, perhaps allowing them to release the iPad Pro sooner than it would if it’d warrant its own OS or even OS X from the Mac.

In Microsoft’s case, Windows 10 is ported over to a device with a smaller screen size than normal. I think anything made to run on something larger which is then run on something smaller is always worse than the opposite. Thus, Microsoft is met with a fork in the road - either to support Windows, thus its associated apps, or create an OS that’s better optimised, thus sacrificing support for said apps.

I think just because of the travesty that is the Windows Phone app ecosystem, Microsoft won’t be willing to try to create and sustain another app ecosystem. And just because Windows is such a trusted name that Microsoft has not given up and won’t give up for a long time coming, Microsoft will continue to run Windows on as many devices as they possibly can.

These are the hurdles Microsoft need to leap over on the path to success, and it’s full of compromises.

Now we look back at the iPad Pro platform. For it to achieve its potential, apps. That’s it, apps. Reviews and testing have proven that this device is near perfect from Version 1 for what it sets out to achieve, which is literally unbelievable, even for Apple. And knowing Apple as a product company, they’ll do whatever they can to somehow, someway improve upon it even more.

They’re now calling on developers, large and small, to take advantage of this new, exciting platform. And I think they’ll come through. Adobe, and even Microsoft themselves, have already started making apps even before the product was ever announced. It would be strange - and worrying - if developers didn’t develop professional-grade apps eventually.

The question now, all things considered, is this - which of these will most likely come first? Microsoft’s improvements or Apple’s improvements? I think Apple’s will come first, and I think only they can achieve a reality wherein people start digitally handwriting and hand-drawing.

It’s telling that Apple got so much right with a product so soon, and it’s not by accident. Through the Surface Pen, Microsoft has shown that they want to see a future written with a pen. But Apple wants to see it that much more.


Further reading: Here’s another glowing review of the Apple Pencil from a Wacom user of 20 years. Professionals seem to be absolutely raving about this thing. Like it might disrupt an industry or something.