The problem with Apple’s Pencil

The combination of Apple’s new iPad Pro, and its “Pencil” stylus, is sublime. Everything about the way these tools work together feels well thought-out and correct.

I have misgivings, however, about what it means for the average consumer.

The $129 Pencil, $30 more expensive than the previous model, cannot be used with any older iPads. The Pencil exists solely as an accessory for the new iPad models that just went on sale.

Ask yourself what you would have thought if Apple introduced a new keyboard or a mouse that could only be used with the latest Mac computer, not with anything that came before. The Pencil is an input device, and input devices have always been designed to be broadly compatible with existing computers.

The Pencil marks a new milestone in Apple’s move away from a certain kind of openness. The iPhone and iPad are much harder to open up and to repair than the Mac. And now, the Pencil is the first kind of input device from the company that rejects the norm of compatibility.

Is it worth it? Apple is going for a kind of total experience, a seamless union between the Pencil and the iPad, and from that standpoint, it’s magnificent. The stylus snaps onto the edge of the iPad with the slightest effort. The magnets not only help one avoid losing the Pencil, they charge the thing, a superb merging of functions. A tap of the pencil on the iPad’s screen immediately opens the Notes app for writing things down, which is a delightful feature.

That kind of ease of use is brilliant design and brilliant engineering. It’s not only a vast improvement over the relationship between the prior iPad models and the previous Pencil, it’s unlike anything else that exists on the market for a stylus. 

Despite the brilliance of all that, there’s something that feels slightly wrong about selling an input device that requires the user to commit themselves to another cycle of tablet purchases. It’s not the price of the Pencil, which seems well worth it given its quality (especially compared to the largely terrible selection of styloi from other vendors.)

But there’s something wrong in principle about creating captive combinations of features that seem to make an ultimatum to the user rather than trying to meet the user where they might already be. 

Apple could have adopted a compromise. They could have had the union of the new Pencil and the new tablet, while also allowing a degree of compatibility between the Pencil and older iPad models. For example, the Pencil only charges with the iPad, it doesn’t support the widely available “Qi” wireless charging standard, which is supported by the iPhone. If Apple had built the Pencil to be compatible with Qi, consumers could at least get the ease of charging of the new Pencil while using the device with the older iPads, even if they couldn’t enjoy all the benefits experienced when the new stylus is used with the new tablet.

There may very well be an increasing number of such trade-offs for Apple customers in the years to come. The company’s push to not merely sell widgets but to design unique experiences across hardware and software will lead to more puzzling combinations of this sort. Will consumers care? A generation ago, it was expected when buying quality electronics of the kind Apple makes that one could amass a collection of devices over many years that would be guaranteed a certain longevity. That was because they were assured to interoperate on at least a basic level with what came down the road later. Times change, and attitudes change. Today’s consumers may no longer care. 

Apple Watch 4.0: I like it.

My faux fashion shot. Leather strap by E3 Supply Co. of New York.

I am all about the Watch. Over the past several years I haven’t used my smartphone as much because I’ve been using Apple’s Apple Watch to send and receive text messages, make calls, and listen to music. I’ve been very happy with the thing since the first one came out, in early 2015.

The latest model, which went on sale yesterday, while not a huge leap in functionality, nevertheless nicely amplifies the utility of the device, with a larger display and new electronics that make all tasks feel considerably faster.

The Watch sells for $399 for the basic model with an aluminum finish, or $499 for the one that has cellular built in, which is the one I got. That’s $100 more than I paid for the prior model. (The Series 3 that I bought last year has now been knocked down to $329.) I find enough utility in the Watch that I’m not grumbling, considering that it’s saving me money on phone upgrades. I skipped last year’s iPhone X and may skip this year’s “Xs,” because I’m not using the phone as much.

As with many gadgets, and as with the Apple Watch in particular, the airbrushed photos used to promote them really don’t do the thing justice. The feel of the display has to be experienced first hand, because it’s a meaningful improvement for the device.

The larger size of the display — 32% larger, at 977 square millimeters versus 740 millimeters for the Series 3’s 42mm version — makes a difference all around, as do the now subtly rounded corners of the display. Images and text have more of the illusion of reaching to the edge of the case compared to the Series 3, even though there is, in fact, still a thin bezel between the display and the edge. 

Apple Watch Series 4 on the right, the comparable Series 3 model on the left. Painting by Zurburan.

The larger case shows off some of the existing watch faces better than before. For example, the “Utility” face has a nice arrangement of the text in curves above and below the display that better suits the watch face overall. 

Although the 44mm case is bigger for series 4, it’s a hair’s difference, and it doesn’t feel larger. The Series 4 is a couple of grams heavier, something that’s too small to notice when holding both of them to compare. The new model’s case is actually ever so-slightly-thinner, though you’d be hard pressed to really discern that, even from a head-on comparison:

Apple Watch series 4, at right, the Series 3 at left: side by side, it’s hard to tell there’s much difference in case width. 

Although the case style is still chunky, the larger display has the effect of making the thing feel better proportioned overall. 

All the existing bands still fit the Series 4, which is nice because I have amassed a lot of bands over the years. One of my favorite band makers are E3 Supply Co., a family-owned business operating based in New York. Their simple leather band is the most comfortable band I’ve found for the Watch, and at $69, it’s a pretty good deal.

Information, such as texts and email and maps and weather all benefit from that expended screen.  When writing replies to messages with handwriting, I found just the slight difference in size made the whole process feel more comfortable.

Email inbox display shows more information on the Series 4, right.

An email displayed on both. There’s more room on the Series 4, which may not be a big deal but is a nice improvement nonetheless.

hand writing input display on Series 4, right, and the older version on the left.

The larger display is a subtle but meaningful improvement to viewing maps on the Watch.

Of course, the whole thing feels more “snappy,” as it were, in opening apps and fetching data, and generally moving around the user interface. I noticed that the GPS signal picked up faster than on the Series 3. I was surprised to find that evening the hand-writing step felt more comfortable wth just a little more speed.

Interestingly, the Watch comes packaged for the first time in a little felt caddy of its own. At least, I don’t remember that from last time. That’s a nice touch.

I also don’t remember this surrounding envelope with watch pictures last time. The Watch and the accompanying watch band come in separate boxes.

The back of the Watch has changed, and in some ways looks a bit more slick and high end. The change is because of the inclusion of not just optical sensors but also electrodes. Those electrodes will make possible an electrocardiogram. That feature is not yet available on the Watch. Apparently it will arrive in a month or so with some software upgrade. 

Series 4 on the right gets a new, somewhat more Mercedes-Benz-looking enclosure on the box, ditching the clover pattern of the sensors on Series 3, left.

All in all, a very good, meaningful upgrade. I expect some people who didn’t care for the thing will be lured in once they get a look at the new screen up close.