The Galaxy Note, Motorola Xyboard 10.1, Galaxy Note 10.1, and HTC Flyer all have an advantage many tablets lack: digitizer pen support, meaning you have the option to use a pen that is much, much more accurate than a stylus. The iPad has another advantage: people make accessories for it. That’s why it now has the Cregle iPen as an $89 upgrade that gives you a better pen for note taking and drawing. Read on for the review.
The iPen, which is a Kickstarter project, is something of a sensitive topic here on NBT. I’ve told the tale before, but I’ll repeat it now. When the project first popped up I saw it and noticed that it claimed to be the world’s first such pen accessory, which it wasn’t. I sent them a message about this, but they never replied. I in turn didn’t post about it, because such behavior is not a good sign. Over a month later, another website caught onto this, and posted about it. This caused some uproar among the many people who had pledged the project, but this mostly died down when the project creators went out and apologized. They still didn’t admit to being told about it more than a month earlier by me, which is why I decided to write a post about it. After the iPen was released more uproar ensured as issues like broken pens, latency issues and accuracy problems became apparent. There are people screaming for refunds, YouTube videos warning people to stay away, and lots of complaints that Cregle isn’t ding anything about it. Unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of blacklisting potentially ground breaking products on this site just because the companies behind them are asses, or we’d have to ban everything from Samsung to Apple in the process. So just keep all of this is mind as you read a review that is solely based on the product I received in the mail, not the company behind it.
The iPen is basically an iPad accessory version of digital pens that have existed for ages. You have a dock connector receiver with a sensor that tracks the pen and translates that to data that the app interprets as pen input. This is sort of a work around to get more accurate pen tracking than what you get with a normal capacitive stylus, without having it built in like on the tablets mentioned at the beginning – which for the record works better. The iPen setup includes a battery powered pen with replaceable pen tips, the dock connector receiver, and software that has to be individually baked into existing apps to make it work. Right now not many apps have this built in, and it’s anyone’s guess how many will, but since one of the apps that supports it is my favorite note taking app of all time, GoodNotes, I personally don’t even need more apps to be supported.
To use the iPen you plug in the receiver and calibrate it in the app you’re going to use. The calibration procedure depends on the app, but on GoodNotes you find it in settings, and it actually allows you to continue calibrating forever until you’re happy with the response. It’s extremely important to understand that the receiver that the sensor tracks is actually in the pen, not the pen tip, so when you calibrate you have to hold the pen like you would when you write. Same angle from all sides. Otherwise it will get out of sync faster than you can say iPen and you will have a horrible experience. It’s also a good tip to learn to write with the pen as vertically as possible, as that will help keep the thing calibrated at all times. You should also put the iPad down flat when using this pen, so that your hand position doesn’t automatically change to compensate for the way you’re holding it. These are all minor annoyances that you don’t experience with paper or true digitizer pens, but at the same time, you can’t expect an add-on accessory for a product where the manufacturer (Apple) almost systematically makes it hard to make accessories for it to be perfect.
it should also be noted that the palm rejection feature that the iPen allows for almost requires you to turn off multitouch gestures. Apple doesn’t allow apps to turn off multitouch gestures themselves, which means that there is absolutely nothing any app developer can do to prevent a palm on the screen to be interpreted as a five finger gesture to do something, like switch apps. As I said, the way that Apple is acting towards app developers borders on systematic sabotage.
Does it work?
I know a lot of people are unhappy with the iPen. I’m sorry, but I’m not. As frequent readers of the site knows, I went completely iPad-only for the last part of my education. I scanned documents using an app and a standalone camera, stored documents on the iPad, read for exams on the iPad, took notes on the iPad. I used dozens of apps, and for note taking alone I tried a truckload. I’ve reviewed all sorts of styli on this site, most of them the top-of-the-line models that are more accurate and better built than your standard generic $15 stylus. I used apps both with and without magnification mode (where part of the screen is a larger version of a small field to allow for big writing that is shrunk down) and wrote page after page of notes that way. I only wish I had the iPen back then.
Yes, it can become inaccurate quickly. It can lose connection, the pen stroke can trail behind the actual pen if you move fast, and so on and so forth. All true. And yet it’s so much better than what I did for a year. It actually allows you to write normally without magnification mode and still be accurate. Getting used to all the quirks is just that, getting used to them. I don’t know exactly what people thought this would be, some magic accessory to turn the iPad screen into paper, but I think a lot of the frustration comes from inaccurate expectations. I’d be more than happy to assign the blame for that on Cregle not informing people better, heck it would fit their M.O. perfectly as far as I’m concerned, but as someone who’s gotten used to the trade offs of a stylus already this is an upgrade. I’m of course not saying that people shouldn’t be disappointed with the iPen if they expected something far more perfect, but I think that you should compare this to capacitive stylus input, not pen and paper.
Still, you can’t get away from the fact that a built-in pen digitizer is better. Unfortunately that doesn’t really help those who want to do note taking, as Android has no apps that work the way that GoodNotes and so many other apps work on the iPad. For artists though, just go buy a Xyboard 10.1 or Galaxy Note 10.1 – you have plenty of drawing apps on Android.
I’ve been thinking about exactly how to sum up the iPen and I think the best way to describe it is “not mainstream”. I like it very much, but I’ve been digital-only for so long that pen and paper almost isn’t in my vocabulary anymore. The beauty of being an early adopter and living with that choice is that each step up is indeed a step up, while others have different perspectives. The iPen is $89, which I think it’s well worth. However I also think that anyone who even considers buying this should read every comment, watch every video there is about it and decide for themselves. It’s simply too much of a love/hate item to be given a recommendation that isn’t completely subjective. In fact, I’m not even going to link to the product’s home page because anyone who wants to buy this seriously needs to do his or her own research on the matter beforehand.