First Encounters With the iPen: A Real Stylus for the iPad. Or Is It?

The iPen with its receiver and a "refill" nib

The iPad is undoubtedly the king of pads (a dubious title if I’ve ever heard one). Although it certainly wasn’t the first tablet, it was the first tablet to achieve widespread acceptance. The iPad’s simple, “just works” interface (Apple’s hallmark and greatest asset) has enabled users to… to… well, I suppose it’s allowed them to “surf” the “net,” check email, watch videos, listen to music (and more!), all from the palm of their hands. Both hands. Or more realistically, their laps. Their laps where their laptops used to go.

Hm.

Well, iPads do have touch screens and killer battery life. At any rate, I have one, and I’m pretty psyched on it, even if it doesn’t do all that much that my laptop, desktop, and even my Android phone can’t do. Now that I think about it, it’s weird how much I like it, considering it’s almost completely redundant. (It does really shine when I’m traveling. And I like reading books on it.) But there’s one thing I always felt would add a lot to the iPad, and that’s a real stylus.

iPen with iPad
The "active" stylus setup: a battery powered pen with a receiver that plugs into your iPad and pics up the pen's location.

I bought one of those crappy capacitive stlyli from the Internets about a year ago. My fiancée sighed when she found out. “What’d you get that for?” she asked. I explained how fat and dumb my finger felt when taking notes or making sketches on the iPad. I explained the need for a finer point and better control. “How cool would it be if I could use the iPad like a pad of paper — you know, to take notes in a meeting or edit PDFs onscreen. It would make the iPad, like, nearly perfect!” She rolled her eyes, which was the correct response. I’ve hardly used the thing. Every time Ido use it I’m amazed at how litte demonstrable improvement it offers over my fingertip.

So when I came across the Cregle iPen on Kickstarter and watched the compelling video, I scrambled to place the order. (Well, my fiancée placed the order, as it was to be a Christmas gift. I guess I convinced her the iPen was better than the other stylus I bought.) At the time, the fundraising goal had already been more than tripled. (At close, the project raised $162,333, more than 500% to goal.) I pledged my $70, was excited for about fifteen minutes, and then forgot all about it. Until I started getting the emails.

Over the next three and a half months, I received seventeen thirty-two emails from Cregle. There were delays. Problems with Apple. Talk of refunds. Talk of which apps the iPen would work with. About a week ago, I started inquiring about a refund myself, thinking perhaps the whole project was taking on water. There was this disheartening post on theverge.com about Cregle not really being a start-up, the iPen not really being the first active stylus for the iPad, and other shady business. In fact, there may be shady business going on, but I no longer care, because today I got my iPen.

The tip of the stylus
The tip of the stylus

Just so you understand the theory, the iPen is an “active” stylus, meaning it feeds additional information about its location to the iPad, rather than just interacting with the iPad’s capacitive touch screen, like the above-mention crappy stylus. To make the iPen active, Cregle employs a two-part system. The stylus itself is battery powered and holds at its tip a nib that moves slightly in and out with pressure. The second component is the receiver, which is a rectangular block about the size of a pack of gum that slots into the the UART port (the charging port) on the bottom of the iPad. The receiver picks up on the pen’s location and relays that information to the iPad. In theory, this should offer a very fine-grained location awareness and, thus, a more accurate stylus experience.

I’m looking forward to putting the iPen through its paces and writing in more detail, but having played with it for ten minutes, I can already make a few observations.

  • The stylus itself is stylish and comfortable to hold.
  • The iPen works, but it is not a perfect or seamless experience. Sometimes it will stop writing, or loose sensitivity and need to be re calibrated.
  • However, when it does work, the sensitivity and accuracy are much better than with capacitive styli or a fingertip.
  • For truly taking notes, as with a pen and paper, the iPen is still not there. It reminds me of writing with a ballpoint pen that periodically stops writing and then starts flowing again; it’s not impossible to write with, but it is hard to get into the rhythm of it.
  • Something strange: the iPen came with two “refill” nibs that go into the end of the pen, and a little metal tweezer to extract them. What happens to these nibs that requires them to be replaced, I can only imagine.
  • Due to the “active” stylus design, the iPen is only compatible with a few apps. Cregle claims to be working with developers to get support for more apps, the most exciting of which is probably Procreate. Autodesk SketchBook Pro and Brushes support would be great, too. But at the moment, the only compatible apps are GhostWriter NotesGood Notes, and iWriteWords.
  • I get the sense that GhostWriter Notes, which is the only one of the compatible programs I have, is not the best. UPad seems better, and I’d love to try the iPen with another app, as it may be that some of my issues are software and not hardware related
  • Probably the best thing about GhostWriter Notes is the Evernote compatibility. I depend on this app for my day to day writing and thought storage.
The receiver
The receiver, which picks up the pen's location and relays it to the iPad. Unfortunately, this approach means that only apps specifically made to work with the iPen will know what to do with the signal.

At this point, I couldn’t rightfully say whether the iPen is worth the money. (One doesn’t, or shouldn’t, go in on a Kickstarter project expecting perfection.) But I think the iPen is a very interesting concept that’s relatively well executed. My guess is that additional and more-advanced app support will improve the experience greatly. And the next generation iPen will probably offer improvements in accuracy, consistency, and maybe even some additional features, like pressure sensitivity.

I’ll write and doodle with the iPen for a while and then report back. In the meantime, I’m happy to answer questions or hear from others who get early release versions of the iPen from Cregle.

Daniel Woods Crunches Numbers at the Rock Rodeo and Comes up with 76… AGAIN!

Daniel Woods – Hueco – 76 V-Points from Louder Than 11 on Vimeo.

This video gives a clear picture of what cutting-edge bouldering looks like in 2012. The formerly bleeding edge of difficulty is now just a stop on a circuit. This is the way of progression — nothing new, really — but it somehow it never grows old. In the vid, you’ll see Woods send the following:

  • Nagual (v13)
  • The Machinist (v14)
  • Crook by the Book (V14)
  • Phantom Limb V12)
  • Full Monty (V12)
  • Two Days With Gene (V11)

Worth noting is the fact that Daniel scored the same amount of points when he won the Hueco Rock Rodeo last year, though with five V13s and one V11. He increased his peak difficulty, but not his average. In the 2011 Rock Rodeo, Woods sent these problems:

  • Li (V13)
  • Liane (V13)
  • Mo Mojo (V11)
  • Evangelion (V13)
  • Slashface (V13)
  • Crown Royale (V13)
Daniel Woods, Champion
Daniel Woods, champion once again. Photo: © J.Roth

Oh, and in 2010, Woods ALSO scored 76 points, but with a higher high point than even this year. (Oddly consistent, isn’t he?) Here’s his ticklist from that comp:

  • Desperanza (V15)
  • Alma Blanca (V13)
  • Tequila Sunrise (V12)
  • Loaded Direct (V12)
  • Barefoot on Sacred Ground (V12)
  • Diaphanous Sea (V12)

And while we’re one the topic of Daniel Woods and his incredible powers of crush, it appears he recently declared his intent to climb Jumbo Love  (5.15b; unconfirmed, since no one has yet repeated it), Chris Sharma’s king of the king lines. How do seventy-six V-points translate to a monster 250-foot 5.15b? I, for one, am excited to find out…