Call it the Great Pen Wars of 2017. Both Microsoft and Apple have moved the needle on their respective smart pen computing solutions. So which one is better?
It’s not an idle question: Both firms place what I feel is an outsized emphasis on peripherals that few people actually need or want. But the Surface Pen and Apple Pencil, respectively, scratch the same itch: They target a very desirable market of creators and power users who influence others’ purchases.
And Microsoft is arguably the entrenched market leader here. The firm didn’t invent pen computing for sure, and, in fact, its vaporware announcement about pen computing capabilities in Windows in the early 1990s is often cited as an early example of the predatory business practices that later landed the software giant in antitrust courts.
But Microsoft formally made smart pens a core feature of the PC starting with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition in 2002, and it has been steadily improving the platform ever since. And today, Microsoft’s Surface Pen is routinely cited as the best example of what we now think of as an active smart pen.
There’s just one problem. When Apple announced its first iPad Pro back in late 2015, it also launched a companion peripheral, the Apple Pencil, which duplicates and in many ways exceeds the performance and utility of Surface Pen. It offers tilt capabilities, for example, where (the current) Surface Pen does not.
Yes, critics—myself included—mocked Apple for the Pencil’s silly name, and for its ostensibly silly charging system, which involves a Universal port hidden under a cap that plugs awkwardly into the bottom of your iPad Pro. And for being derivative in copying Microsoft so obviously.
Well, bad news, haters. In my admittedly limited testing of Apple Pencil last year, one fact became immediately clear: Apple Pencil, despite being a 1.0 product, immediately overtook Surface Pen in performance—in lack of latency, in other words—and in just feeling like a more natural experience. And that silly charging experience everyone is so upset about? In just 15 seconds, you can charge the Pencil for 30 minutes of use. So it’s not silly, it’s useful.
For these and other reasons, Microsoft is upgrading its Surface Pen to a new version that offers 4 times the pressure sensitivity, plus tilt capabilities, just like Apple Pencil. At its May unveiling, Microsoft claimed that the new Surface Pen, when used in tandem with the new Surface Pro and its unique “Pixelsense Accelerator chip” offers the fastest-ever smart pen experience. An obvious jab at Apple Pencil.
But time stands still for no active pen, and Apple just announced its own upgrades, and it has ostensibly leapfrogged Surface, and Surface Pen, yet again. What’s interesting is that this didn’t require a new Apple Pencil. Instead, if you use the existing peripheral with a new (2017) iPad Pro and its ProMotion display technology, you’ll get better performance than Surface Pro (2017) with Surface Pen (2017): 20 ms of latency vs. 21.
OK, those numbers are close. And they suggest that the performance of Apple Pencil and the new Surface Pen are, in fact, roughly identical.
Which I believe they are, having now used both. And in their optimal, most performant scenarios: The new Surface Pen with the new Surface Pro, and the Apple Pencil with a new (2017) iPad Pro.
But Paul, you say. You’re no artist. And you don’t even like/use/care about these active pens.
True. But also irrelevant. I have hands, and they nerve endings that work. And like any other human being who grew up using real world pens, pencils, and other writing implements, I am qualified to test both of these peripherals and explain which I feel offers the more natural experience with the lower latency, or lag.
And they are roughly identical.
For the past week or so, I’ve done something with the new Surface Pro and Surface Pen I’ve not done in quite some time: I’ve sketched and painted, and I’ve written text on something other than a PC keyboard. Whatever skills I might have had as a child—I was actually an artist, go figure—are long gone and will never return. But I have enough residual talent to build from a rough sketch with a light touch to a more finished product using bolder, darker strokes.
The results are impressive. No, not the drawings, those are terrible. What I mean is, the new Surface Pen, used in tandem with the new Surface Pro, delivers a very natural experience. In this case, “natural” means that the experience emulates, if not outright duplicates, the experience of doing so with a real pen, pen, or paintbrush on real paper. It doesn’t feel like you’re gliding the Surface Pen across glass. Which of course you are.
At a more technical level, the naturalness is no doubt derived from the lack of lag—or the latency—that occurs when you used these two devices together. It just … seems natural. Helping matters, the new Surface Pen has a softer “tip” than the Apple Pencil, which clacks the screen with a very glass-like whack on first impact.
I conducted these tests mostly in Sketchpad, if you’re curious. But I also used Sticky Notes to perform the sort of marketshare calculation I normally do on real paper. (It’s odd that it never occurred to me to do that on a Surface, to be honest.) And OneNote to write text.
I’ve spent less time with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil: The tablet just arrived a few days ago. But I wanted to see how well Apple’s experience matched up to what the Surface offers. So I tried to do the same sorts of tests: Some drawings with different pressure levels, pen types, and tilt, using a built-in app. And then some basic math, on-screen.
And the experiences are very similar. Almost identical, really, excluding that initial hard tap you get with the Apple Pencil. Both devices glide across their respective glass displays, and both offer a fluid, natural experience with no noticeable lag or performance issues.
I do prefer the size of the Apple Pencil, and its elegant, porcelain-like feel. Where the Surface Pen is “off” from a form factor perspective—it’s the height or a normal pen or pencil, but the barrel is thicker—the Apple Pencil seems to have better proportions to me. (Your hand size and preferences may lead you to a different opinion.)
But the Pencil is also a bit unwieldy due to its size. And neither Microsoft nor Apple provides an elegant solution for storing and protecting their pens, though Surface Pro at least includes magnets for some portability.
Surface Pen offers real buttons that do real things, something I kind of miss with Apple Pencil. The top of Surface Pen, for example, functions as an eraser in most apps. And you can press it to launch Windows Ink Workspace. (Or some other app of your choosing.) There’s also another button on the barrel, which is likewise programmable.
(Apple is adding a Pencil-specific Notes-launching action in iOS 11, but that isn’t shipping until the fall.)
I will also point out that it is unlikely that many people will buy an iPad Pro or a Surface Pro because of the relative performance or functionality of their respective smart pen solutions. As long as both are similar, customers will simply choose the platform that works better for them overall. So each company has some marketing to do. I’m sure they’ll rise to that challenge.
But when it comes to the pen, or the pencil as it were, both offer incredible performance, low latency, tilt support, great software, excellent platform support, and identical pricing. And both, I think, would be an excellent choice for any artist or note-taker who is otherwise smitten with the device with which these peripherals work.
In other words, the Great Pen Wars of 2017 are ending with a stalemate. These are both excellent smart pens.