First Impressions: Apple Pencil and New Surface Pen Compared

Posted on June 15, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in iOS, Microsoft Surface, Mobile with 39 Comments

First Impressions: Apple Pencil and New Surface Pen Compared

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.

Oops.

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.

Sketchpad in Windows 10 on Surface Pro.

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.

Paper on iPad Pro.

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.

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Comments (39)

39 responses to “First Impressions: Apple Pencil and New Surface Pen Compared”

  1. toukale

    I am not in the market for any one of those, just glad to see progress.

  2. SvenJ

    "neither Microsoft nor Apple provides an elegant solution". I disagree, Apple has a leather tube to stick the pencil in and a leather sleeve for the iPad with a pencil slot. The must be elegant, they are $29 and $129 respectively.

  3. CompUser

    It seems to me that the Microsoft pen has better features, but the big questions are these. Wouldn't it be natural for people who have Surface tablets to use the Microsoft pen, and those with Apple systems to use the Apple pen? And does it really matter which is a completely undetectable amount better than the other?

  4. spestey

    Is the Microsoft Pen easy to pair? The Apple Pencil pairs when connected to the Lightning port, which is super simple and nice if you have multiple devices but don't want or need multiple pencils.

  5. bbold

    Well, that didn't really help us any lol jk :) Nice to know they are pretty much neck and neck, but the fact that I can get 'real' work done on a Surface will win out everytime. Plus, MacOS drives me insane!

  6. nbplopes

    Nice review.

    Not that I give much to synthetic benchmarks but in this case, considering such a discrepancy in prices between your iPad Pro and the Surface Pro you are reviewing it would be interesting if you could do a Geekbench test on both for comparison purposes.

    Just to get a sense where technology might be heading or not.

    Cheers.

  7. crfonseca

    Yup, whether you prefer the feel of the Surface Pen of the Apple Pencil is definitely a personal thing.

    I actually prefer the metal feel of the Surface Pen, but then, I always liked metal pens.

    What I really hate is the AAAA battery in it, those are pretty hard to find, and no one makes recharchable AAAA sized batteries. (That I know of, if someone knows otherwise I'd really appreciate it)

  8. Waethorn

    Why doesn't anybody make a stylus as a hexagon shape, like a real pencil?

  9. Mrincredible

    Your screen shot from Apple's launch shows 20ms of latency. Is that correct? I've also noticed on an Apple dedicated site they refer to the spec as being 20ms, not 21.

  10. Tallin

    @spestey The pen itself doesn't actually require pairing on the Surface Pro, you can just start using it. Bluetooth pairing is required to use buttons to launch programs.

  11. rafaelsolmaker

    I could argue otherwise, but I must admit... I don't like the overall iPad Pro idea, but I will give that, Apple Pencil is a fantastic product even being a 1.0 and a copycat of Surface pen. And the marketing bullshit wars in 20.4(20ms) vs 20.6(21ms) also seem irrelevant for me, so the decision falls on the device of choice. Functionality in Surface Pen is clearly superior -- productivity is Microsoft-sided as always -- but the overall experience is so good on Apple Pencil that it's a fair "draw game". Good to hear that Microsoft upped its game to compete on same league (latency, tilt support, et certera) It's satisfying to say that both experiences are on myriad of perfection right now.

  12. Captain_Eric

    I must have dozed off somewhere along the way, so I'll ask: What's tilt support?

  13. tbtalbot

    Thanks for the review. It sounds like products are maturing and reaching a steady state level of useful functionality - being similar and otherwise equal. With 1ms difference, latency comparisons are silly.

  14. eeisner

    Paul - Mind doing a quick rundown on how the new pen performs on older hardware (ie: Surface Book)? Curious as to what kind of improvements are actually there over the last generation Surface Pen...

  15. stevenmci

    Hi Paul,


    The Apple smart case with keyboard does have a magnet. With the case closed, it is along the right hand edge. Just discovered it this morning :)


    S.

  16. MikeGalos

    One other nice thing about Microsoft's pens is the interchangeable tips. I spent some time working with the various one and found getting the one that worked for me made a huge difference in how natural it felt.

  17. mmcpher

    Interesting review from someone who's been publicly skeptical, if not mocking about the utility of pens and stylus. I still use my Surface Pro 3 but upgraded the pen to the Surface Pro 4 model and may do so again for the newer model. I use it to draw or paint some but also as a stylus to select text and objects and/or drag and drop ETC. I'm happy the pen technology is advancing. I wish there was commensurate progress in integrating pen/stylus input throughout the device (particularly with text recognition and ease of entry. It's always been easy to mark up and mar a digital doc or form but awkward to use as an alternative to the keyboard.

  18. Chris Blair

    Seems like both drawing devices are similar in terms of performance. But magnetic attachment, replaceable (hard, medium, and soft) tips, button (to switch between drawing and lasso mode), and the (soft) eraser end on the Surface pen are advantages for me. As a long time user of a Surface Pro 4 pen I think its diameter is ideal. Replacing the Surface pen battery once a year is a non-issue for me. And the Apple pencil, when I tried in at Best Buy, was a bit too skinny and a bit too long. But in the end, your choice, really, is not between pen and pencil, both of which can act as a pen or pencil of course, but between Surface Pro / Windows 10 and iPad Pro / iOS. On that issue I'm happy with the ergonomics of the Surface Pro (how could I give up the kick stand?) and Windows 10 (a cool/useful/flexible UI and how could I give up my required Win32 apps?). But if you're an iOS/Apple fan, or need a particular app that is available on iOS but not Windows, then I can totally understand users being equally as happy on the other side.

  19. Chris_Kez

    Paul, you'll have to do some sketching while you're in Europe this summer; something about the Continent just brings out the inner artist.

  20. matsan

    I got my Newton MessagePad 2000 in 1998 and later upgraded it to MP 2100. In 2001 I wrote most parts of my master thesis on the MP 2100 using the fantastic keyboard or scribbled with the pencil. All text exported and converted to TeX to format formulas and set the layout. All in all over 125 pages.

    I have always loved handwriting but even now in 2017 I haven't seen anything close to the capabilities of the Newton when it comes to store, recognize and manage drawings and text. The free-form interface is something I miss so much :-(

  21. lvthunder

    So what is the experience like with the new pen on older hardware like the Surface Book? I was supposed to get mine today, but Best Buy didn't get it to FedEx in time so I get it tomorrow.

  22. Andrey Medvedev

    Could one use the new Surface Pen with an older Surface, like Surface Pro 4 or even Surface 3?

  23. seisdedos23

    hey Paul are you going to try the new bamboo pen.

  24. sberti

    Thanks for the comparison. I attend a lot of meetings and take a lot of notes. I used to have stacks of physical notebooks. Note-taking was the main reason I got my 1st Surface (SP3). I switched to OneNote, eventually upgraded to SP4, now have the new Surface Pro coming. I love the pen and OneNote. Writing my notes seems more natural to me than typing them. While I don't care as much about the keyboard, I do have the SP4 signature keyboard, so won't be ordering a new one, but I have been interested in the pen and wondered how it compared with my current pen and the Apple pencil. Even though I'm not an artist, I'm glad the new pen has tilt. Can't order the pen yet in Canada, so still have time to decide whether to make the investment. Thanks!

  25. MacLiam

    UPS tracking says my new pen is on the truck for delivery today. It's my understanding that it will not function at full potential on my Book and Studio until new drivers are pushed out.

    Late last year I bought the 9.7 inch iPad Pro at least in part beacause of the impressive specs for the Pencil. The new Pencil doesn't look improved enough to me to warrant dropping another $100, but the increased sensitivity of the new Surface Pen seemed to me to be worth the expense. I'm looking forward to comparing them side by side.

    The pencil's minimalism kind of annoyed me at first. What, no magnet? Not even a pocket clip? I got a cheap clip from an office products outlet and attached it at a groove on the iPad's folding cover. That keeps the pencil from getting lost. I'm not pleased that there is no clip on the new Surface Pen, but at least Microsoft's commitment to really grabby magnets will save the day in that regard. But I may get another slide-on pocket clip in case I end up taking the new pen out of the house from time to time.

    I still do a lot of fast handwritten note-taking and sketching. Things like the Pen and Pencil are pretty much must-have tools for me. If it's true that the rumored Microsoft SMAT (Surface Micro w/ Accessory Telephony -- don't call it a phone) actually makes it to market with full pen support, I'm there.

  26. Andrew G

    "In just 15 seconds, you can charge the Pencil for 30 minutes of use. So it’s not silly, it’s useful."


    30 minutes?? Why not just have a battery that lasts for 6 months? No charging at all. No worrying about running out of anything for months at a time, just like a real pen. The charging system for the Apple Pencil is utterly and irredeemably and pointlessly stupid.


    Moreover, having two function buttons and an eraser and interchangeable nibs are not small things at all. I don't think this is a draw. I think despite the high quality inking with the Apple Pencil, the Surface Pen takes the cake. I do wish they kept the Clippy clip, though.



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