Apple or Microsoft? No, you can’t have both.
A few years ago when Microsoft revealed a shiny new pen, Apple jumped on the bandwagon just in time for the upgrade to hit the market. We have two very different, unique stylus’s here. Whether you’re a semi-professional creative like me, or you’re thinking of taking to the world of digital art for the first time, which pen (and ultimately device) should you choose?
Here at THG, we’re going to try and find out. We’ve got our hands on both Apple and Microsoft’s digital drawing tools, and we’re going to put them to the test.
[We tested the two products in Autodesk Sketchbook, software that responds accurately to pen pressure, has a broad range of pens/brushes and a good personalisation menu to edit brushes to an artist’s unique preference.]
So first things first, a pretty sensitive subject.
The upgrade for the Surface Pen increased its pressure sensitivity by over four times from 256 to 1,204 levels of pressure. Having tested both pens, the latest design is a lot more intuitive. The pressure changes in a single stroke are very fluid compared to the previous design which had a tendency to struggle with lighter pressure.
In comparison, the Apple Pencil has the ability to sense multiple layers of pressure but does not specify anywhere exactly how many… From a prospective buyer’s point of view, this is odd in the least. Withholding that kind of information while your competitors boast their figures feels a little contemptuous not to mention off-putting. The pencil itself feels as though it needs a lot more pressure to achieve the same effect as the surface pen. Whether this is down to the pen or the tablet, it’s hard to tell. However, I preferred the response of the Surface Pen over Apple when it came to controlling stroke thickness.
I also found drawing slowly lines became more jittery. The Apple pencil was more unpredictable in this way compared to the Surface Pen. It seemed to respond better the quicker I moved the pen, at times creating an almost exaggerated smooth pencil flow.
What sets the Apple Pencil apart from the Surface Pen is its ability to detect the angle and orientation of the pen to adjust the response on screen. We can shift between line drawing and shading by tilting the pencil in hand like you would a regular pencil. Frankly, I was quite excited to try this out, but after about half an hour of experimentation, it quickly lost its appeal. It’s an interesting concept and one that obviously Microsoft hasn’t explored, but the reality is not necessarily what I’d call intuitive drawing, more gimmicky.
Surface Pen Tips
The Surface Pro 4 Pen also offers something the Apple Pencil doesn’t. With the new upgraded pen, you’ll also receive five interchangeable pen tips. Designed to mimic a pack of artist’s sketching pencils varying from 2H, H, HB, B. You can feel the difference when switching between the original pen tip and some of its substitutes. However, there are a few that I didn’t feel made my drawing experience any different. The two softer pen tips, B and HB, feel very similar to the point where I can hardly tell the difference and tend to get them mixed up.
Both pens use Bluetooth connectivity that theoretically should have an almost imperceptible delay between moving the pen and the line that appears in its path. Comparing both directly, I found that the Apple Pencil was slower in responding to my movements, especially the faster I moved. Whereas with the Surface Pen, I rarely felt it was struggling to catch up with me. The Surface Pro is essentially a graphics tablet turned laptop, so this device has been built for digital drawing. An example being how a small pinpoint cursor appears as you hover for ultimate accuracy.
As you would expect, Apple has designed their pen to feel smooth and light; a sleek and seamless white wand that feels comfortable and natural to hold. It’s longer in length that the Surface Pen but more true to the ‘pencil’. Essentially it’s shell is made from a glossy plastic although the product feels a lot more premium in hand. The pen nib is also plastic, and just from looking at the two products side by side it doesn’t appear to be as precision accurate as the Surface Pen, though its shape resembles something closer to the 2H Surface Pen tip.
The Surface Pen is a little more chunky and while still smooth has a flat strip running down the length of the pen that makes for a better grip. The body itself is metal and feels durable in hand. The pen tips are all made from a combination of plastic and rubber to achieve the desired pencil weight. It is a much more technical pen design that feels functional yet still beautiful.
Overall, the Surface Pen offers a lot more regarding its design that adds to the experience of digital drawing. The flat part of the pen also features as a right click, making navigation and accessing menus a seamless operation. Although it can be a bit of nuisance to – mid-stroke – accidentally bring up a shortcut menu, a quick adjustment of your grip should send you on your way. Its top button can also be re-mapped to open an app or perform an action when pressed.
In comparison, Apple boasts how the Apple Pencil tip can be distinguished from simply touching the screen, so technically you can do both at the same time. I certainly didn’t feel the need to draw and tap, but at least you can if you get the urge.
Although Apple’s product is technically a ‘pencil’ and Microsoft’s is a ‘pen’, it is the Surface Pen that embraces the idea of a rubber tip. Being able to mid-design, flick the pen on its end and rub out a slight mistake feels completely natural. What’s more, the texture of the rubber tip gives the pen slightly more friction when used, mimicking the feel of a real rubber.
The Apple Pencil houses it’s charging port in the top of the pen. The lightning connector plugs straight into the Ipad’s lighting charge port or alternatively, it can be charged through your Ipad charging cable by connecting an adaptor to the pen. I found the first option a worryingly delicate procedure. With seven inches of pen sticking out from the side of the tablet it’s not exactly discreet.
The Apple pencil boasts how only 15 seconds of charge will give you half an hour of sketching time, and a full charge will last 12 hours of continuous use. Sounds fair, but compare this to the Surface pen which can last between 1 month – 1 year depending on the frequency of usage. That’s an incredible difference. Some would argue that Apple is ahead of Microsoft on this front because the Surface Pen retains its charge from a single AAAA battery. I’m not convinced this is justified considering the difference in battery capacity.
Apple also brought out an alternative standing charger, which is a bit more sensible. Personally, though the size of it seems overkill just to power a pencil…
The Surface Pen is included within the price of the Surface Pro 4 and is backwards compatible with the Surface Pro 3 tablet so that you can pick up an upgrade for just under £50. This includes the pack of interchangeable pen tips.
The Apple Pencil, on the other hand, is an additional purchase to the Ipad Pro. It makes sense since not everyone who wants an Ipad will also want to spend money on the Pencil, but for those that do, get your wallets at the ready. The Apple Pencil costs £99 today, and that includes a spare pen tip and an adaptor for charging with the Ipad charging cable. If you want any more pen tips, you’ll have to spend another £20 for a pack of four.
So, in conclusion, the top choice for digital stylus has to be the Surface Pro 4 Pen. Although the Apple Pencil has its perks, for a reliable, long lasting and optimal performing tool, the Surface Pen is the obvious choice. With its long battery life, superior sensitivity, multifunctional design features and interchangeable tips; this is a product made for an artist.