Can Apple's Pencil breathe new life into the stylus?

Apple's new Pencil is the first stylus from a company whose former CEO, the infamous Steve Jobs, boldly stated that styli were a sign of poor product design. Was Jobs right? Or is the stylus just what professionals need to get the most from today's tablets and smartphones?

ipadpro pencil hand print

The Apple Pencil, sold for use with the iPad Pro

Credit: Apple

Just like a politician who quietly changes his tune, Apple on Wednesday unveiled the new Apple Pencil. Yes, it's a stylus. From Apple.

Many tech followers will recall the late Steve Jobs's blistering assessment of styli. During a press event about iOS 4 in 2010, Jobs famously said, "If you see a stylus, they blew it," referring to mobile device makers that incorporate digital pens as input devices. According to Jobs, all users should want, or need, for touchscreen input device are fingers.

Despite Jobs's epic dismissal, styli have proliferated as accessories for iPads, iPhones, and other devices. Microsoft did a particularly nice job building a digital pen for its Surface tablets and OneNote app. And I recently spent some hands-on time with a compelling new stylus, Adonit's Jot Dash ($50), designed for use with iOS and Android devices — more on that coming up.

Was Steve Jobs right about the stylus?

Is a stylus a symbol of unimaginative product design? Or do users really need styli for touch-enabled mobile devices?

The answers depends on the specific device, apps and user.

Palm stylus was essential; Samsung's isn’t

Before the iPhone killed it off, I was Palm user. I can't imagine using a Palm PDA without the company's trademark, thin and small stylus, which helped the device recognize shorthand scribbles and translate them to digital text.

After switching to an iPhone in 2008, I didn't touch a stylus for years. Then, in 2012, I bought the first-generation Samsung Galaxy Note, and it came with a stylus. After some quick scribbling during the first few weeks of my purchase, however, the Note stylus stayed tucked away in its slot, an unnecessary appendage.

The Surface 3 rekindled my interest in styli. The Surface Pen's fine point makes it easier to click small menu buttons on the Surface screen, and the Surface Pen is also useful for annotating OneNote pages.

Adonit Jot Dash a quality, affordable stylus

adonit jot dash

Back to Adonit's new Jot Dash stylus, which is a solid entry in the stylus accessory market. It's affordable, thin and light, and it has a clip so you can easily attach it to an interior bag pocket. You don't have to connect the stylus via Bluetooth to your device. Instead, you just click on the top button and the pen works right out of the box. The fine tip (1.9mm) is convenient for writing and great for signing documents. The gadget works with Android and iOS apps, but it's most effective with apps that support stylus input, such as Photoshop Sketch and Evernote's Penultimate.

Call it a stylus comeback?

During Wednesday's Apple event, Adobe showed off new apps, including Photoshop Fix, that let you use the Apple Pencil to retouch photos with fine detail on the new iPad Pro. Adobe's presentation was impressive — and so was Microsoft's, which showed off stylus input capabilities in Office apps on the iPad Pro. The whole thing almost has me thinking the stylus is destined for a comeback. 

Almost.

I'm skeptical of the stylus. The peak of Palm was the stylus's moment in pop culture, and that moment has long since passed.

However, I don't think styli are useless. If you're a graphics professional, I suspect you'll love Apple's iPad Pro. And you'll likely want the Apple Pencil ($99) to make the most of your expensive new tablet (prices start at $799).

If you want to easily annotate documents and Web content to share with colleagues, you're another candidate for a stylus, with or without an iPad Pro. Have to sign a lot of different documents on the go? You too are a potential stylus fan.

Everyone else would probably only use a stylus once in a while — maybe a lot at first, and then over time, hardly at all. The stylus is also yet another device you need to pack up with all of your tech gear, that you could lose in transit and that (in many cases) requires recharging.

Most people can safely skip the stylus. If you're really curious, though, buy a low-cost option, such as Jot Dash.

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