Strategic Paper Replacement: the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil

It's a daily struggle for me to balance my love for stationery and “analog” tools with the convenience and practicality of today’s digital world.  As much as I enjoy writing and editing by hand, it’s not always practical, and there are certain circumstances in which it makes absolutely no sense to generate paper that’s only going to end up being thrown out within the week (or even the hour).  Case in point:  most of the writing that I do for my day job.  I take lots of notes on printed copies of PDFs relating to conference calls or meetings in which these documents are being discussed, so at the end of the day, a lot of trees die needlessly because most of this work product isn’t stuff I want to keep around indefinitely. In some cases, I can’t retain it because of confidentiality concerns. 

Still, I’m torn about going paperless.  The guilt at wasting paper has always been outweighed by my inability to "think on a screen".  For as long as I can remember, my personal workflow has relied heavily on handwriting.  Many ideas and revisions to thought-intensive pieces such as longer briefs or articles only come to me when I’m curled up in a chair with a pen or pencil and a printed draft (and, depending on the time of day, a cup of coffee or a whiskey).  Many of my colleagues can edit documents electronically in Microsoft Word using the "track changes" function.  I can’t.  My work product when I use this kind of workflow is, frankly, 100% crap.  There’s something about taking a pencil or pen to a physical copy of a draft piece of writing that’s almost irreplaceable to me.  I say almost, because the combination of the recently released iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil strikes the perfect balance for certain kinds of work.  


I didn’t need much convincing to pick up an iPad Pro the week it was released.  It was a relatively expensive purchase, especially once you take into account the keyboard case and the Pencil, but I can honestly say that in my 10+ years of work life, this is the computer product that I’ve been waiting years for:  a legal-pad sized electronic clipboard that has a usable handwriting function.  I tried this a couple years ago and failed miserably (no thank you, Dell Latitude XT), but I suspected that Apple, of all companies, would get this right.  One caveat: as I’ll discuss, the Pencil is what makes this product work for me.  Pencil availability has improved since launch, but if you can’t get one, I’d recommend waiting if your needs are similar to mine.  

Honestly, which would you prefer to carry around with you?  iPad Pro is shown here in the Logitech Create case, which at launch was an excellent external keyboard option but since iOS 9.2 launched I've found it to be buggy (i.e., missed keystrokes and a lot of lag).  Lately I've used the Moko Ultra Slim with an Apple wireless keyboard.


To justify the expense, I needed the iPad Pro to do two things well:  (1) let me extensively annotate PDF’s in small, legible handwriting; and (2) allow me to take legible handwritten meeting notes at the same pace that I could if I were writing with pen/pencil on paper.  So far, I haven’t been disappointed.  

I’ve used two apps for PDF annotation:  iAnnotate, which is one of the first iPad Apps that I ever bought, and PDFExpert.  Both are great, but of the two, I prefer PDFExpert.  The latter has better Dropbox integration, the annotation functions are more intuitive, and handwritten comments are more legible.  I can’t gush enough over how the ability to mark up and circulate draft documents directly from iPad has has improved my work life not only by saving me time, but by eliminating waste.  I’m a pretty organized person, but for years I’ve felt like I was drowning in a sea of scrap paper.  The iPad Pro has eliminated a lot of that junk, and those critics who always used to carp at me for dumping handwritten comments on them are somewhat less vocal, now that I can quickly e-mail them an electronic document reflecting my changes, rather than attempt to legibly scan comments that were written in fountain pen ink that's bled through cheap copy paper.       

PDF Annotation using the iPad Pro, the Apple Pencil, and Readdle's PDF Expert 5.  

For handwritten notes, I’ve lived mainly in Apple's Notes app, though I’ve also played around with Microsoft OneNote.  The Pencil works well in both apps, though I’ve found that the pressure sensitivity and line variation work best in Notes.  I’m thinking about experimenting a bit and moving certain research and planning-intensive projects (both work-related and personal) over to OneNote, because its a very powerful tool for organizing large amounts of information, but for taking notes on one-off meetings and conference calls, Notes works just fine.  (Especially since I can e-mail notes to myself and file them away in Outlook on our corporate e-mail system.  Due to security concerns and an archaic network structure, this is pretty much the only way to sync anything to the system from phone or tablet apps.)  Either way, the benefit to me is the same:  I no longer have multiple project-specific legal pads or notebooks stacked up on my desk, filled with information that doesn’t warrant long-term retention, that’s not easily searchable, and that I’ll likely end up shredding anyway due to secure storage considerations. 

The top portion of this writing sample was written with the Adonis Jot Pro, probably the best of the pre-Pencil iPad Styli that I tried, and the one that had the finest tip.  Compare with the Apple Pencil and note the obvious difference in handwriting legibility.    

I'm a decent artist at best, so if you want to see what the iPad Pro can do as a digital sketchbook, go here.  

The Apple Pencil is well-balanced--about the length of a woodcase pencil that's been sharpened two or three times--making it a very comfortable length for writing.  Myke Hurley wrote an excellent piece for The Pen Addict, in which he discusses the construction and build of the Pencil in more detail.  

Handwriting on the iPad Pro

Just how good of a “paper” replacement is the new iPad?  The best that I’ve experienced.  My problem with every other tablet styli I’ve tried has been the absence of line variation in my handwriting, as well as horrific palm rejection technology and latency (which refers to the lag between making a mark on the tablet with the stylus and the tablet registering your input).  While neither are perfect on the iPad Pro, the experience is good enough to remove the mental blocks to working on digital paper.  If you’re like me, you know what I’m referring to—the inability to get lost in whatever it is you’re doing because you constantly have to pay attention to the position of the stylus, whether you’ve lost any of your words/lines due to latency issues, etc.  Previously, this inability to focus on whatever it is I was doing far outweighed the convenience of having digital notes.  I’ve been using the iPad Pro and the Pencil since November, and once you get past the novelty factor, it’s possible to forget that you’re no longer writing on paper.  I wouldn’t choose to write a novel or anything long form using the tablet (mainly for ergonomic reasons), but for meeting notes, brainstorming, and mind mapping, it’s perfect.         

The Importance of the Apple Pencil

The Pencil is central to my iPad Pro experience. Without it, you could safely say that the iPad Pro is, in effect, nothing more than a bigger iPad.  A very powerful iPad to be sure, with a gorgeous retina screen, but without the Pencil and the added handwriting functionality it offers, it wouldn’t serve any need of mine that my existing iPad Air 2 or MacBook Pro couldn’t meet.  It bothers me that Apple released the iPad Pro with the Pencil in such short supply.   

The Pencil essentially takes the iPad Pro and creates a different product category.  Using the Pencil, I’ve been able to streamline my workflow in a way I’ve dreamed of but never been able to do before.  It replaces pen and paper, to a certain extent, but it also works well enough with an external keyboard to serve as a reliable laptop replacement:  I sold the MacBook Pro.  (I haven’t gone entirely Mac-less:  I have an iMac at home that I use for heavy photo editing and photo-intensive blog publishing, some writing, and remote access into the computer system at my office.  Otherwise, however, there’s very little a laptop can do for me that the iPad Pro can’t.)    

I don’t regret shelling out the cash for the iPad Pro and its accessories.  Lately, for me it’s all been about simplifying my work life and workflows by eliminating unnecessary clutter—even analog clutter—that no longer brings me joy and creates mental blocks.  For large chunks of my workday, generating excess paper by writing certain things out by hand in the traditional sense left me feeling stressed and constantly overwhelmed.  The iPad Pro has helped me significantly in that regard, and if you have a similar need (and can find a Pencil), I can give Apple's latest iPad entry my wholehearted recommendation.     

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