Apple Pencil's major components

Teardown: Apple Pencil

This peripheral won’t be a must-have for all iPad Pro users, but its elegant design proves powerful things can come in small packages.

“It was the stylus, John. I killed the Newton because of the stylus. If you’re holding a stylus, you can’t use the other five that are attached to your wrist.” (Steve Jobs, 2015)

The wireless Apple Pencil was greeted with some mockery when launched last year alongside the large-format iPad Pro tablet. It was “something that Steve would not have done”. As we do here, a few jokers cited the lines above from Jobs’ final conversation with John Sculley in the recent biopic. And yet….

One of the highlights in David Hockney’s blockbuster 2012 exhibition at the Royal Academy, ‘A Bigger Picture’, comprised works he had recently produced on an iPad, and ‘Britain’s greatest living artist’ has continued to work with the format. Criticism those paintings have received has sometimes focused on the limitations the format imposed - back then - due to the lack of a sophisticated brush/stylus, while acknowledging Hockney’s ambition in exploring new technology.

But this is not just about art. Since the launch of the Macintosh, Apple has been the platform of choice for the graphics world, in publishing, in industrial design, in advertising and beyond. Is it a niche? Yes, but it’s a big one.

And the Pencil’s appeal does not end there. Many professional users - and the stylus does exclusively accompany a ‘Pro’ branded product - are great annotators. Apps that allow, say, engineers and architects to mark up or highlight sections of plans and schematics while using a tablet on site claim combined downloads in the millions. Such work frequently requires great precision.

Despite the £79/$99 price, Pencil is probably not a mass-market product, and therefore does not reflect the reductive aspects of Steve Jobs’ design philosophy in their purest sense. But it is arguably one that users’ adoption and increasing familiarity with tablets has made viable, even necessary.

In that context - and as teardowns of the Bluetooth-based Pencil are illustrating - Apple has come up with a sophisticated peripheral.

“With a physical size of 176mm long × 9mm in diameter and weighing about 21g, we found 15 semiconductor devices. This is quite incredible for something so small,” observed analysts at Chipworks after making their first pass at the device’s silicon content.

Meanwhile, the iFixit teardown team remarked from a physical point of view on how Apple has crammed in various sensors - emitters and paired ticks in the nib and motherboard - so that the Pencil’s output reflects both the angle at which it is applied and the pressure applied.

At the same time, weight has been a key criterion. A repeated charge against e-styluses is that they sit in the hand too heavily and thus quickly tire the user if being used for an extensive or otherwise lengthy job.

Of the motherboard specifically, iFixit added that, “It’s definitely the smallest we’ve ever seen.” The PCB is folded within the Pencil’s cylinder and houses both the main micro­controller and Bluetooth 4.1 chip.

This level of sophistication within very cramped real estate - the bulk of which is then necessarily occupied by a 3.82V Li-ion battery offering 12 hours operation - may have had an initial cost for the company.

The Pencil quickly went on to a four-week backorder after its launch late last year. This had come down to 2-3 weeks through Apple’s online store at time of writing. Apart from demand, Apple is rumoured to be facing yield challenges on such a complex design.

Returns (and there always are some) may equally be proving an issue. The iFixit repairability score for the Pencil is just 1 out of 10. It is not simply that the device features many tiny parts. Apart from its removable nib and the rear-sitting Lightning charger connect, the Pencil is sealed in a plastic cover.

The only way in is to cut through that cover - when they did, the iFixit team found that they had severed the ribbon cable between the Lightning port and the battery. Never mind not trying this at home, if something goes wrong with a Pencil, it needs to replaced.

There are bound to be suggestions that the Pencil’s launch was driven by the iPad Pro to the extent that it has come to market a little earlier than it should. One rather hopes instead, though, that these are more traditional teething problems.

On a more positive note, a lot of effort has been put into integrating how tablet and peripheral work together (although Pencil, for now, is limited to the £679+ Pro edition). For example, when it detects that the Pencil is being used, the Pro lifts its scan rate to 240 times-a-second, double that for when you use your fingers. This feature reduces latency, so that the writing or drawing experience is much closer to that for working on paper.

Chipworks is undertaking a second pass at the Pencil and Pro together to explore still further how the two devices are integrated, as it suspects there is still more happening beyond that higher scan rate. The Pencil also seems to have been the result of a very close collaboration between Apple and STMicroelectronics, the peripheral’s main silicon supplier.

The good news already for Apple is that where the Pencil has got into the hands of reviewers and likely users, reactions have been positive. For creators and engineers who have long wanted something that more closely mimics how they actually work, its functionality and performance set a new standard.

So, coming back to whether or not Steve would have done this, eventually. Who knows? But it’s interesting to recall the last full sentence Michael Fassbender’s version is given in Aaron Sorkin’s script from that recent film. Jobs asks his daughter Lisa: “Do you remember that painting you did on the original Mac?”

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