Everything you can do with the Apple Pencil

Posted on January 4th, 2019 by

Steve Jobs famously said, about tablets, “If you need a stylus, you’ve already failed.” But he was talking about using a stylus as the main input device for a tablet. When Apple released the Apple Pencil three years ago, this quote was revived to remind people that a) things have changed, and b) Steve Jobs wasn’t always right.

Apple recently released a second version of the Apple Pencil. While this can be used as an input device, it is not required for the iPad Pro. In this article I’m going to tell you everything you can do with the new Apple Pencil.


If you have the first-generation Apple Pencil, it won’t work on this year’s iPad Pro models; and the new version won’t work on older iPads. This is a bit disappointing but both the internals and the charging method for the device have changed.

Gone is the somewhat comical method of charging the first Apple Pencil: you had to remove the easy-to-lose cap and stick it into a lightning port (on an iPad or iPhone), risking damage to both devices.

Now the pencil connects magnetically to one side of the iPad Pro and powers up using induction charging. This also gives you a practical way to carry the pencil with your iPad. The magnet is strong, but I’d still be careful if you’re carrying the iPad with Pencil in the open.

It’s worth noting that at $129, the new Apple Pencil is a significant price bump up from the first $99 model.

Form factor

The original Apple Pencil was round all around, meaning that it would roll on a desk or table that wasn’t perfectly even. The new model has one flat side, preventing unwanted movement. This change is a no-brainer; the round pencil was perhaps attractive from a design point of view but it was impractical. It’s also got a matte finish which is easier to hold and less slippery than the first model.


Setup is as simple as could be. Make sure Bluetooth is turned on, then place the Apple Pencil on the magnetic side of the iPad. The iPad will immediately recognize the Pencil and pair with it. When you connect the Apple Pencil, the iPad briefly displays how much charge the device has.


There is only one setting for the Apple Pencil, but it is useful. You can double-tap the bottom third of the device to effect a change. In Settings > Apple Pencil, you can choose whether this “gesture” switches between the current tool and the eraser, between the current tool and the last one you used, or shows the color palette.

Getting started with Notes

Apple’s Notes app is the perfect way to start using the Apple Pencil. Create a new note, then tap the Markup icon at the bottom right of the screen.

Notes displays a set of tools at the bottom of the screen. You can now begin to draw or even write text. The iPad Pro offers excellent palm rejection so it doesn’t think you’re writing with your entire hand.

There are three drawing options: from left to write they are a pen, a felt-tip pen and a pencil. To the right of that is an eraser, then a selection tool. Tap one of these to activate them. Tap again and you can choose the thickness of the lines and the saturation of the color.

You have a choice of colors with black and the primary colors immediately available; tap the color wheel to choose a different color.

You can use the eraser tool – either by tapping it in the tools palette or by double-tapping the device if you’ve set that option – to erase anything you’ve drawn.

And you can use the selection tool to select an element, then tap and drag it to a new location. The selection tool doesn’t give you a fine selection; it selects entire objects that you’ve drawn. Note that the undo and redo buttons at the bottom left of the screen allow you to step backward and forward in your actions.

Here’s a great tip if you use Apple Notes. If your iPad is locked, tap it to wake up the screen and display a new note, the last note you viewed or the last note you created. You can choose which you prefer in Settings > Notes > Access Notes from Lock Screen.

But you can also use it as a stylus

While the Apple Pencil isn’t intended to be a stylus to control the iPad, you can use it as such. For some apps, this can be very practical. You can tap buttons, drag sliders and select objects. This is great for editing photos, for example, because it is a lot easier to tap some of the small icons in complex editing apps with the Pencil than with a finger.

You can navigate the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil performing just about every action with the stylus. I find it particularly useful for doing the New York Times crossword. The only things you cannot do is return to your home screen or switch apps (you need to swipe up from the bottom of the device with your finger), or display Control Center (swipe down from the top right).

Handwriting recognition

After all, it is a pencil; what good would it be if you couldn’t write by hand? While you can do this in any app that allows you to draw, there are some apps that can even recognize your handwriting and convert it to text. With Nebo, for example, you can write text and see its recognition in real time; you can even create headers, highlight text and make lists. (And it works pretty well with my poor handwriting.)

Other apps that offer handwriting recognition include GoodNotes, Notes Plus, Notability and more.

Annotate PDFs

You can annotate PDFs using the Apple Pencil either using the iOS Markup tools or with one of the many such apps available for iOS. Open a PDF, tap the Markup icon and draw. You can also sign PDFs using the Apple Pencil.

Edit text

One of my favorite uses for the Apple Pencil is editing text. Text editing on an iOS device is clumsy at best; it’s hard to select items and it’s even harder to drag the little lollipops at the beginning and end of a selection. With the Apple Pencil, I can easily edit texts I write, select and move text, or select text for deletion. I sometimes use the Apple Pencil to tap letters on the keyboard when I’m fixing typos or adding short words.

If you have a new iPad Pro, the Apple Pencil is a worthwhile addition to the device. Even if you don’t draw, you may find lots of uses for the Apple Pencil and it may streamline your work with the tablet.

Don’t miss our related articles:

Review: 2018’s iPad Pro is Apple’s best tablet to date, but it comes at a price

The iPad Pro needs a pro version of iOS; here’s why

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Macs, iPods, iTunes, books, music and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast and PhotoActive, and a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than twenty books, including Take Control books about iTunes, LaunchBar, and Scrivener. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →