Review: E Fun aPen A5 Pressure-Sensitive Stylus for iPad
Though Apple has famously dismissed styluses as inappropriate for the iPhone and iPod touch, the company hasn't discouraged precision input accessories for the iPad, possibly because larger-screened note-taking and artistic applications might seriously benefit from a sharper tip than a finger. "Might" is the key word, however, as excellent styluses have proved rare in the iPad's first two years; despite the release of dozens of options, only Adonit's Jots have approached the accuracy of ballpoint pens, though their unusual hard plastic, pivoting tips introduced certain dexterity challenges of their own. Now E Fun has entered the market with aPen A5 ($129), an atypically expensive option that nonetheless may appeal to some users. Though other options have been announced, aPen A5 is the first pressure-sensitive iPad stylus that's actually available to purchase, and though it requires specially-developed software, multiple apps already support its functionality. While it's not ideally implemented, users who are willing to live with its idiosyncrasies will find its enhanced precision to be intriguing, perhaps even useful.
Unlike any other iPad stylus currently on the market, aPen A5 ships as a kit with two battery-powered parts—a stylus that uses twin included V392 batteries, and a Dock Connector-based dongle that runs off of the iPad’s battery. Three identical, replaceable writing tips are included for A5, along with a carrying case, a Dock Connector plug cover, and a pen refill extractor tool. Using aPen A5 is as simple as inserting the batteries into the stylus, connecting the dongle to the iPad, and downloading your choice of automatically-offered App Store apps to take advantage of the pen functionality. Four free apps (AirpenNote, FlyNotes, IdealNotes, and Studio Basic Lite) are currently offered, along with four others that range from $2 to $6.
E Fun’s stylus looks and feels like a regular ballpoint pen, albeit with a plastic tip and a dark purple, Infrared light-emitting ring around the top. The dongle is an unusually large 3” wide and .55” deep, generally requiring the iPad to be used in an upside down portrait orientation, and potentially outside of a case. As it turns out, the dongle is an Infrared sensor, monitoring the iPad’s screen surface for two signs of stylus use: passive movement, which can be registered with a light tracking cursor on the screen, and actively depressed use, which results in digital inking or painting. It’s worth noting that the pressure sensitivity appears to be limited to “on” or “off” positions, rather than gradual. Only apps developed with support for the aPen A5 will work with the cursor and writing features; otherwise, and notably within the iOS interface itself, all pen input will be ignored.
The single biggest positive we experienced with aPen A5 testing was dramatically enhanced fine-tip writing precision under certain circumstances: when the software, dongle, and stylus were all working properly together, we were able to write smaller, more natural-looking text than we’ve managed with the best prior (Adonit) styluses, while enjoying a modestly greater degree of confidence about where we would be writing thanks to the passive on-screen cursor. That said, our on-iPad handwriting was still not pen-and-paper precise, and there were some substantial counterveiling issues to note, too.
With the right software calibration—say, nine initial calibration points, individually confirmed before writing—E Fun’s optical tracking of the pen input works 90% of the time, which is to say that you will be able to write or sketch quite well, then suddenly see your cursor fly a half inch off of the actual place you’re writing, mid-sentence, and not know how to bring it back to where you were. However, with the poor software calibration we found in some of the apps, pen input can be way, way off just based on the way you’re holding the pen; you may press the tip on one part of the screen while ink is flowing an inch or more away. We initially thought that this might be attributable to protective screen film, but the issues persisted even on a bare-screened iPad. The pen, sensor, and software combination hasn’t received an Apple degree of “just works” polish.
Moreover, though some apps are designed to accommodate hand resting areas and ignore inputs that may mess up your results, there isn’t a consistent guarantee that every app has been thought through to avoid issues. In fact, most apps’ buttons—and all button presses outside of apps—still require you to use your finger rather than the pen for input, and you’ll need to disable iOS’s multi-touch multitasking gestures if your hand will be touching the screen, as well. Once you use aPen A5, you’ll have a greater appreciation for the serious software and hardware engineering challenges Apple has faced in developing a proper iPad stylus, which it has patented but not yet released.
Given the fairly steep $129 asking price—a more than $100 jump over Adonit’s simpler, nicely designed Jots—aPen A5 is a difficult accessory to recommend at this time. While its developer is to be commended for taking on the very challenging task of managing not just a pressure-sensitive stylus but also the software required to use it, the real-world performance and price tag are both dissatisfying, and it’s hard to know whether improved software alone will be enough to improve the aPen A5 experience going forward. For the time being, Adonit’s $20-$22 Jots deliver such a better overall quality of experience that we’d much sooner recommend the less expensive, simpler solution, but if you need ultra fine-tip writing so badly that you’re willing to pay a steep premium for it, suffer through some ergonomic challenges, and occasionally redo your work due to cursor slippage, aPen A5 isn’t bad; it’s just a niche solution, and in need of more consistently thoughtful software.