Review: Ten One Pogo Connect Bluetooth 4.0 Smart Pen
Almost every iPad stylus on the market is a variation on one of two simple themes -- a metal tube with a soft rubber tip, or a plastic tube with a soft rubber tip -- but several companies have gone further, developing electronic styluses that promise superior performance: improved writing accuracy, pressure sensitivity, and other frills are pitched as reasons to spend more than the $20-$30 basic models. Ten One Design's Pogo Connect Bluetooth 4.0 Smart Pen ($80) is the latest option, originally announced back in March 2012 as Blue Tiger. As the new name suggests, Pogo Connect is one of the rare accessories to feature Bluetooth 4.0/Bluetooth Smart wireless functionality, which promises a battery life of "months" on a single, included AAA battery, without the need to turn the power on or off. And it goes up against Adonit's Jot Touch, released in July, which features similar functionality at a higher $100 price. Updated: This review has been updated with details on four new replacement tips Ten One is offering, including two finer writing tips and two brush tips.
Based on Ten One’s track record, it’s no surprise that Pogo Connect’s designers crafted an attractive, elegant device. The stylus measures five inches long from end to end, of which nearly 4.4” is a solid-feeling silver metal tube. Three eighths of an inch in diameter, the pen is a little bit heavier than many styluses thanks in large part to the battery inside, though as is the case with any quality writing instrument, the heft is a positive rather than a negative. The battery is accessible through a screw-off cap at the back end; all Pogo Connects ship with a silver cap, and early adopters also received a black version with a Blue Tiger logo.
On the opposite side of the stylus is the magnetically connected, replaceable rubber tip. The magnets are set deep in the tapered point of the pen, so the tip’s not going to come off unless you want or need it to do so; Ten One has hinted that there will in the future be a reason to consider swapping tips, but for now, what’s here is soft and squishy, offering no clue as to the pressure sensor inside.
Pogo Connect’s only other notable physical feature is the button on the shaft with an LED indicating its status. Just the right size and easy to see, this LED shifts between blue, green, and white colors, flashing quickly when it’s pressed. Web and app-based user guides help you learn what the colors mean—iPad-connected and in use, iPad-connected and not in use, powered but not iPad-connected—however, the colors aren’t particularly intuitive, and the responses don’t necessarily correlate with what you’re seeing on the screen. Some apps appear to be able to take advantage of the button for a secondary purpose, such as undoing previous work, though Jot Touch’s multi-button design is conceptually better suited to this functionality.
As is the case with other Bluetooth 4.0 accessories we’ve tested, the stylus doesn’t pair with the iPad through the normal Settings menu; instead, it relies on a free Pogo Connect app, which is actually pretty nice considering how simple it could have been. When first launched, the app prompts you to press the button on the pen and wait for the blinking blue light. Your iPad will then display a message letting you know Pogo Connect is paired, along with a tab that lists supported apps. Additionally, it has a Ping My Pogo feature that’s intended to help you find the stylus if it’s lost. This uses a radar animation, with concentric circles radiating out from the center. The size of the center circle is based on the signal strength, and indicates how far away the pen is. Ten One’s signal strength meter wasn’t exactly accurate—even when the pen was physically on top of the iPad, it only showed a signal strength in the low 90s, at best—but how many other styluses can be even roughly located in this fashion? None.
Like Jot Touch, Pogo Connect’s biggest selling point is that it’s pressure-sensitive, allowing compatible apps to know not only the location of the stylus’s tip on the screen, but also how hard you’re pressing down while rendering lines of different widths and weights. When the feature works properly with an app, you’ll be able to create artwork or writing that uses more realistic ink flows, paint thicknesses, or gentle airbrush strokes, as developers can set individual tools to switch between colors, transparency, size, or textures based on the pressure exerted on the stylus. Ten One says that the pen’s Crescendo Sensor technology is “amazingly sensitive, with 0 grams of activation force,” “provides hundreds of levels of pressure,” and “works at all angles” with “no calibration”—all benefits that we wouldn’t write off. While the rubber domed Pogo Connect tip doesn’t feel nearly as precise as the hard Jot Touch disc, it’s very easy and natural to use, closer to a soft paintbrush in feel than a writing tool; some users will prefer one over the other on tactility alone.
There are several major issues with Pogo Connect right now, however, that really detract from the real-world user experience. Despite the compelling form factor of the stylus, and our serious appreciation for the Bluetooth 4 battery life and wireless functionality benefits, Pogo Connect displays many of the same issues we found with Adonit’s Jot Touch, including compatibility problems and interface confusion with supported apps. Ten One currently lists 13 apps compatible with Pogo Connect, and another five as “coming soon.” We tested supposedly supported apps such as Paper, ProCreate, SketchBook Pro, and PDFPen, and were generally underwhelmed with the results. After initial pairing using the Pogo Connect app, each app then required the stylus to be manually activated a second time within its own settings. ProCreate and SketchBook Pro recognized the stylus and let it work; PDFPen appeared to recognize it but didn’t perform any differently, and Paper continually searched for the stylus without finding it.
Confusion continues with the actual Pogo Connect support featured within the apps. In SketchBook Pro, for instance, only three of the many brush selections seemed to work with the feature, and even then, not very impressively; what did work had to be discovered through trial and error. With ProCreate, which is nice enough to display a quick Pogo Connect recognition box to let you know the stylus is working, pressure-sensitive tools vary enough in functionality that you’re never quite sure whether you’re going to see differences in color, weight, or other effects when you try to draw. Despite the claims of “zero grams of activation force,” light strokes frequently didn’t translate into any actual drawing, either. And regardless of the simplicity of the hardware, the software learning curve for Pogo Connect apps remains steep and in need of additional polish.
Another issue results from the choice of the latest Bluetooth technology—without backward compatibility. Pogo Connect only natively supports the third- and fourth-generation iPads and the iPad mini, versus Jot Touch, which for better and worse uses an older Bluetooth version that’s also compatible with the iPad 2. In our early testing of Pogo Connect with a third-generation iPad, apps with Pogo Connect support just crashed when we tried to load them with the pen turned on; the issues thankfully disappeared in subsequent testing. Ten One accommodates some first- and second-generation iPad users with a free Bridge app, enabling an iPhone 4S or 5 to connect with the stylus and relay its data to the older tablets; this is a nice idea, but a lot of work just to gain pressure sensitivity.
Like the best first-time electronic accessory developers that came before it, Ten One Design launched Pogo Connect with a combination of good ideas and tradeoffs that will really need additional consideration for future software and hardware updates. As it is today, Pogo Connect provides a more future-focused power management and wireless solution, compromising a bit on device compatibility and pairing simplicity in order to do away with the separate stylus charger Jot Touch requires. It also offers a comparable user experience, trading pointing precision and multi-button support for something that’s softer and simpler; we also liked that Ten One’s price was $20 lower than its rival’s. However, both of these products have suffered from spotty software support, pairing and user interface ambiguities, plus other hiccups that are all but unavoidable “early adopter” problems. For now, we’d call these solutions a tie on overall user experience; they’re good starts, but Adonit and Ten One both have work to do before these styluses fulfill their significant promise and entirely satisfy customers.
Updated October 24, 2013: Over the last month, Ten One has released four replacement tips for Pogo Connect—R1, R2, B1, and B2. The first two are rubber domes with smaller diameters than the 7.3mm R3, the newly-named original rubber tip that’s pre-installed on Pogo Connect. At 4.5mm, R1 is claimed to be “built for note-taking,” while the 6.0mm R2 is designed for “good pressure sensitivity with improved precision.” Rather than mixing both tips in an R1 + R2 set, you get two R1 tips or two R2 tips in a package for $10.
Although we didn’t receive R2 for testing, R1’s finer-tipped benefit comes with some unique challenges. Put aside one wrinkle—the tip only works with newer Pogo Connect styluses shipped with firmware version 1.1.0 or later—and you’ll find another, that it’s solely for use with full-sized iPad 3rd-gen/4th-gen models and not the iPad mini. Ten One clearly discloses both of these issues to avoid disappointment, which is a good idea. One more to add to the list is screen film incompatibility: although R1 worked just as promised for fine-tipped writing with a bare-screened iPad, we found that it was difficult to use reliably with a thin plastic protector on, requiring an unnatural amount of force to interact with the screen. It’s the only tip we’ve tested for a digital stylus that had issues like this, but again, bare full-sized iPad users with the newer Pogo Connect will be fine. (Note: Ten One hints that it will replace pre-1.1.0 Pogo Connect styluses for early adopters who want to use R1.)
Thankfully, we found the B1 and B2 easier to use and more distinctive. B1 is a straight brush tip with a 0.5” uniform length of silver bristles, initially forming a 0.2” circle that expands to nearly 1”, and B2 is an angled brush tip tapering in length from around 0.4” down to 0.3”, initially creating a line roughly 0.3” long that spreads out to around 0.8” with pressure. With or without screen protection on the iPad, both worked extraordinarily well with Pogo Connect-compatible apps such as Zen Brush to replicate the experience of painting. Unlike other paintbrush-styled styluses we’ve tested, apps were able to sense the actual size, shape, and angle of each Pogo Connect brush tip, reflecting those characteristics in brush strokes rather than just drawing a circle in the middle of the bristles. While you’ll need to pick the right app to properly support the feature, we were genuinely impressed with the results—the first time we’ve ever said that about an iPad brush accessory.
Our only gripe with all of the tips is the threadbare manner in which they’re packaged and managed. While the tips feel reasonably solid and attach magnetically to Pogo Connect’s top after pulling R3 off, we felt a little concerned applying pressure to pull them off, and had no place to put the small pieces when they weren’t in use. Each set of tips arrives inside a cardboard box with a thin, cheap-feeling plastic tray inside; we’ve reluctantly kept the trays around to hold the tips, but wouldn’t feel comfortable carrying them around or tossing them into bags. Ideally, Ten One will come up with a revised package that can double as a tip storage box, or bundle a case along with future Pogo Connects to encourage tip-swapping. This is a neat concept, and largely done justice by the results we saw in R1, B1 and B2.