Adonit's Jot Touch pressure-sensitive iPad stylus shows incredible promise
At a Glance
As my friends know, I’ve been waiting for some sort of pressure-sensitive stylus for iOS devices pretty much since the iPad’s debut. Though I’m far from any sort of professional, I doodle incessantly—on paper, post-its, my computer, or whatever I have available at the time. It’s a form of stress relief, it’s a way to describe my surroundings when words won’t do, and it’s just plain fun.
When I got a glimpse of Adonit’s Jot Touch earlier this year at CES, I couldn’t help but get my hopes up. Real pressure sensitivity! No dongles! An SDK for app manufacturers! After that brief introduction to the company’s prototype, however, I was left with only my thoughts for six months.
A few weeks ago, those thoughts were replaced with a real, shipping, functional Jot Touch. I got to play, tinker, and scribble in many different apps, testing not only Adonit’s hardware but also the eleven apps that currently support the Bluetooth stylus.
After several weeks of testing, I can conclude that the company’s put together a tool that can potentially move the iPad from creative doodling machine to legitimate workspace. But it needs more app support before it can do so.
The Jot Touch looks much like any other stylus. It’s nigh-identical to Adonit’s own Jot Classic and Jot Pro ( ) lines, though the Touch is longer and uses a smaller plastic disk the company first used on the Jot Mini ( ). In addition, the Touch employs a spring-equipped tip that I pray makes it into Adonit’s other styluses, pressure-sensitivity or no. The spring dampens the horrid click-click-click you get when tapping on an iPad’s screen with any of the company’s other styluses, and it makes the tip feel much more natural when printing or drawing quick, short strokes.
If you wanted to, you could use the Touch like a regular capacitative stylus on pretty much any tablet or similar touchscreen device. But its magic comes when you pair the pen with a second- or third-generation iPad via Bluetooth: The stylus sends information wirelessly to your iPad about how hard you’re depressing the stylus’s spring tip; compatible apps can then translate that data into how thin or thick your line should be, or its opacity.
Adonit has also added two programmable buttons to the body of the stylus, and has provided a software development kit (SDK) that app developers can incorporate into their code. Apps can interpret the Jot Touch’s Bluetooth data to determine how hard you’re pressing the tip against the screen and associate that information with line width, opacity, or both.
The company claims that apps can work with up to 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, though I found that most of the Jot Ready apps had far fewer noticeable levels. In a comment on Adonit’s Facebook page, the company admitted that many of its partner apps are “dumbing down the levels” to avoid the Bluetooth connection requiring “more processing power with no advantage.” No advantage might be pushing it, but I can understand eschewing perfect levels for less lag.
Unfortunately, this generation of the Jot Touch and the SDK doesn’t offer developers the option to integrate palm rejection into their apps, though Adonit has said it plans to offers this capability in future models and future versions of the SDK.
Like any Bluetooth accessory, the Touch needs to be charged every so often, and Adonit provides an adorably tiny magnetic USB charger. Plug the charger into a spare USB port on your computer, and the Touch magnetically snap into place. The pen’s status light glows red while charging, and green when fully charged.
I charged the Touch only once, overnight, and had no problem using it for the entire two week run of my testing. The pen automatically switches off once you’ve been idle for 15 minutes, which helps the battery last for as long as possible.
Using the Jot Touch
Pairing the Touch to my iPad was as simple as connecting pretty much any Bluetooth device. First, you hold down both of the Jot Touch’s buttons until its status light begins blinking red and green; this means the Jot Touch is in pairing mode. Then you select the Touch in the Bluetooth screen of iOS’s Settings app. Whenever I subsequently turned on the stylus (by briefly holding down both buttons until the status light flashed green), it would automatically connect to my iPad.
The Touch is without a doubt the most precise iPad stylus I’ve used, even when using apps that haven’t integrated pressure support. The smaller disk lets you really see where you’re drawing, the stylus body is comfortable to hold, and the spring tip really does make it easier to perform many basic tasks that irritated me when using a Jot Classic or Jot Pro.
That said, the stylus’s $100 price tag can’t be justified entirely by precision; it’s the pressure sensitivity that makes the Jot Touch worth buying. Unfortunately, due to the way iOS is structured, Adonit can’t apply its SDK at the system level and have it work the same way across all programs. This means that each Jot Ready app delivers a vastly different experience, to the detriment of the pen itself.
The result is that while I love working with the Jot Touch, I’m less thrilled about the way Jot Ready apps are integrating the Adonit SDK. Some apps implement only opacity—which I find nigh-useless unless I’m using a paintbrush or airbrush tool—and leave out brush sizing. Others have no way to customize or calibrate brush strokes, a deal-killer for artists who, for example, use more pressure in particular situations and would like to be able to alter the brush accordingly.
I’m hopeful that these flaws will be eliminated in the days and months to come. Adonit’s SDK seems to provide a fair amount of control, judging by the bits and pieces I’ve seen in the various Jot Ready apps, so it’s up to app-makers to properly hook everything in. And there are many apps still missing from the Jot Ready list altogether; I’d give a great deal to see a pressure-sensitive version of Paper, for instance, or Brushes.
In the interest of thoroughness, here’s a brief look at my experiences with most of the Jot Ready apps currently available. The omissions are markup apps Soonr Scribble and PDFpen, which are currently available in the App Store, along with drawing apps ArtStudio and ArtRage—Jot Ready updates of the latter two apps weren’t available at the time of publication.
Procreate ($5): The primary app showcased for the Jot Touch, Procreate does a lot of things well. There’s a switch right in the app for turning Bluetooth accessories on and off, so you can use the Touch as either a standard or pressure-sensitive stylus. There are calibration sliders for the myriad brushes available, so you can tweak exactly how you’d like your brush to react. And the app itself is a great tool for scribblers and artists alike.
But despite this, Procreate uses pressure sensitivity only for opacity, omitting brush size—there’s no option to swap between or turn on both. And those opacity levels can be finicky, even with user brush customization—light and dark ranges are perfect, but trying to consistently use mid-range pressure proved very difficult for the app to parse. The stylus’s Buttons aren’t user-customizable, either; the bottom button is mapped to Undo, with the top button presumably Redo (though I couldn’t get it to work in my tests).
Sketchbook Express (Free): Autodesk’s free drawing app has limited support for the Jot Touch. There’s no way to disable pairing other than to turn off the stylus; pressure recognition is limited to eight brushes, and those brushes are mapped only to opacity; brush customization is limited to two controllable settings; and there’s no support for the Jot Touch’s buttons at all.
Sketchbook Pro ($5): The paid version of Sketchbook Express offers considerably more control than the basic version, but it ends up on par with Procreate in the end. It too takes only opacity input, though there are many brush customization options.
I must admit to disliking the app’s pen and pencil output (though in part I suspect that’s due to being spoiled by Paper), but Sketchbook Pro’s painting and airbrush tools are a joy to work with. As with Procreate, the Jot Touch’s middle pressure levels are a problem with Sketchbook Pro, though it handles continuous mid-level pressure better. Sketchbook Pro has no button controls or button customization to speak of.
Sketch Club ($2): While Sketch Club is generally not an app I’d turn to for my drawing needs, as I dislike its rendering engine, it has perhaps the best Jot Touch integration of the apps I looked at. Once you enable support for the stylus in the app’s settings screen, you can turn on both precision and pressure, and you can fiddle with both the size and opacity of any of the brushes. Additionally, it handles the middle pressure levels better than both Sketchbook Pro and Procreate. The stylus’s buttons, while not customizable, are mapped to increasing and decreasing brush size.
Were Sketch Club’s interface and brushes up to par, I’d start using it exclusively with the Jot Touch. But the app is too jittery for my tastes, and the pen and pencil rendering needs work.
Clibe ($5): This cloud-synced journaling app also supports pressure-sensitive brush size, but it suffers from poor rendering, non-Retina graphics, and only one undo option per page. Handwriting looks great; unfortunately, nothing else does.
DeepSketch ($3): A brilliantly strange app, DeepSketch is designed to let you draw in 3D, and it uses the Jot Touch’s pressure sensitivity to aid such drawing in an equally—and equally brilliantly—strange way. Once connected, the Touch’s pressure sensitivity can be configured either to brush size or “depth,” with the latter setting meaning that the harder you press your stylus against the screen, the more the resulting 3D image will pop out of the screen. Draw lightly, and you’ll get a normal 2D line.
In addition, the stylus’s buttons can be mapped to Undo/Redo or Increase/Decrease Depth. The app isn’t really for general sketching, but if you have a hankering to draw something in 3D…
Animation Desk: ($5): Though this app lacks Retina graphics and its pen renderings are less than impressive, it employs the Jot Touch to help you quickly draw panels for an animated strip. You can program the stylus’s buttons to go to the next or previous frame, allowing you to very quickly swap back and forth between drawings. (It’s a shame that Animation Desk’s controls and brushes are less than impressive.)
Macworld’s buying advice
I’m conflicted about recommending the Jot Touch. On one hand, the hardware is excellent. The spring tip, smaller disk, and weight of the Touch make it hands down one of the best styluses for drawing and writing. But the apps—which you need, should you want to draw with pressure-sensitivity—just aren’t there yet. And even if they get there, you’re still looking at a different Jot Touch experience with every app.
Apple could theoretically make this process better: If Apple allowed individual Bluetooth devices to have their own systemwide Settings screens—similar to the Other section within Mac OS X’s System Preferences app—then Adonit could offer a way for apps to hook into the stylus without having to thoroughly translate pressure input. Unfortunately, I don’t have very high hopes for such an option, though I suppose there’s always iOS 7.
If you like being on the cutting edge, or you’re an artist and you don’t mind waiting (or pushing) for your favorite apps to properly integrate Adonit’s SDK, the Jot Touch is a worthy investment. The Bluetooth-stylus revolution is only just beginning, and I imagine apps will quickly jump on board. For the general consumer, it might be better to wait a few months for your favorite app (hi, Paper!) to get onboard. I’ll say this, though: I’m very excited to see what the next year of iPad art creation holds.