Why there's no Apple Pencil support on iPhone

Apple Pencil with iPad drawing
Apple Pencil with iPad drawing (Image credit: iMore)

I've wanted Apple Pencil support on iPhone — specifically iPhones with larger than 5-inch displays — for a long time. My background is in art and design and the idea of having a tiny drawing pad delights me. It's my favorite thing about Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 series. It's not my favorite implementation (see below), but the idea of being able to doodle anywhere, any time I have my phone in hand is beyond compelling. Same for markup, notes, all of it.

So far, though, Apple's kept Pencil exclusive to iPad. (And, similarly, 3D Touch to iPhone.) Why?

Tale of two technologies

A while ago I wrote about the different requirements for 3D Touch-based pressure sensitivity and Apple Pencil-based pressure sensitivity:

With 3D Touch on the iPhone, an array of capacitive sensors integrated into the LED backlight system measure microscopic changes in the distance between the array and the cover glass—the kind of changes created by pressure from your finger.That's combined with data from the accelerometer, which knows how your iPhone is moving through space, and with data from the capacitive multitouch sensor, which knows where your finger is on the horizontal and vertical planes. That way, Apple's algorithm can provide for the precise, linear, and continuous tracking of pressure events.

And because Apple is likely moving away from LCD/LED to OLED in iPhone 8, and will need to implement a different force detection system:

Rumor has it Apple will use a film sensor instead. It's reportedly more expensive but takes up less space, is even more precise, and could theoretically allow for multiple simultaneous points of pressure detection.

Both implementations are different than how Apple Pencil currently works. From my original iPad Pro review:

When the iPad Pro display senses the Apple Pencil, it boosts the scanning rate to 240 Hz. That makes for excellent responsiveness. The multitouch technology in the panel also detects things like the tilt in the Pencil so it can do things like switching from line rendering to shading. What's more, the iPad Pro receives data from the Pencil over Bluetooth, including pressure levels, which lets it dynamically adjust things like opacity and/or size.Apple has also provided frameworks for coalescing and predicting touch events, allowing apps to fine-tune everything from palm rejection to Pencil tracking. The result is digital input that tracks what you're doing with remarkably little latency and remarkably high accuracy.

Multitouch is actually 3D. It radiates from the display and can sense capacitance even if not in direct contact. Other vendors have used this to add features like hover state or to provide some measure of support with thin gloves. Apple has used it to map the hand, figure out its position, and more accurately register touch events and reject unintentional contact.

With Apple Pencil, that's combined with the pressure and other information coming off the tip and body of the Pencil itself to produce a remarkably real-world feeling from a digital tool. One much better, in my many years of experience, than the kind achieved with previous generation digitizer-layer technologies like those used by Wacom/Samsung and Microsoft.

Putting the two technologies together adds both complexity and cost. It has to be done in such a way that neither interferes with or compromises each other, nor raises the bill of goods higher than Apple's price points (with desired margins) would allow.

Putting Pencil in the palm of your hand

In order to support Apple Pencil on iPhone, a few things would need to happen. First, iPhone would need to be able to ramp up screen refresh to reduce latency. Apple's ProMotion technology, which debuted back in June with the second generation iPads Pro, should be able to handle that.

From my 10.5-inch iPad Pro review:

Apple's brand name for up to 120 Hz adaptive refresh rate, it lets the display ramp up to 120 fps for tasks like drawing with Apple Pencil, so you get ultra-low latency — 20 milliseconds.

ProMotion would also significantly improve the iPhone's display experience, including clearer scrolling and video playback down to "cinematic" 24 fps. When and if Apple adds ProMotion to iPhone, it would have to be compatible with 3D Touch and fit within Apple's cost structure, so that handles that.

Size matters

The only other potential issue when thinking about Apple Pencil on iPhone is size. Apple Pencil was designed to be a full-sized tool. It wasn't shrunk down so it could be stuffed inside a phone. That makes it annoying to cary — where's my Pencil?! — but incredible to use. And since an iPad isn't a pocket device anyway, it's not much more work to pull out a Pencil along with it.

iPhone, though, is often kept in a pocket. That's what makes the shrunk down stylus pens on Galaxy Note so convenient to carry, if less enjoyable to use.

Apple could simply add support for the current or next-generation Apple Pencil to iPhone and require people to either stuff it into a pocket as well, or carry it in a bag. Apple could also come up with something purpose-built for iPhone and the way iPhone is used.

Better on the bigger phone

Yes, Steve Jobs once said "yuck" about stylus pens and claimed the finger was the best input method. And Jobs was correct — at that time. Resistive stylus pens were... yucky. But time marches on and technology improves. Apple Pencil isn't a resistive stylus. It may not be "better" than your finger, but it's an amazing complement and extension to your finger.

Apple has no doubt tested Pencil technology on iPhone. Apple tests everything. Yet, Apple hasn't released an iPhone with Pencil support, nor has the company brought Pencil to iPad mini. That means we have our sketchbook (~13-inch) and notebook (~10-inch), but no field notebook (~6-inches).

Looking at Apple's current product line and projecting forward, it feels like iPad mini's best days are behind it while iPhone's potential is still increasing. Apple Pencil support would only accelerate that.

So, here's hoping Apple starts doing more than just testing Pencil on iPhone — and starts shipping.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • I’ve only just picked up an 12.9 iPad Pro and pencil and it’s an instant game changer. Already i find myself trying to use the pencil with my iPhone and being confused when it doesn’t work. It feels like such a no brainier for the phone to get this technology.
  • I've always felt that Jobs was referring to actually operating the device. The beauty of iOS is that it can use both. As far as a touch screen Mac goes I can't image working on images with my arms extended out on my iMac. And I don't want a desktop machine that folds down to become a 30" tablet. The way an iPadPro works when synced to the Mac is where I think this goes.
  • Yes. Jobs meant that if the device required a stylus to work, then it was a problem. Apple’s been selling styluses at least since I bought my first iPad from them in May 2010, when it first came out.
  • Isn't it great how Apple-haters often misquote Jobs on that one? You hit the nail on the head, he was always referring to devices that could ONLY be operated with a stupid stylus, which was the majority of so-called smartphones at that time when the original iPhone came out.
  • That iPad Mini Pro is what I want. My iPad Mini 2 has served well for the last almost 4 years. It's the right size, does what I want it to do, where the 2014 & 2015 upgrades haven't really upgraded the functionality. Add Pencil support & I'm in the market.
  • Agreed. I'm not ready to upgrade yet. Heck, even the first iPad Mini is still supported (for a few more days anyway). I have the Mini 2 and will use it until it is not supported. Then I need one for me and one for my wife. My hope is they release an new iPad Mini when the Mini 2 and Mini 3 (same processor) reach EoL. Something Pro that costs more than and iPad (6th 7th? Gen). Until then, if they made a Mini 5, I wouldn't buy it yet. I want a mini for my Jacket, 10.5 for my backpack, and a 12.9 for home.
  • Agreed. Upgrade the iPad mini to Pro, or kill the whole iPad mini line for almost criminal obsolescence. The current iPad mini 4 runs a venerable A8 chip that can’t run any of the upcoming ArKit apps, can’t run the new compact (h265) video format Apple is introducing, and can’t run the JPG compact replacement format either. Basically an obsolete device that should not be sold without the upgrade.
  • This is one of those things that Apple could add and not really advertise too much. They would make the few people that want this incredibly happy, but there is no real detriment to those who don't want it. So add Pencil support to all the phones, and all the iPads.
  • Does Pencil support require some additional screen tech? I would imagine so, and therefore adds costs. If it adds costs, either that gets passed on to the customer or Apple has to eat some profit. In either case, it is a bit more than just a "flip the switch and add it to everything" sort of decision and they probably would really want to know which devices it would make sense on to increase sales or customer satisfaction. Wouldn't make sense to add it to say an iPhone SE or iPad Mini if no one would want to use it, and all it does is increase costs. Personally, I can't see myself ever being interested in using a stylus on my iPhone, but on the iPad it definitely makes sense. iMore should set up a poll!
  • The pencil on iPhone just needs to be. Its one of those features that expects to be there because it works somewhere else. I would like to see the pencil have some protection for the nib, its very vulnerable to damage.
  • Realizing it's very anecdotal and a small sample size, I've never actually seen anyone with a Note using their stylus. I'm not saying they never do, but I'd be interested to know how often, if at all, they do, and aren't just buying it for the huge screen.
  • Currently, there are a ton of good options for phones with large screens, so I'd be surprised if that was the sole reason. From personal experience, when I had a Note II it was mostly for the screen size, but it was a much bigger screen than others for its day. People would even joke on me that I had a "Zach Morris" phone, but I knew they would be joining me shortly. Although I'm still a little salty about a realtor that poked fun at how big my Note II was when my wife and I were closing on our house. Right now I am really tempted by the Note 8 (was tempted by the Note 7 at first too), and I know I'd use the stylus a ton for notes at my job. The screen is gorgeous, TouchWiz doesn't seem as atrocious as it used to be (and you can easily change the appearance via Themes), I do love the more customizable nature of Android & its appearance (I do kinda prefer the app drawer), and I'm sure the dual camera features will catch up to Apple eventually. However, losing iMessages, my Apple Watch/Health info, integration with my iPad, and less abundance of 3rd party stuff would be pretty annoying. In other words, I'm so enmeshed in Apple's ecosystem (and have a lot of things about it that I prefer over Android) that it would be a real nuisance. Some days I really wish I could combine some things from both Android & iOS on the software front and Apple/Samsung/HTC/LG on the hardware front. I'm crossing my fingers that the OLED iPhone screen is bonkers (i.e. as good/better than the Note 8 & V30), that the dual camera makes a big leap (I'm assuming OIS on both lenses), that being able to have 2 apps open is available & not just on the iPad , and that the option to use an Apple Pencil with it is there. Seriously, I would get so much use out of something like a "golf pencil" version of the Pencil. I already use my iPad Pro 10.5" and Pencil a ton for notes and observations at work, bringing it to the OLED iPhone (and heck, the Plus model too) would be legit and I would be so stoked. I do think it's just a matter of time before Apple does it, I just hope it's sooner rather than later. Tangentially related, even though I know they're dropping the Mini line, I do kinda hope (and was hoping for the most recent iPad update) that Apple releases an iPad Pro 7.9" with all the same specs as the 10.5"/12.9" models. I got a 12.9" Pro when it was first released, and I loved the space of that giant screen, but at times the size was a little annoying to carry around my building. But if Apple releases the two larger screened OLED iPhones in 2018 that has been rumored, and they have Pencil support, then there probably wouldn't be much need for a 7.9" Pro.
  • Hey Rene, unless I missed it in some other article, perhaps you guys should set up a poll to see how many people here would care if the iPhone supported the Pencil, something like: 1) Pencil support is an absolute must for the iPhone!
    2) Pencil support would be nice, but not a deal breaker.
    3) Meh, I don't care either way about using a Pencil with my iPhone.
    4) Pencil support on iPhone is completely unnecessary to me, I'd never use it.
    5) If the iPhone gains Pencil support I'll never buy another iPhone again!
  • Why is a poll required for an option some will e joy and why even write this "If the iPhone gains Pencil support I'll never buy another iPhone again!"
  • I assume that it's all about the cost of the hardware to initially implement it, and possibly the amount of hardware needed for all the iPhones that Apple sells. Granted, once Apple starts doing something, economies of scale can bring that cost down. However, one of the reasons Apple is so late to the OLED game has been just the amount that can be produced wouldn't be able to meet the number of iPhones they sell. Thus the potentially supply constrained and higher priced OLED iPhone. Once LG is able to churn out more OLED via Apple investment, that will hopefully level out. Whatever the reason, I'm hopeful for Pencil enabled iPhones in the near future.