Tablet computers like the Apple iPad, the Google Nexus, Samsung Galaxy Note series, and the Microsoft Surface are incredibly useful mobile tools for productivity and entertainment. Whether you want to keep up with your calendar or watch movies on the go, any of those devices can handle many of the same tasks.
But when you have something a little more graphically intensive in mind, like drawing or visual notetaking, you need a stylus. There are several different types available, and they each work differently. So it's important to define your needs to ensure that you make the right purchase decisions.
Why a Stylus?
One of the best things about tablet computers is that they're so adaptable, portable, and ready to go anywhere; so it might seem strange at first to add another peripheral to the mix. But before you dismiss the humble stylus as a bygone relic of the Palm Pilot, consider its advantages.
Using a stylus (especially during long tablet sessions) can be much more comfortable than constantly jabbing the screen with your finger. It will also prevent most of those unsightly fingerprints all over the screen that require wiping off the screen several times a day.
A stylus also allows a much greater degree of control, which is especially important for artists. While tablet applications are rather finger-friendly, with large buttons and easy-to-use interfaces, they aren't perfect for every method of interaction -- hence the popularity of Bluetooth keyboards for tasks requiring extensive text entry. Most artists don't work in fingerpaints, so why would you try to create a digital masterpiece using only your fingers?
Apps like InspirePro (free), ArtStudio ($4.99), and SketchBook Pro ($4.99) can help you create truly amazing works of art, but a great app is only part of the equation. Any decent drawing app will allow you to choose from a variety of tools such as pens, pencils, and chalk, as well as several different line thicknesses, but when you add a stylus, you will have a more natural drawing experience and finer control.
If you're a student, whether enrolled in college courses or taking technical training classes for your job, you might need to take notes that go beyond simple text. Apps such as NotesPlus ($7.99) and Notability ($1.99) allow you to add handwritten drawings, charts, graphs, and diagrams to your notes, allowing you to capture all of the information presented in classroom lectures, not just the words. While apps like these feature line smoothing and shape insertion, a stylus can make note taking both more comfortable during class and more readable later, while you're cramming for your exam, because those drawings will be smoother and more precise.
There are quite a few styli available, but these can be broken up into two types: simple and pressure-sensitive. A basic stylus is just an extension of your finger, and it can do just what your fingertip can do, no more. If you are only expecting to add the occasional drawing to your typed notes or maybe doing some light drawing, a simple stylus is right for you. You can pick up a 3-pack of these from IOGear for $20.
Pressure-sensitive styli, on the other hand, add a whole realm of new functionality. The most obvious: you can change linewidths just by pushing harder. Additional features vary by model, but these all make real drawing much easier, and are better options for articsts or heavy note takers.
Once you've decided what type of stylus is right for you, you have to choose the right tablet for your needs -- assuming of course that you don't already own one.
If you plan on really creating art on your tablet you'll probably want a device with a screen around 10 inches. Smaller tablets are more portable, but a 7-inch display is a bit cramped for creating a masterpiece. For note taking, either size is fine -- chose the size tablet that you prefer.
Now its time to get specific about brands and models.
Apple's iPad is indeed a fantastic device that rightly deserves the press it gets, but there are only a couple of advanced stylus options available at this point, both of them quite pricey.
The Pogo Connect ($80) from Ten One Design is a Bluetooth 4.0 peripheral that supports the iPad 3 and 4 and the iPad mini. It is well constructed and promises a battery life of "months" with a single AAA battery, but the stylus is only compatible with a few apps at this time and the pressure sensitivity testing results are mixed.
The Adonit Jot Touch ($100) is even more expensive, but it has some really nice extra features, most notably a rechargeable battery and a cleverly designed USB dock that holds the pen just like the old-fashioned pen stand on an executive's desk. It also has two buttons in addition to the power button that can be used as shortcuts in compatible apps. Like the Pogo Connect, the Jot Touch can only be used with a handful of "Jot Ready" apps, though it will likely be supported by more developers in the future.
When it comes to Android tablets, the Samsung Galaxy Note series is the best choice. These devices (in a range of screen sizes) come with the pressure-sensitive S Pen, and some pen-enabled apps come with the device. One example is Popup Note, which automatically launches when you remove the S Pen from the silo. The S Pen has some nifty extra features too, such as Quick Commands to optimize how you launch apps, to optional handwriting recognition than can stand in for a keyboard on medium-size text entry jobs.
If a Windows tablet is your choice, the Surface Pro is your best bet. The Surface Pen has pressure sensitivity and can erase, which is a great feature to have -- there's nothing worse than ruining an elaborate chart or drawing with one errant stroke. In many other respects, the stylus that comes with the Surface Pro tablet is very similar to the S Pen that comes with the Galaxy Note, right down to capabilities like activating menus by hovering over the screen and apps like Fresh Paint for basic drawings and art. This is no real surprise, as both were created in collaboration with Wacom, the top name in styli.
Tablet computers are highly portable and excellent for a variety of uses, but that doesn't mean that they can't be even better with the right accessories. While most folks have at least considered a keyboard of some sort, whether standalone or integrated into a portfolio case, styli aren't quite as popular but can offer a great deal of added functionality.
Whether you choose a simple $5 stylus with a rubber tip to use with your iPad or prefer a Galaxy Note or Microsoft Surface Pro tablet with a pressure-sensitive multi-function stylus pen, the drawing and note-taking experience is far superior to your finger, with enhanced comfort and precision.
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