Tablets like the iPad, the Google Nexus 9, Samsung Galaxy Note series, and the Microsoft Surface Pro are incredibly useful mobile tools for productivity and entertainment. No matter whether you’re a confirmed Apple fanatic or Android user, whether you want to keep up with your calendar or watch movies on the go, or just read the latest bestseller, any of those devices can handle the same basic tasks.
But when you have something a little more graphically intensive in mind, like drawing your latest masterpiece or mind mapping the latest strategy meeting at work, you need a stylus. There are several different tools available, and they each have unique capabilities and drawbacks, so it’s important to define your needs before buying one.
Why a Stylus?
Mobility is a tablet’s main feature, so it might seem strange at first to add another peripheral to the mix. Before you dismiss the humble stylus as a bygone relic of the Palm Pilot era, consider how it can improve your overall tablet experience. 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.
A stylus also allows a much greater degree of control, which is especially important for artists, designers, and sketchers — or even the doodlers. While apps are generally finger-friendly, with large buttons and easy-to-use interfaces, they aren’t perfect for everything — hence the popularity of Bluetooth keyboards for typing. Most artists don’t work with fingerpaints, so why would you try to create a digital masterpiece using only your fingers?
Apps like InspirePro (free), ArtStudio ($4.99), ProCreate ($5.99), and SketchBook Pro ($4.99) can help you create truly amazing works of art, but they’re 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 far greater control.
If you’re a student, you will probably need to take notes that go beyond standard text. Apps such as OneNote for Windows tablets, 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 more comfortable during class and more readable later, while you’re cramming for your exam, because those drawings will be smoother and more precise.
Once you’ve decided that a 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.
Apple’s iPad is indeed a great tablet, but if you want a nice stylus to go with it, that’s going to cost you quite a bit more.
One of the more reasonably priced options is the AluPen Digital ($49.95) from Just Mobile. It has a very slender tip that is similar to a standard ballpoint pen, though the barrel is thicker to accommodate the necessary AAA battery. Well designed, with a retractable tip and an auto power off feature, we thought pretty favorably of it.
But keep in mind, this is not a pressure-sensitive stylus. A stylus that is pressure-sensitive lets you can change linewidths just by pushing harder.
One example is the Pogo Connect ($80) from Ten One Design, a Bluetooth 4.0 peripheral that supports the iPad 3 and 4 as well as the iPad mini, though the current model isn’t compatible with the iPad Air. It’s well constructed and promises a battery life of “months” with a single AAA battery, but the pressure sensitivity feature only works with a few apps at this point. However, the ability to use five different interchangeable tips, of varying width and style (including two brush tips) will surely appeal to sketchers and artists.
The Adonit Jot Touch ($100) is more expensive than the others, 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 that can be used as shortcuts in compatible apps. Like the Pogo Connect, the Jot Touch can only be used with “Jot Ready” apps, which include Concepts, Illustrator Line, Photoshop Sketch, and Zen Brush for artists and Goodnotes 4, Noteshelf, and Penultimate for note-takers.
For the truly serious (or the seriously rich), there’s one more option: Adobe’s Ink & Slide, a “connected” stylus and digital ruler combination. It isn’t cheap at $199, but it’s potentially a very powerful tool combo for the artist or designer arsenal. You can choose different line weights as expected, but stamp packs and the Slide “ruler” that are a part of the set are two examples of a laundry list of other features that are designed to help you go beyond the basics very quickly.
When it comes to Android models, capacitive styli like the AluPen Digital will work with your device, but if you want one designed for drawing from the ground up, the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 is an excellent choice. While it isn’t as portable as some of the smaller options, the large pressure sensitive screen is ideal for artistic creation. The S Pen and special S Pen apps are included, such as 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 text entry jobs. One small annoyance is that those special S Pen apps aren’t literally touch-enabled, so your fingers can’t do the walking on this tablet.
If a Windows tablet is your choice, two of the front runners are the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the Asus VivoTab Note 8. The Surface Pro 3 includes a completely new N-trig pen with two buttons, and it promises enhanced accuracy while delivering a more comfortable usage experience than previous models. The Asus VivoTab Note 8 comes with a Wacom stylus that is actually housed inside the device, which makes it much less likely to be lost than the “clip on” stylus pen that comes with the Surface Pro 3. Because the ViviTab Note 8 is a significantly smaller tablet, it’s much easier to use as a one-handed note-taking device — no more need to find a place to sit or a table to prop up your device.
Tablet are highly portable and excellent for a variety of uses, and are now so capable for almost any task that they are quickly becoming more popular than traditional laptops — and for good reason. But the addition of a stylus can turn a cool entertainment device into a productivity powerhouse.
While most folks have at least considered a keyboard of some sort, whether standalone or integrated into a portfolio case, stylus pens aren’t necessarily the first type of accessory that comes to mind when kitting out a new tablet purchase, but they 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 Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 or Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet with a pressure sensitive multi-function stylus pen, or even the diminutive Asus VivoTab Note 8, they all offer a drawing and note-taking experience that’s far superior to your finger, with enhanced accuracy, capabilities, comfort, and precision.