Drawing on the iPad: 12 touchscreen styluses reviewed
Steve Jobs may hate the idea of using a stylus on his touchscreen devices, but the fact remains that some consumers simply prefer an intermediary accessory for interaction. Whether it’s too cold outside for direct contact, you’re worried about touchscreen germs, or you need a sketching tool, sometimes a stylus can be a good thing. Accessory manufacturers seem to agree, having produced a plethora of styluses for Apple’s iOS devices.
As some people know, in my not-so-secret other life, I enjoy drawing cartoons. Since I bought my first iPad back in April 2010, I’ve been using the device for quite a bit of my scribbling and coloring—most of that with Ten One Design's Pogo Sketch. So I was excited to play around with some of the other offerings on the market to see how they compared. I've spent the past few months testing many, many styluses on both my iPad and iPhone, focusing primarily on the control, feel, and fit of the accessories when sketching or writing (though I also ran through basic navigational tasks).
Note that, as of yet, Apple does not provide access to software APIs that might allow for pressure sensitivity on the iPad. Apps such Sketchbook Pro and Brushes have settings that attempt to imitate true touch sensitivity, but it's just that—an imitation. So an iPad-stylus combination can’t yet replace a good WACOM tablet—but it's certainly nice for sketching on the go.
Ten One Design Pogo Sketch, Ten One Design Pogo Stylus
In 2008, Ten One Design was one of the first companies on the scene with a working stylus for the iPhone, the Pogo Sketch ( ; $15). The company has since released the Sketch's shorter, slimmer sibling, the Pogo Stylus ( ; $15), along with several Mac software applications aimed at enabling handwriting and multitouch tablet imitation on trackpads.
I bought a Pogo Sketch within months of its release to do some quick sketching on my iPhone. Though the screen proved a bit too small for serious work, I continued to use the Sketch whenever I needed to doodle something electronically. After I got an iPad, I started bringing the stylus everywhere I went, in case I felt like drawing. I've thus had a lot of experience with the Sketch, and I still quite like it for quick and easy pieces—its weight and shape let it fit nicely in your hand.
Both Ten One styluses use a capacitive foam nib (the tip that actually makes contact with the touchscreen) rather than the silicone more-recent models have adopted. This works to their advantage when navigating smaller links on a Safari page or within an app; however, when drawing or writing, the foam generates more friction against the touchscreen, making it more difficult to keep a steady hand while trying to execute clean lines. At the same time, the Sketch and Stylus excel at precision work. When zoomed in on your canvas, the relatively smaller radius of their nibs makes it easier to see what you’re working on and what you need to do next.
The major difference separating the Pogo Sketch and Stylus is the Sketch's longer body is designed for writing and sketching on a touch device or trackpad, while the Stylus is shorter and aimed at the general "I want to use a stylus with my touchscreen device" market. The Stylus is just barely long enough to fit comfortably in your hand, much like a well-worn, sharpened pencil—you must hold it almost vertically during use to avoid accidentally brushing against the screen. In other words, the Stylus is great for browsing apps or tapping on a virtual keyboard, but not so much for drawing.
(Both models provide a way to secure the stylus when not in use: the Sketch sports a traditional pen-style clip; the Stylus includes two clips that attach to your iPhone—one for a bare phone and the other to fit thin cases. The Stylus's iPhone clips can each double as an iPhone stand.)
Bottom line: The Pogo Sketch and Pogo Stylus are great tools for iPhone navigation and detail work, but the foam nib may produce too much friction for your liking. Additionally, the Stylus's short stature makes it difficult to write or do much in the way of long-form sketching, although it works well as a substitute for a fingertip for navigating your touchscreen.
JustMobile's AluPen ( ; $20), a collaboration between Tools Design and JustMobile, combines the aesthetic of a charcoal stick with that of a pencil to produce a solid, squat, hexagonal, aluminum stylus. The pen feels natural in your hand, thanks to its shape, and the relative weightlessness of the aluminum keeps it from dragging while you sketch. It feels like a natural extension of your hand—without those pesky fingers to get in the way.
The AluPen is one of the many silicon-rubber-nib styluses I looked at. These rubber nibs feel similar to the rubber on a baby bottle, and the material glides over a touchscreen much more smoothly than a foam-tipped stylus, providing resistance only when pressure or weight is applied. This is both an advantage and disadvantage. On one hand, the lack of resistance gives an experienced artist more freedom to make bold lines; on the other, those without wrist control may find themselves unable to make steady strokes on the screen. Which is better comes down to personal preference.
The AluPen allows you to grip the pen towards its end without losing any precision, thanks to its the thick diameter and shape. While it doesn’t achieve the same level of smoothness when writing as a weightier rubber-nib stylus (such as the Hard Candy StylusPen, below), the AluPen is still a great general-purpose art tool; using it, I was easily able to switch between sketching and lettering a comic panel.
The AluPen is primarily designed as an artist's stylus; trying to use it as a navigational aid on the iPad feels silly and a little bit clumsy, and using it on the iPhone is nigh-impossible. That said, you could probably get away with using it for screen tapping now and then, but it’s not the stylus I would recommend for primary navigation.
Bottom line: Available in a variety of colors (silver, black, blue, gold, green, and red), the AluPen achieves the right amount of balance and fit for both virtual sketching and writing, though its size makes it a tad too bulky for basic navigation.
SGP Kuel H10
While SGP’s Kuel H10 ( ; $13) at first appears to be quite diminutive—in its default position, the pen measures just under 3 inches in length—a telescoping mechanism allows the stylus to extend an extra inch, which makes all the difference when it comes to a comfortable drawing position.
Like many of its brethren, this stylus features a silicon-rubber nib, but one that's smaller in diameter than the others—at 6mm, it's closer in size to the foam nib on Ten One’s Pogo Stylus. As such, the Kuel H10 excels at line and detail work.
When closed, the H10 is the perfect navigation tool for the iPhone or iPad—it’s small, thin, and you can easily see what you’re tapping. When telescoped, the stylus rests comfortably in the crook between your thumb and index finger, and achieves an almost perfect balance for writing and sketching at an angle without feeling the need to rest your hand on the screen.
In fact, the H10 would have been my favorite all-around stylus of the lot, except for one thing: The H10's rubber nib—perhaps due to its smaller size—is made of a much thinner silicon than larger nibs. After approximately five continuous hours of sketching with one of our two review units, the tip developed tiny (pinhole-sized) holes. (The second sample didn't exhibit this issue.) Since then, the holes haven’t shown any signs of growing larger, and they don't affect performance in any way, but they do make me worry about the stylus’s long-term reliability. At the same time, if the pen does require replacing, for just $13, it’s not unlike buying a nice charcoal stick.
Bottom line: With its smaller nib and telescoping body, the Kuel H10—available in black, white, red, yellow, or pink—is fantastic for navigation, writing, and drawing; unfortunately, the thinner nib may wear down faster than the nibs on other styluses.
Wacom Bamboo Stylus
As one of the pricier offerings on the market, some may accuse Wacom’s Bamboo Stylus ( ; $30) of attempting to rest on the laurels of its brand recognition—the company’s pressure-sensitive Intuos and Cintiq tablets have long been favored by the digital illustration community. But that’s simply not so.
While the Bamboo resembles many of the other rubber-nib tools here, once you pick it up, it’s obvious how much care and craftsmanship the company has put into this stylus. The pen is perfectly balanced—and I do mean perfectly—in your hand, with just the right amount of weight distributed along the metal-framed body. And unlike with other well-balanced styluses I've tried, the folks at Wacom have managed to give the Bamboo the necessary heft while keeping it as slim as a ballpoint pen.
Drawing with this stylus is lovely, as, like the Kuel H10, it employs a smaller (6mm) silicone-rubber tip. But writing takes the prize here, without a doubt. I was able to jot down notes at several angles without ever needing to rest my hand on the iPad’s bezel to be comfortable.
In addition, while this procedure probably isn’t sanctioned by Wacom, you can get even better angles by unscrewing the metal shaft around the tip of the stylus to expose more of the sides of the nib. If you’re drawing, this trick is invaluable for shading.
Bottom line: For the coin, the Wacom Bamboo Stylus is absolutely top-tier for both writing and sketching. However, if you’re looking for a simple navigation device, or you don’t have $30 to blow on a stylus, this may not be the tool for you.
Griffin Technology Stylus for iPad
A pen-like aluminum design makes Griffin Technology’s Stylus for iPad ( ; $20) one of the most comfortable styluses to hold. The accessory has the radius and weight of a good pen or mechanical pencil, though the length is more crayon-like. It definitely feels solid in your hand, and the stylus’s metal clip allows you to attach it to a pocket or a bag like any other writing utensil.
The Griffin Stylus shines when sketching and navigating on an iPad; on an iPhone or iPod touch, the size of the nib and the length of the pen overpower the smaller device. I also ran into trouble on the iPad when I tried handwriting, as I tend to over-slant my hand, which meant I couldn’t keep the pen steady without applying a decent amount of pressure—not very useful when you’re trying to jot down quick notes. However, the pen does draw or write at almost any angle with the right amount of pressure, which can be useful when dealing with an app that doesn’t ignore accidental hand gestures.
Bottom line: Griffin’s Stylus for iPad is a solid option, offering a comfortable grip and a capacitive rubber nib for smooth drawing and navigation, though its light weight may make virtual writing difficult, depending on how you hold the Stylus.
Kensington Virtuoso Touch Stylus & Pen
At first glance, Kensington’s Virtuoso Touch Stylus & Pen ( ; $25) looks almost identical to Griffin's Stylus, thanks to the black, rubberized body; silver pen clip; and large, silicon-rubber nib. However, the Virtuoso Touch is about an inch longer than Griffin’s offering, bringing it to a more pen-like 5 inches. In addition, Kensington’s stylus is one of three I looked at—along with the Targus 2-in-1 and the Hard Candy StylusPen—that incorporate an actual ballpoint pen cartridge in addition to the capacitive nib.
The Virtuoso Touch does so by adding the pen to the opposite end of the device, under a black cap. This structure provides most of the stylus’s weight, which is not inconsequential—the Virtuoso may look similar to the Griffin Stylus, but it weighs about twice as much. You can dismantle the pen infrastructure for a lighter-weight stylus, but at the cost of length: without the cap in place, the Virtuoso shrinks from 5 inches to just over 3.
As a stylus, the Virtuoso is great for quick note-taking and cursive writing. The extra weight balances the pen at a comfortable angle, while the rubber nib allows it to slide smoothly across the screen. Drawing is a bit more cumbersome, as the length of the stylus and the nib’s diameter make it difficult to focus on a section of detail work. On the opposite end, the ballpoint pen works about as well as any basic ballpoint; it’s also refillable, in case your ink runs out.
Bottom line: The Virtuoso Touch offers a great hybrid writing experience on the screen or on paper, but its large size proves too bulky for navigation, sketching, or detailed line work.
Targus 2-in-1 Stylus for iPad
The third stylus in the “black body, silver clip, silicon-rubber nib” group, Targus' 2-in-1 Stylus for iPad ( ; $25) falls between the Griffin and Kensington models in both weight and length at 4.5 inches in length, and falls roughly in the middle in weight, as well. Like the Kensington Virtuoso, the Targus also provides a ballpoint pen tip—hence the “2-in-1” in the title—which is easily replaceable.
I found the stylus end of the 2-in-1 adequate for both writing and sketching. It’s just heavy enough to provide the right balance for writing without needing to put your palm on the screen; however, its weight may prove taxing if you’re trying to write for long periods of time. Likewise, it's easy enough to do line art using the Targus, but I had to grip the stylus close to the nib to achieve any sort of precision.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a device that can navigate, write, sketch, and jot down paper notes, the Targus 2-in-1 is a decent offering. However, unless you’re specifically looking for a stylus with a ballpoint pen, you should consider a more specialized model.
Hard Candy StylusPen
Bringing to mind the Fisher Space Pen, Hard Candy’s StylusPen ( ; $35) is encased in a 4.2-ounce, weighted chrome shell. You remove the metal cap on one end to access a capacitive rubber nib; you remove the other to access a pen for paper note-taking and sketching.
In theory, this dual-end option makes sense for travelers or businessfolk looking to keep their bags free of multiple writing utensils. Unfortunately, there are a couple of snags to the pen’s design. For one, while the silver-bullet look is beautiful to behold, the only way to figure out which end of the StylusPen is which is to memorize the positions relative to the Hard Candy logo. I was lucky enough to avoid accidentally uncapping and using the ballpoint pen on my iPad's screen, but I can imagine this happening quite easily if you're not paying attention.
The second issue is that when either end is uncapped, the cap itself doesn’t fit on the other end of the pen. You must set it upright—so it doesn’t roll—or put in a pocket, which can be frustrating if you’re trying to use the stylus in transit.
Those flaws aside, the stylus’s weight makes it one of the best utensils available for virtual writing on the iPad, keeping your lines solid at almost any angle without needing to apply too much pressure, and the pen fits comfortably in your hand. It might be a bit too heavy for extended drawing or note-taking, but for less-intensive use, it's quite competent.
Bottom line: Stylish and sleek, Hard Candy’s StylusPen suffers from a few design flaws, but its capacitive nib and ballpoint pen both work admirably, and the pen’s weight provides a commendable virtual writing experience.
One of the most unique approaches to artistic touchscreen styluses I’ve seen, the NomadBrush ( ; $24) looks—by all outward appearances—like an ordinary watercolor paintbrush. The 7.5-inch stylus has a wood-and-plastic handle with a rubber grip for your index and middle fingers; the bristles themselves are a mix of natural and synthetic fibers.
Unbelievably, these bristles are conductive. Together, they fool the iPad into thinking a single finger is making contact with the screen (although if you splay them every which way, you can accidentally effect a multitouch gesture). Since the screen doesn’t detect each bristle individually, you won’t actually benefit digitally from the brush’s construction, but it does skeuomorphic wonders for your brain.
The experience of "painting" on a super-smooth screen takes some getting used to, but the NomadBrush feels very natural, and when using the right digital brush in your art program, the results are stunning.
When it comes to detail work, however, the NomadBrush lacks, as its large surface area makes it difficult to draw or polish fine lines, even when your drawing app is zoomed in. Different brush sizes—which are coming soon, according to NomadBrush creator Don Lee—might help with this problem, but on the whole, you’re probably better off with a rubber-nib stylus for fine details.
Bottom line: The NomadBrush is a beautifully constructed stylus, resembling a fine watercolor brush, and it makes painting on the iPad a delight. It does leave something to be desired when attempting detailed linework, however.
LogiiX Stylus Pro Jr
Coming in at barely an inch and a half, the Logiix Stylus Pro Jr ( ; $20) resembles part of of a pinky finger more than a full-fledged stylus, though its rubber nib has the same diameter as those of the larger-nib styluses covered here. The Canadian company bills the stylus primarily as a navigation and game tool—which I’d agree with—and even includes a clip for attaching the stylus to your headphone cable.
As a navigation tool, the stylus is adequate enough—it does its job without getting in the way—and I could see this being extremely useful for cold-weather situations where you'd be wearing gloves. The Stylus Pro Jr particularly shines on the iPhone—I found myself able to see the screen and flick through information at the same time, tasks I couldn’t accomplish nearly as well using one of the larger styluses.
Drawing with this stylus, however, feels much like drawing with chalk—it’s certainly not comfortable for any sort of long-form illustration, but I actually found it to be a decent tool for detail work. Whether that’s just the stylus’s smaller form-factor fooling my brain into thinking I’m working more precisely, or the way you can angle it along the screen, I can’t say, but it wouldn’t be bad as a secondary illustration tool.
Bottom line:The Logiix Stylus Pro Jr is a nicely crafted micro-stylus for navigation and illustration-detail work, though it lacks the comfort and stability for long-term sketching or writing.
Another of the non-traditional options, the oStylus ( ; $38) is made entirely of metal—aluminum, titanium, and steel, to be precise—and interacts with your device’s touchscreen using a small washer-like O-ring lined with vinyl film. Unlike its pudgy-rubber-nibbed cousins, this stylus theoretically lets you see, through the hole in the middle of its ring, exactly the point on the screen you’re interacting with.
So, does it work? Sometimes. Due to the way the iPad’s screen is built, the O is most accurate in the center of the screen: as you veer away, any line you draw tends to arc towards the upper lip of the O. Additionally, the lag time for quick strokes is almost painful, even on the faster iPad 2. If you’re drawing on a large scale, or zoomed in on your canvas, you can anticipate the lag and still make clean lines, but if you're trying to work on smaller pieces, or while zoomed out, the stylus quickly becomes unusable. Writing, too, suffers from lag, and I often found myself writing letters off-angle as a result.
In addition, this is clearly a stylus built for drawing or writing. Navigating buttons and tapping menus—even within painting apps—using the flat O was possible, but barely so.
Balance-wise, I found the oStylus to be quite comfortable to hold, though perhaps an inch too long (the handle alone is 5.5 inches). The O-ring pivots and rotates as you move your hand, thanks to the two titanium wires connecting it to the handle, allowing you to make circular motions without lifting the contact point from the screen.
The oStylus has some neat ideas, and the implementation works up to a point. For example, if you’re zoomed in within your drawing app, and you're slowly detailing line work, you can achieve a phenomenal level of precision. Unfortunately, the iPad’s lag and mapping limitations prevent the oStylus from pushing past “good” to “great.” The concept is lovely, but the companion hardware is not quite where it needs to be to make everything work.
Bottom line: The oStylus is an impeccably designed tool for close-range precision sketching—if you don’t mind putting up with some of the iPad’s own screen limitations.
Macworld's buying advice
Each of these styluses has its pluses and minuses, but for specific uses, some stand above the rest. I found the Wacom Bamboo Stylus to be my favorite writing/drawing hybrid, while for all-around usage (writing, drawing, and navigation), the Kuel H10 excels. The AluPen was my favorite for focused sketching, while the Virtuoso Touch Stylus & Pen was the best touchscreen-writing tool. Finally, the NomadBrush, while not at the top of my list for all-purpose sketching, still merits a mention for the most interesting implementation of a touch-sensitive stylus I've seen.
Of course, it’s one thing to read about styluses—it’s another to see them in action. I’ve prepared a video demonstration of the styluses reviewed here, so that you can see how each one works.
We'll undoubtably be reviewing more styluses as they hit the market. Until then, keep on sketching!
Serenity Caldwell is a Macworld staff editor; she has spent far too many work hours doodling on her iPad over the past six months for this review.