Choosing an Electronic Stylus for iPad

Benefits and Considerations for "Smart" Stylus Pens with Pressure Sensitivity

Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus for iPad
Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus for iPad. © Wacom

At the time I originally wrote my article on choosing the best touch screen stylus, no electronic stylus products had come to market yet. Late in 2012, several pressure-sensitive "smart" stylus products were introduced for the iPad. These first-generation electronic stylus pens utilize Bluetooth connectivity to provide a more realistic experience for writing, painting, drawing, and sketching on the iPad with pressure sensitivity and palm rejection.

A new generation of electronic stylus is emerging in late 2013 with a thin pen tip being the main selling point and not pressure sensitivity.

Android users: While there are a few concepts for pressure-sensitive stylus pens for Android, these rely on microphone or headphone jack input for pressure sensing. I have not researched these extensively and have no plans to do so in the near future. Your best bet for a pressure-sensitive pen experience on Android at the time of this writing, is probably a dedicated tablet like the .

There are two main reasons you might want an electronic stylus:

  • Note-taking - handwriting, sketching diagrams, charts, etc.

For the first application, note taking, palm rejection and a thinner pen tip are desirable features of an electronic stylus, but pressure sensitivity comes into play more with art applications.

As of late 2013, very few art-oriented apps utilize the palm rejection technology in these products. This is because art applications rely heavily on multi-touch gestures for things like zooming, panning, making selections and more. Unfortunately, the challenges of making palm rejection and multi-touch gestures co-exist have been a difficult challenge to date.

Because this site is focused on graphics software, I will be evaluating electronic stylus pens with an eye more toward art applications than note-taking.

So, now that you have some background on why an electronic stylus might be desirable, let's discuss some of the additional things you'll need to consider when choosing which electronic stylus to purchase. Most of the factors mentioned in my article on choosing a standard stylus also apply to electronic stylus pens, but there are some additional considerations to factor in.

App Compatibility

This is perhaps the most important factor when choosing an electronic stylus. Electronic pens almost always require support from app developers to incorporate the technology that brings the special features such as pressure sensing, palm rejection, and button commands. I strongly suggest you research how well it is supported in your favorite apps by visiting forums and user groups to learn what electronic styli other users have tried and recommend. Remember that not all apps will support all the advertised features of every product.

And don't take the hardware maker's claims as gospel. They may claim things like palm rejection and so on, but it is up to the app developers to integrate those features.

So you'll want to make sure your killer feature is included in your favorite app.

It can also be confusing that each app provides electronic pen settings in a different way. Usually the electronic pen is set up through each app's settings menu, but some apps require you to go to the iPad's separate Settings app. Some apps let you customize the button functions, while others only allow them to perform specific actions. Most of the time, though, once the pen is set up, it is detected automatically when it is used so you don't need to keep going to settings to connect it.

Of course, an electronic stylus works in any app like a regular capacitive stylus without the special features.

Pressure Sensitivity

Every stylus is different in how much pressure it can sense. Some products advertise "hundreds" of levels of pressure sensitivity, some say "thousands" and others give very specific numbers.

Generally, the higher the number, the more varied your strokes will be.

Activation force is another factor that can affect the way your strokes create a mark. A lower activation force means that less pressure is required to make the lightest mark. Zero activation force means that merely touching the pen tip to the screen without pressure will produce a mark.

In reality, though, all these numbers are just stats, and a lot of factors aside from stats come together to influence how natural and fluid the products perform in use. You might not be able to tell the difference between 1,000 and 2,000 levels of pressure sensitivity, but chances are you will notice a difference between hundreds of levels and thousands of levels. It's something to consider, but I wouldn't place a great deal of importance on the numbers.

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Power Requirements

An electronic stylus requires power, either through an internal rechargeable battery or a disposable battery. There is no clear benefit of one over the other, so this is more a matter of personal preference. Electronic styli do not have huge power demands, so battery life tends to be quite long-lasting. If your device requires a replacement battery, you will have an added expense of purchasing batteries, and carrying a spare with you when it might be needed.

The type of battery is also important. A common AAA battery is readily available, but adds to the thickness of the pen; a AAAA battery is harder to find, but allows for a smaller pen barrel diameter. A rechargeable battery generally won't last as long as a disposable one, and will need to be charged more often. The charging method for a built-in battery should also be considered--will you need a access to a USB connection and what additional gear will you need to carry?

It's also worth noting that most of these devices do not have an obvious power switch for turning them off and on. The idea is that when the pen is dormant, it stops consuming power except enough to sense when it is being used again. This makes it easier to grab your pen and start working, without having to go through any kind of reconnection delay.

Obviously, you will need to have Bluetooth enabled on your iPad, and this can result in more of a battery drain on the tablet itself.

Generally this added drain isn't significant, but it is something you might notice if you are using an electronic stylus for long periods.

Bleeding-edge Technology

The iPad was never designed to support pressure sensitivity. It's well known that Steve Jobs was not a fan of any kind of stylus, so all of these products are a workaround.

There is no guarantee these products will continue to work over the long term. An iOS or app update could render them useless at any time, and they are all rather expensive products to be looked at as a "throwaway" purchase.

Because these devices are app-dependent, you are at the mercy of the app developers to incorporate the latest technology into their apps as it is expanded by the hardware makers, and keep it updated through iOS changes. When iOS 7 came out, I had problems with a couple of the pens which were not even a year old. The respective companies told me my hardware was "outdated" and would need to be replaced. They were happy to send me a replacement, but I'm a journalist writing about the product. Will an ordinary consumer receive the same treatment?

Nib/tip Material and Design

A rounded rubber nib is the most common tip design for a stylus, but other options are available. The clear plastic disc on the Adonit Jot Touch can provide better accuracy--for instance, when joining two lines--but it can be noisy. The HEX3 from JaJa also has a precision disc tip, but it is made of Teflon. Both Wacom and Pogo use a rounded rubber tip--Wacom's default tip is smaller in diameter, but Pogo has additional tips available in three sizes and two brushes.

Perhaps one day we will see even more tip options like microfiber or felt.

If you keep a screen protector film on your iPad, you'll also want to look into how the different tips perform on the screen protector. I used some rubber tips that dragged and made squeaking noises on an anti-glare screen film, but worked well on the bare glass. Some screen protector films will scratch easily and some can prevent the stylus tip from gliding smoothly.

Extra Features

Finally, you will want to take into consideration any extra features the stylus might have. These are some of the extra features which may or may not be important to you in an electronic stylus:

  • Does it have one or more buttons and can they be customized?
  • Button ergonomics: Do users complain of accidental presses? Can you find the buttons easily by feel alone?
    • Are the nibs replaceable if they wear out?
    • Are additional nibs available for different tip sizes or qualities (e.g. brush tip)?
    • Is there a clip or other way to carry the pen safely and keep it accessible?
    • Does it include extra nibs, batteries, or a case?
    • Does the barrel provide a no-slip grip surface?
    • Is the barrel design such that this very expensive item could roll off the table and become damaged?

    Conclusion

    One thing is for certain, this technology is still very young and we are sure to see a lot of interesting new developments! Se my smart stylus roundup for reviews of several electronic stylus pens including Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus, Pogo Connect, and Adonit Jot Touch 4.

    If you've tried an electronic stylus, please tell us about it by writing a quick review!