Smart Stylus Roundup: Pressure-Sensitive Electronic Pens for iPad

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Smart Stylus Roundup: Introduction

Smart Stylus Roundup
Image created with Zen Brush app and Intuos Creative Stylus for iPad. © Sue Chastain

I have a confession to make… I don't like any of these electronic stylus pens for the iPad. The truth of the matter is, all these devices are created to work around a hardware limitation of the iPad. The iPad was never designed to be a pressure-sensitive tablet. But people wanted it, and so third parties started coming out with solutions to work around the fact that the iPad was not made to support pressure-sensitive input.

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By late 2012, we had the Pogo Connect, Adonit Jot Touch, and Hex3 Jaja. Wacom, the undisputed king of pressure-sensitive devices, could not be left out of the mix, but they took their time and came out with the Intuos Creative Stylus for iPad about a year after these competitors.

For the best true-to-life experience drawing and painting digitally, your best bet is still going to be a traditional graphics tablet connected to a computer, or a display tablet that has pressure sensitivity built into the hardware, like Wacom's Cintiq line. But let's face it, the cost of a Cintiq is just not realistic for many of us. So for about US$100 or less, we have several choices of electronic pens that can bring us closer to a realistic drawing and painting experience using art apps with our beloved iPads.

All of these devices use Bluetooth to communicate with the iPad and require Bluetooth 4.0 specification or higher. Unlike other Bluetooth devices, however, they connect to your iPad through the settings of each individual app, and not the Bluetooth section of the main Settings App on the iPad.

Some of the apps that work with pressure-sensitive electronic pens on the iPad include: Procreate, Zen Brush, ArtRage, Bamboo Paper, Adobe Ideas, Photoshop Touch, Sketchbook Pro, ArtStudio, Ink, Inspire Pro, Sketch Club, Paper, and more. Each app handles electronic pens differently and so the experience varies not only from pen to pen, but from app to app with each pen. The app with the best support for pressure-sensitive stylus pens is Procreate, and I continually came back to it while testing these products.

With that in mind, here is my ranking and commentary on each of the pressure sensitive stylus pens for iPad I've worked with.

  1. Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus for iPad
  2. Adonit Jot Touch 4
  3. TenOne Pogo Connect

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Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus for iPad

Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus for iPad Review

Notable features:

  • Compatible with iPad 3/4/mini and later models (requires Bluetooth 4.0)
  • 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity
  • Comfortable "soft touch" grip handle
  • Brushed aluminum body with two side buttons
  • Replaceable rubber nib (6mm diameter)
  • Comes in electric blue and basic black color options
  • Includes carrying case, two extra nibs, and AAAA battery
  • Estimated 150 hours of use on one battery
  • Supports palm rejection in some apps but this feature was not tested
  • US$99.95 MSRP

Wacom's electronic stylus for iPad may have come late to the party, but by doing so, they were able to one-up the competition in a lot of ways. The Intuos stylus came out about the same time as iOS 7 and I had no issues with the pen after updating to iOS 7, or with the brand new iPad Air when it came out. This is something I can't say about the other two pens I was testing.

Like everything from Wacom, it comes packaged nicely and you feel like you are getting something special, especially when you see the included carrying case to hold your pen, along with up to 5 spare nibs and a spare battery.

In performance, the Intuos Creative stylus gave the most responsiveness in pressure sensitivity compared to the other electronic stylus pens I tested, although this does vary from app to app. I'm not overly fond of the rubber tip nib on the Intuos, but it is more a matter of personal preference.

I had little to no connection problems with the Intuos stylus when working with apps and switching apps. However, being a latecomer, Intuos Creative isn't supported in as many apps as some of the other pens. I'm sure this will change as apps have time to catch up and add integration. If you are a fan of Wacom's own Bamboo Paper app, Intuos is the only electronic stylus supported so your choice is easy.

As long as you line up your expectations with the knowledge that pressure sensitivity on an iPad is never going to come close to a realistic experience, or even a graphics tablet experience, the Intuos Creative Stylus for iPad will probably not disappoint you. It's comfortable to hold, well designed, quick and easy to connect, and provides a reasonable level of pressure sensitivity in supported apps. The list of compatible apps is smaller than competitors, but includes many of the better ones, and if your favorite is among them, you’re in luck!

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Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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Adonit Jot Touch 4

Adonit Jot Touch 4
The Adonit Jot Touch 4 features a unique see-though plastic disc nib for more accuracy. Also shown is the USB charging base which holds the pen magnetically. © Adonit

Adonit Jot Touch 4 Review

Notable Features

  • Compatible with iPad 3/4/mini and later models (requires Bluetooth 4.0)
  • 2048 levels of pressure-sensitivity
  • Transparent disc tip is more accurate than nub-type tips
  • Comes in gunmetal gray and metallic red color options
  • Soft grip area on handle with two buttons
  • Includes USB charging base and one extra nib replacement
  • Protective cap screws off and can be attached to the back when the pen is in use
  • Magnetic charging base provides one month of use per charge
  • Offers palm rejection in some supported apps  (not tested)
  • US$89.99 MSRP

I initially received the original Jot Touch Stylus approximately one year prior to sitting down to write this review. What took me so long? I admit, I became frustrated with the pen and put it aside, only picking it up occasionally over the next year. Most of my frustration was due to difficulties connecting the pen within apps, and inconsistent support for the special features within apps. When iOS 7 came out, the first generation Jot Touch no longer worked. I contacted the company and was sent the newer Jot Touch 4. Adonit's web site says nothing about replacements for regular customers who purchased the original Jot Touch, so I have to wonder if this same courtesy was extended to those early adopters.

The Jot Touch 4 comes packaged nicely, in a clear box that comes apart to reveal a stack of cards in the base with the quick start guide, tips, and information about compatible apps. Behind the cards, you find the USB charging base and a spare replacement nib. The Jot Touch 4 does not come with any kind of case to hold your pen, charging base, and spare nibs. This is unfortunate because it does tend to roll off a table when you set it down since the buttons are too flat to block it from rolling.

The transparent nib is the unique feature of the Jot Touch 4. The clear plastic disc pivots and tilts with your motion and allows you to see more of the surface area of the tablet. This allows for much more precision compared to a rubber nib and does make a difference when you need to join two lines together. The down-side to the plastic disc is that it does make a clicking noise when you initially touch the screen, though it is quiet during dragging motions.

I'm also uncomfortable with using the plastic disc on the bare glass of the iPad. In my use, it did leave some small marks which wiped away with a soft cloth, but if I were to use it often, I'd worry about it making permanent scratches. Of course you can install a screen protector, but then you lose some screen fidelity, and you never know how each film will interact with the disc nib.

Pressure sensitivity with the Jot Touch was about even with the Intuos Creative Stylus, however, the connection process was not as seamless. Most apps require you to hold one of the buttons on the pen before it will connect, and for reasons unknown to me, I was asked for access to my device's microphone after pairing with the Jot Touch 4. At the time of this writing, Jot Touch 4 is supported by 18 different apps, with another 15 listed as "coming soon." However, you'll need to check the web site to see which features are supported in your favorite apps, because not all of them support the two shortcut buttons, palm rejection, and pressure sensitivity.

Rather than using disposable batteries, the Jot Touch 4 comes with a USB charging base. Then pen magnetically connects to the charger and is said to last as long as a month after charging. The magnet in the charging base is strong enough that it will hold the pen sideways if you don't have convenient access to a horizontal USB port.

While the Jot Touch 4 performs fairly well, it would not be my first choice due to the fussier connection process and concerns about scratching the screen. As with all electronic stylus products, you need to be aware of the inherent flaws with these products and adjust your expectations accordingly. However, if precision is important to you and the Jot Touch supports the features you need in your favorite app, it's not a bad choice.

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Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

04
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Ten One Pogo Connect

Ten One Pogo Connect
The Pogo Connect from Ten One allows for interchangeable pen tips, including two different bristle brush tips. © Ten One

Ten One Pogo Connect Review

Notable Features:

  • Only compatible with iPad 3/4 - NOT compatible with iPad mini or iPad Air
  • Can work with iPad 1 and 2 but requires an iPhone 4S or iPhone 5 and Pogo Bridge app
  • Supports 'hundreds' of levels of pressure
  • One button
  • Uses one standard AAA disposable battery
  • Provides many months of use on one battery
  • Stylus design is plain; barrel is plastic, quite fat, and has a cheap feeling
  • Additional pen nibs and brush tips are available - 3 sizes of rubber nib, 2 brushes
  • US$79.99 MSRP

As with the Jot Touch stylus, I received the Pogo Connect about one year ago, quickly became frustrated with the nascent technology and only used it occasionally until recent months. After the release of iOS 7, many apps were crashing as soon as they detected the Pogo Connect. I contacted a company representative about this and was told I would need a replacement stylus because the one I had was too old. I didn't receive the replacement stylus until after I had upgraded my iPad to the new iPad Air, and was surprised to discover that Pogo Connect was incompatible with the iPad Air. Fortunately, I still had my iPad 3 and could proceed with my review.

Pogo Connect arrived in an unimpressive blister pack with one standard R3 (7.3mm) rubber nib, one AAA Duracell battery, and a small user guide with instructions for getting started. I also received one R1 (4.5mm) tip pack, and one brush tip pack containing both the straight bristle brush and the angle brush.

After installing the battery in the pen barrel, you install the Pogo Connect app on your device and configure it for your chosen pen tip. The feel of the pen is a bit top-heavy due to the battery, but overall fairly light, and about the thickness of a Sharpie marker. The tips attach by magnets to the pen handle.

Connecting the Pogo Connect is done inside your apps, and is a bit different for each app. Compared to the other electronic pens I tested, Pogo Connect is the fussiest about connecting. It requires pressing a button and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. It tends to lose connection often, especially when switching apps. That said, Pogo Connect has the highest number of compatible apps of the pens I reviewed, with 40 compatible apps listed on the web site at the time of this writing. But be sure to check the details of which features are supported in your favorite apps.

Pressure sensitivity with the Pogo Connect--I'm not going to sugar coat it: It's terrible. I was never impressed with it using the first pen I was sent, and the replacement was even worse. To get any kind of thick line, I have to press with such force that my iPad stand collapses and I have to brace the iPad with my other hand. There's no granularity whatsoever--you either get no line (light pressure), a thin line (medium pressure), or a thick line (heavy pressure). The thickness of the thickest line varies depending on the app and your chosen brush settings. To add to the frustration, not all brushes in some apps are pressure enabled so you are often left wondering if your pen has stopped working when it's actually the brush.

To make matters worse, the default R3 tip was constantly caving in on me, probably due to the fact that I had to press so hard to get any kind of variance in stroke attributes. With the thin R1 tip, there was zero variation in my strokes, as if it was not even detecting pressure. The bristle brush tips were the best as far as responsiveness, but they did not fit snugly into the pen barrel, and made constant clicking noises from rattling against the magnetic attachment base. It felt like the brush tips would fall out at any moment.

When I initially tested the Pogo Connect, I had an anti-glare screen protector installed on my iPad and the rubber nibs made an intolerable squeaking noise against the screen protector. There was no noise using the Pogo Connect on the bare glass iPad screen, but if you like to use a screen protector, it is something to be aware of.

All in all, the deficiencies of the Pogo Connect are just too great for me to recommend it. Even if it were a $30 device, it would be disappointing, but it is more than double that. I love the idea of the swappable nibs and brush tips, but this is not enough to compensate for the flaws in the Pogo Connect. Perhaps it has redeeming qualities in handwriting apps, but as this is a graphics software site, I did not test its note-taking capabilities.

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Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.