Which mobile stylus is the best for use on an iPad? Most of them will work as a basic stylus for typing and clicking (or launching an Angry Bird or two) on any touch screens (Android included). They will also work, kinda-sorta (see yellow check marks), in all drawing apps, but there are some differences that may be critical to you. Rather than finding this out after you’ve bought a stylus, let’s take a look at the differences now.
If you’re not that persnickety about the finer details of your drawings, or you’d just like to improve your handwriting on the iPad, there’s a clear winner: Bamboo Solo Stylus . Made by Wacom (the king of stylus makers) it’s won countless reviews and user surveys. It comes with a cap, which you will definitely want when you’re on the go, to protect the nib. With a stylus, the most fragile part is the nib, so a cap is very handy when you’re in a hurry and just want to toss the stylus in a bag without having to worry. The only decisions you need to make is what color you want, and whether you want soft or hard nibs. (Soft is best for artwork; hard is best for writing, typing and clicking buttons). If you can’t decide, get a pack of replacement nibs ($6) of each kind and decide later. It comes with a soft nib. If you will be using it on both an iPad and an iPhone, you might prefer one of the smaller versions. Here’s the range in a nutshell:
- Bamboo Solo Stylus : $19.95 regular pen size with clip and cap
- Bamboo Duo 2-In-1 Stylus: $29.95, same as Solo but with a refillable ball-point pen on the opposite end
- Bamboo Pocket Expandable Stylus: $34.95, telescoping handle is great for phone/mobile use. Comes with a cap and soft-grip.
- Bamboo Stylus Mini: $9.99, cute, crayon-sized, with a plug that connects it to your tablet/phone so it’s harder to lose. No cap, and no replacement nibs, but hey, it’s $10.
Bloggers, occasional illustrators and artistic kids
You’re an occasional illustrator looking to dabble in digital art, but leery of anything techie or complicated. Maybe you want to create your own quick sketches for your blog. You want that hand-drawn look but in digital format, and you love the idea of being able to erase rather than start all over again with fresh paper, to say nothing of the no-clean-up factor. You need the results to look decent and interesting, but not print-perfect. Or maybe you have a kid (4 – 12 yrs old) who’s artistically inclined and you’d like to save on art supplies while also encouraging their digital skills.
Recommendations: Download the free Paper by FiftyThree app, and spring for their in-app Essentials media pack ($6.99, so that you can use other tools besides the pencil, like watercolor, marker pen, ink pen, etc). If you’re color-challenged, you might also like their Color Mixer ($1.99). Paper has a very simple, intuitive interface. You will be drawing within minutes. More importantly, it has the most realistic watercolor and ink pen effects—better than Adobe Ideas app or Bamboo Paper. Your sketches are easy to share via Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
Limitations: tools are limited to one size, and results are saved in one resolution only (72dpi .JPG that is 1024px x 768px), however this is more than adequate for most web/email use.
Regarding a stylus, you may or may not need one… Your finger tip may be fine, as the tools draw a thinner line than a pudgy finger tip. This sketch of a barn was done with a finger tip.
However, if you want finer control, Paper by FiftyThree pairs best with the Pencil ($50, comes in hipster walnut finish, made by the same people who make Paper). Pencil has a magnet so it will stick to your iPad, and a squared-off non-roll finish, like a carpenter’s pencil, which is fine for quick sketches. It also has the best Palm Rejection software for this app (i.e. the iPad does not draw extra marks when you rest your palm on the screen). The nib is firm and the stylus is weighted so there is less force needed.
If $50 for a stylus strikes you as a bit expensive for the occasional digital doodle, you can always use a Bamboo Stylus (above). It will work with Paper by FiftyThree (and Adobe Ideas and Bamboo Paper). The only drawback is that you may have occasional extra marks to erase if you rest your palm while drawing. However, as every drawing teacher will tell you, drawing should be done at an easel angle with ‘none of this palm-resting business.’ (Yeah, yeah, yeah.) If, when drawing, you prefer to hold the stylus like a crayon or piece of chalk rather than a pen, you won’t have any palm-resting issues.
Professional Artists and Graphic Designers
When it comes to certain aspects of drawing, artists can get very picky, especially when it comes to line quality, which varies with pressure. And then there’s something called Palm Rejection, which is what they call the app’s’ ability to tell the difference between the stylus and your palm/finger, so that you don’t spend time erasing stray marks, but while handy, I’ve found that this is only really critical for detailed sketches.
So let’s say you’re traveling, or you just feel like sketching on the sofa. Or maybe you prefer sketching on real paper at a café, rather than hauling out your laptop, which, let’s face it, looks and feels like work. So you want a drawing app that you can work with on your iPad.
Paper by FiftyThree: If it’s just an idea sketch or rough mockup, you might be surprised by how much you like Paper. It feels more like paper and pen because the limitations are the same as an analog pen and paper. It’s great for brainstorming and quick demos. And you will love the watercolor wash. Limitations: the app is not pressure-sensitive; the only line variation is based on the speed of your stroke. Pencil works best with Paper by FiftyThree, but since the app does not offer any pressure-sensitive options (yet), you can get by quite well with a basic Bamboo stylus.
Bamboo Paper: has more features than Paper by FiftyThree (like a nifty crayon tool, textured backgrounds, import image, and pressure-sensitive tools) but the watercolor and pen tools are not quite as fabulous as Paper by FiftyThree‘s. However, when paired with an Intuos Creative stylus ($100), Bamboo Paper delivers a varied line quality, which may matter more to you than the media tools. Your illustrations can be Shared to a variety of social networks, email and cloud storage options, and the export format is a .PNG file (transparent background is possible).
Adobe Ideas app: if you want/need to work in vector format (so that the results will scale without distortion for multiple screen resolutions), you will need Adobe Ideas. Unlike Paper by FiftyThree, which exports all sketches as 72dpi JPGs at 1024 x 768 px, or Bamboo Paper, which exports .PNGs, Adobe Ideas exports all art as a PDF, which can be opened and manipulated as vector paths in Illustrator, or sent as a standard locked PDF to team members. Only Adobe Ideas allows you to import a photo on a separate layer so that you can trace it, and then save the result. The app is pressure-sensitive, and you can re-size tool tips even without a stylus.
Limitations: If you’re familiar with Adobe software, it might seem like Adobe Ideas would be the obvious choice. But the interface is slightly different from CS4, and frankly, may be more than you need for simple sketches. More glaringly, all these features cannot make up for the lack of watercolor vector brushes or calligraphy brushes. It’s hard to believe that Adobe is letting an upstart like FiftyThree beat them in the tools department, when they already have the brushes in CS4. As it stands, everything has a very slick Bezier-curve feel versus a “this is only rough, guys” hand-drawn illustration feel, so I’d be wary of using this for concept demos.
Recommendations: Download all 3 apps— they’re free—and try them out over morning coffee with whatever stylus you can find, or just your finger. Try creating a similar mixed media sketch in all 3, and then emailing it to yourself, for a good comparison. Regardless of which app you use, save your work often (email to yourself or sync with Adobe’s CloudConnect or Dropbox) as apps tend to crash more often on tablets than laptops.
The Intuos Creative works well in all 3 apps, but particularly well in Adobe Ideas and Bamboo Paper, where the pressure-sensitive aspect really shines. It also feels more natural in your hand for extended periods than a carpenter’s pencil. (No, your Wacom tablet pen will not work with a touch screen). But if you do spring for this stylus, for God’s sake, keep an eye on it if you’re away from home, as it’s not cheap to replace.
Note: I have no affiliation with any of these app companies. Just an enthusiastic user.