Katherine Boehret

Sketching Out a Future for the Stylus

Given how often we use our fingers for multi-touch gestures on smartphones, tablets and computers, it’s almost impossible to imagine ever needing a stylus again. Yet, the stylus is making a comeback as people continue the shift toward using iPads and other tablets as productivity devices rather than mostly for consumption.

And it got a few cool points last month when Samsung introduced its 5.3-inch Galaxy Note—a phone/tablet hybrid with a stylus.

So this week, I gave my fingers a rest and tested out several styluses with the iPad. I also tested a handful of the many apps designed to work with these finger replacements to help people take notes, create art and play games. If you’re still carrying a paper note pad with your iPad, these products now make it easier to completely switch to digital.

I was surprised by how much I liked working with these gadgets. My gestures and selections felt more precise, and I was more apt to jot a quick note on my iPad using the stylus rather than by typing on its awkward on-screen keyboard. For creative types, an iPad stylus paired with a great app equals unlimited digital painting supplies. The most frustrating feature of all styluses may be that they’re remarkably easy to lose.


The ArtRage app lets the stylus work like 11 different artist’s tools.

The ones I tested ranged from bare bones to fancy schmancy. On the low end, I tried Ten One Design’s $15 Pogo Sketch Plus, a stylus that resembled a thin, tiny pen, and was available in pink, orange, silver and green. But its tip was too thin, giving this stylus an overall cheap feeling as I touched the screen with it. The $27 Rocketfish Stylus + Pen was a stylus on one end and a capped pen on the other, but the tip of the stylus felt too flexible and weak when used over and over for sketches and note-taking.

I found two styluses to be strong and steady: Targus’s $20 Stylus for iPad and Wacom’s $30 Bamboo Stylus, available in six colors. Both have the same overall design, with a wider body and a clip for attaching to a shirt pocket or some iPad cases.

Artists and aspiring artists will enjoy the $39 Nomad Compose by Nomad Brush. This paintbrush is designed especially for the iPad, and it’s a delight to move across the screen in strokes and dabs. Its opposite end has a shorter, firmer brush tip for more precise painting. The $25 Pogo Sketch Pro by Ten One Design also has two tips, though each must be screwed on, one at a time, making it easy to lose the tip that’s not in use.

Several stylus-focused apps are designed for people looking to take, organize and share notes and notebooks.


The Bamboo Stylus comes in six colors.

For 99 cents, Penultimate is one such app. It includes graph, lined or plain virtual paper, and additional types can be bought via in-app purchases, like $2.99 for blank music paper. Anything drawn in a notebook can be circled and cut out of the page or copied for use on another page. Notebooks can be emailed in their entirety, or just one page can be shared via email, Dropbox or Evernote.

Noteshelf is a more robust and slicker note-keeping app, though it’s also more expensive at $5.99. It uses the same handsome shelf display as Apple’s iBooks and Newsstand. Several notebooks can be dragged onto one another to create a group. The covers of notebooks can be one of seven sophisticated designs, and people can choose to write on 20 types of virtual paper; additional covers and paper are available via in-app purchases. A built-in, four-digit password option could come in handy for locking a private journal. Noteshelf content can be exported to email, Dropbox, Evernote and other places.

The 99-cent Notability app has a built-in palm rest, so you can rest your wrist on the bottom half of the iPad screen while writing with a stylus, and your wrist won’t make a mark. It uses an easy method for searching notes via content or title, or, with one tap, it will sort all notes by name, date, subject, size or those that have been exported. Notes in Notability can be taken on 15 types of virtual paper, like one with purple polka dots. This app includes a bonus: The ability to tap a microphone icon to add audio recordings to notes. Destinations for exporting include Dropbox, iBooks, Kindle, iDisk and iTunes.

Two of my favorite apps that turn the iPad into an easel are $2.99 ArtRage and 99-cent Auryn Ink. ArtRage offers 11 different tools, including oil paints (represented by paint tubes), pastels, and even a palate-knife tool that blends colors on the screen. The marks that one’s stylus makes on the iPad screen adjust differently with each tool. When colors are added to the canvas, they blend like in real life, so oil strokes of pink and pale blue make a light purple shade. Images can be saved to a gallery, uploaded to Dropbox and Facebook, printed or emailed.


The Nomad Compose has brushes at each end.

In the artist-friendly Auryn Ink app, brushes are offered in four tip shapes and four bristle formations with adjustable strokes. Even the texture of the canvas itself can be adjusted to smoother or rougher, which affects the way the virtual paint appears. Final versions of paintings created with this app can be saved to albums or emailed to friends.

Kid-friendly stylus apps abound, though I especially like the free Kids Magic Draw app. Three options from the home screen let kids choose Cartoon, Magic or Paint. In Cartoon, kids tap objects to add them onto the page; Magic turns the stylus into a wand that adds color to black and white pictures; and Paint is like a coloring book on steroids, letting a child choose a color to be smeared across the screen with a stylus or finger.

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