Posted on 29 June 2011.
As children, all of us shared great delight in covering our tiny paws with various coloured pigments to create fridgebound masterpieces. As you grow and develop into an artist, you’re taught to pick up a brush, pencil or charcoal stick, and a whole world of mark-making opens up.
Today, creating works of art is a single tap away with some mind-blowing iPad and iPhone art apps such as Brushes, ArtRage, SketchBook Pro and Penultimate, but for many artists, reverting to using a finger to paint is a huge step backwards.
We figured that it was time to make our apologies to Mr Jobs and recognise that for some iPad owners, a stylus is a vital part of their iOS experience.
Great product design is about creating something instinctive and intuitive to use, so that it quickly becomes a natural extension of a person. In the case of a stylus, the basic requirements are a pen-like handle and tip, but take a look at the Nomad Brush and the AluPen and you see that both have aimed to tap into the artist’s experience, evoking the familiar by emulating their real-world art tools.
Art apps make the perfect testing ground for putting these iPad styluses through their paces. You’re more likely to spend prolonged periods of time holding a stylus when taking your iPad to a life-drawing session or for some plein-air painting.
If you’re looking for an iPad stylus to perform basic navigation, you might not agree with our final result, but then your fingers really are up that task! Creative types should read on…
How we selected our iPad styluses
Because we are focussing on styluses for creative tasks here, we’ve thrown our net a little wider than straight utilitarian styluses such as the Pogo – though, as the most venerable stylus, we’ve included that as well. That means chunky crayons, brushes and little nubs that slot in the dock!
Just Mobile AluPen – £14
Nomad Brush – $24
Ozaki iStroke S – £9
PenGo TouchPen – $15
Ten One Design Pogo Stylus – £11
Test one: Ergonomics
From our selection, the Nomad Brush makes for the tool that’s most comparable to traditional art equipment – nothing feels more like a brush than, well, a brush. The 190mm wood handle makes this the longest stylus of the bunch, which is a plus for the simple reason that the further away your hand is from the screen, the more of your image is visible. At a weight of 5.6g, the Nomad also won’t become a chore to use during a life-drawing session.
The Just Mobile AluPen is clearly styled on a pencil, with its hexagonal body, but its super-size makes it feel closer to a graphite stick. The weight is pretty close and even the matt metal finish feels the same – the only things missing are the smudges on your fingers.
Both of these styluses are so good at evoking traditional art tools that you can’t help using them in a certain way. The AluPen, for example, isn’t for detailing: it’s about bolder, blocking marks. This makes it the perfect tool for oil work in an app such as ArtRage.
Once we started using the Nomad Brush, we instinctively varied the pressure in our strokes, even though we knew it made no difference to the opacity of the brush mark.
The two more conventional styluses in the pack couldn’t be more different. The Ten One Design Pogo Stylus is far too light – and when you consider that the tip foam is prone to misfiring, a little more downforce could certainly help matters. Add to this its short, thin shaft and the Pogo definitely feels like a data input device and not something you’d want to draw with. This gives it quite a disposable feel – which is appropriate, really, because that’s how we’d be tempted to treat it.
We wouldn’t, however, throw away the PenGo TouchPen. This is another stylus that’s clearly been designed by someone who draws. It’s long enough to rest comfortably between your thumb and index finger, and the pronounced tip makes for a clearer line of sight, so your marks appear where you expect them to. Like the AluPen, the metal body has a matt finish, which is great for grip. Its size and weighting make it comparable to a fine-liner pen, so if you like drawing comics or are already using a digital art tablet, taking up the TouchPen will feel like a natural progression.
It would be harsh to criticise the iStroke S for being small, because form is taking a backseat to function. Making a stylus that fits into the dock connector is a nice touch, – since it means that you never need to go rummaging around for it when inspiration strikes – but its size does bring about a problem unique to drawing on the iPad. Your hand is closer to the surface, and once a stray finger becomes another contact point, you’ve stopped drawing and now you’re moving the canvas. It’s so darn cute, though, that we couldn’t stay mad at it.
Test two: The tip
With three out of five on test sharing the rubber tip common to most brands, you’d think we’d be hard pushed to find differences, but we were surprised how much the nuances matter.
The TouchPen should, by design, perform the best. With its narrow, more prominent tip, we expected greater accuracy, but the smaller the surface area, the more prone you are to losing surface connection – only problematic when holding it at an acute angle.
The AluPen’s tip is helped by being wider, but is also aided by the stylus’s weight – even when you drag it lightly across the iPad, the weight helps to keep the tip in contact with the surface.
The biggest surprise was the Nomad Brush: with its fine, sable-like bristles, the deftest of strokes still created a constant line.
Test three: Build quality
Four out of five of these styluses have very few issues in terms of their build quality – and then there’s the Pogo Stylus. As the foam tip eventually works itself away from its anaemic metal captor to freedom, you can look forward to scratching the end of the shaft along your favourite device’s lovely display.
The iStroke S is without question the ugly duckling of the bunch, although being small in this instance equates to a robust build.
For a quality finish, though, we have to give back the Nomad Brush the same amount of love that went into making it. The walnut and carbon handle is finished with a soft grip, and the attention to detail is exemplified by the embossed logo. It’s just a shame that wood is weak – a good argument for a strong case.
And the best iPad stylus is… Just Mobile AluPen £14
Choosing between three very strong contenders was like asking us to pick our favourite film, ice-cream or child. The Pogo was one of the first styluses available for iPhone users, and it’s never claimed to be anything other than a means to navigate your iPhone or iPad, so judging it as an artists’ tool could be seen as unfair.
That said, what really disappoints us about it is the poor build quality; we just couldn’t feel inspired about drawing with it.
The Ozaki iStroke S, on the other hand, is manufactured well, but it’s just too small. Drawing with it will make you nostalgic for your days as an art student, when you’d use every last pencil down to a nub. Housing it in the iPad dock connector is a great idea, but with your fingers millimetres away from the screen, the experience is too close to using Apple’s preferred stylus, your fingers – and it’s kind of difficult to misplace them. Ozaki does, however, make a few other models; investigate.
The Nomad Brush sits firmly in the middle of our selection. What first appears to be a simple novelty quickly turns into a painting pleasure. The bristles are very responsive, but more than that they remove the synthetic feel of rubber across glass, which is a welcome and refreshing change. The design is also spot-on – the Nomad looks lovingly crafted, justifying its $24 price tag. The only problem we have with it is that you don’t always want that brush experience – for instance, it feels odd when line drawing. We want a Nomad Pencil, and we want it now!
We had to give the TouchPen the silver award. PenGo understands what artists are looking for, and has tailored its stylus to meet a broad audience. It clearly has digital artists and designers in mind; all the dimensions make for a comfortable fit, and the smaller, pronounced tip is a design detail that comes about from wishing to improve the iPad painting experience.
What the chunky, crayonlike AluPen does is take what we liked about the TouchPen and the Nomad Brush and combine them in a stylus that performs well but also feels familiar. The 30g weight isn’t an issue, but an advantage: it ensures good tip connection, so you can apply the same light hold you’d use when sketching with a pencil or painting with a brush. Add to this the perfectly reasonable price tag and it becomes our winner.
But we can’t leave it there. Go and open your art bin, and what do you see? Various tools to create various marks. What we suggest is that if you’re serious about using your iPad as a digital sketchbook to produce a wide range of work, using a wide range of art apps, then maybe you need more than one iPad stylus to hand. An art kit for the iPad – now there’s a thing.