How to choose a stylus for drawing and writing on your tablet
Many modern tablets come with styluses to make them easier to use. Some tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab, come with a stylus as part of the package; if you want a stylus for your iPad, on the other hand, you'll need to buy one separately.
In this guide we highlight some of the best tablets that have styluses designed to be used with them (either included, or sold separately), the different types of stylus, and how you can choose the best stylus to use with your tablet – or even your smartphone.
Active vs capacitive styluses for tablets
There are two main types of stylus. Simple, capacitive styluses have rubber tips that replicate the touch of a finger, and can help you navigate the small, fiddly icons on a phone or tablet without costing more than a few pounds, while more sophisticated 'active' styluses tend to be better for writing or sketching.
Capacitive styluses: make any tablet easier to use
If you’re looking to make your tablet (or phone) easier to use, making it less of a faff to tap on tiny buttons and on-screen keyboards, a capacitive stylus could be just what you're after. While they aren't as smart as an active stylus, they can be very useful.
A capacitive stylus simulates a touch of your finger using a rubber end or nib that activates the touch-sensitive points on your screen, so it doesn’t require any expensive parts and will work with any modern tablet that has a ‘capacitive’ glass touchscreen (this includes every big-brand tablet sold in the past decade).
The main things to think about when choosing a capacitive stylus are the size, weight and the size of the nib, as you may find you want a shorter or longer stylus depending on your needs.
- Smaller nibs enable more precision, and you’ll more easily be able to write on the screen. But this also means you need to be more precise with your inputs.
- Large, rubber nibs are less likely to slip each time you tap the screen, so are better if you want to be confident with each button press and don’t care about handwriting.
Some capacitive styluses have Bluetooth connectivity, which adds some basic functionality. Usually, a stylus that has Bluetooth will have at least one button, which can be used to perform a function on the tablet you’re using. What the button does depends on the device and the app you’re using; it could undo an action, or activate an eraser, for example.
Keep in mind that styluses with Bluetooth will need a battery. Some models have replaceable AAA or AAAA batteries, while others have rechargeable cells. If the battery runs out, the pointer function of your stylus will still work, but the buttons won’t.
The big tech brands don't typically make their own capacitive styluses, so you'll probably need to find one from a third party.
Pros of capacitive styluses
- Don't cost much – typically just a few pounds
- Great for navigating menus and websites
- Compatible with any modern touchscreen tablet, laptop or phone
- Different sizes available
- Most work without batteries.
Cons of capacitive styluses
- Can feel a bit flimsy and light
- Not great for precise work such as writing and sketching; if you plan on doing this a lot, and your budget allows, choose a tablet that is compatible with an active stylus
- Not all nibs are replaceable: if you use a stylus a lot, the tip will eventually wear out and become harder to use. More expensive capacitive styluses, such as the Wacom Bamboo Solo, can be purchased with replacement nibs
- Capacitive styluses with very thin nibs may not work with all tablet screens, as most tablets are designed to sense fingers, not tiny rubber nibs
- If you rest your hand on the screen while writing or drawing, your hand will be sensed as the stylus instead of the stylus itself, making it impossible to use the stylus.
Active styluses: for the ultimate pen-like experience
Active styluses are much more technologically advanced. They're best for when you want to handwrite a lot of notes or draw and sketch. The very best will feel almost like you're writing on paper.
They’re less good for simple navigation as they're typically designed to be slightly slippery on the screen; this makes it easier to write and draw without slowing you down.
To use an active stylus, a tablet needs a so-called ‘digitizer’ screen – an extra layer on the touchscreen that can sense an active stylus. Not all tablets have this; if a device doesn’t advertise its stylus compatibility, it probably doesn’t have any.
Not only do active styluses activate a tablet's touchscreen, they also work with your tablet to establish how hard you’re pressing (for thicker or thinner lines). Some even identify what angle the stylus is being held at (to simulate pencils, fountain pens and even paint brushes). This technical complexity means they need a rechargeable or replaceable battery, depending on the model.
Your experience of using an active stylus will differ considerably depending on what tablet and what app you happen to be using.
You should try to match the brand of your stylus to the brand of your tablet, unless it's very clearly stated which tablets are compatible with your stylus of choice. We've given more detail about branded styluses from Apple, Microsoft and Samsung below.
Bear in mind, too, that an active stylus may not be able to use all of its features in every app, and will revert back to behaving like a capacitive stylus if the app you’re using doesn’t support it. This makes life very confusing and means you’ll need to do research on what apps work with your stylus before buying.
Pros of active styluses
- Excellent precision for sketching and drawing
- More natural for handwriting
- Many have ‘palm rejection’, so you can rest your palm on the screen without it preventing you using the stylus.
- Can sense different pressures.
Cons of active styluses
- Cost much more than capacitive styluses
- Not compatible with all devices and won't work with every app
- May require special software
- Always require replaceable or rechargeable batteries.
Branded active styluses from Apple, Microsoft and Samsung
Many leading tablet manufacturers have bespoke styluses designed for use with their own tablets. If you want to avoid the hassle of having to make sure a stylus will be compatible with your tablet, opting for a tablet that is sold with, or has the option of, an active stylus could make your life a bit easier.
Three of the most popular examples of this are the Apple iPad’s Pencil, the Microsoft Surface Pro’s Pen and the Samsumg Galaxy Tab S series’ S-Pen.
You may have to pay a pretty penny for the privilege, though, unless the stylus comes as part of the package when you buy the tablet.
All three of these examples have built-in apps that support all the advanced features of their styluses, so you can make use of them without having to worry about compatibility. If you download apps from third parties, you’ll need to check compatibility; even if they support styluses, how well they do so do may vary.
Apple Pencil stylus for iPad
The Pencil is Apple's active stylus for the iPad. It doesn't work with any other tablet brands and it doesn't work with iPhones, either.
It has tilt and pressure detection, meaning you can use the pen at different angles and pressures and it will affect what appears on the screen. This makes it an ideal partner for both drawing and taking notes.
It's expensive, though, with the RRP starting at £89 for the first-generation model and £119 for the second-generation model.
The first-gen model is charged by awkwardly plugging it into the charging port of your iPad, while the second-gen model charges wirelessly by sitting it on top of your iPad. The two different Pencils are compatible with different iPads, so be sure to check the before you buy, to ensure you're buying the right Pencil for the right iPad.
S-Pen stylus for Samsung Galaxy Tabs
There are various different models of Samsung's 'S-Pen' styluses, each compatible with different iterations of the company's tablets. There are also S-Pens designed for the Samsung Galaxy Note series of smartphones. S-Pen prices vary, but are typically cheaper than Apple Pencils.
To make things more complicated, some Galaxy Tab products aren't compatible with S-Pen styluses at all.
High-end Samsung Galaxy Tab S tablets generally come with a stylus, so you don't have to worry about compatibility. If you have or are thinking of buying a cheaper Samsung tablet, check to check whether styluses are compatible with it.
Surface Pen for Microsoft Surface Tablets
There is currently only one version of the Surface Pen available. It includes similar features to Apple's Pencil, including tilt and pressure sensitivity for better writing and sketching.
The latest model currently on sale on has an RRP of around £100 and is compatible with a host of Surface devices dating back several years. The oldest Surface Pro tablet supported is the Surface Pro 3. The Surface Laptop and Surface Book line of laptops are also supported.
Third-party styluses for iPads and more
There are also third-party active styluses that should have very similar functionality to branded ones, and which may be more affordable, including:
- The Logitech Crayon or Adonit Note+ are alternatives to the Apple Pencil.
- The Adonit Ink Pro and Wacom Bamboo Ink Plus are compatible with any Windows 10 tablet or laptop with Windows Ink support, including Surface tablets and laptops.
For Android tablets and smartphones, we recommend sticking with an active stylus that matches the brand of your device; for example, stick with Samsung S-Pen on your Galaxy Tab or Note device.
Always do your research before buying an active stylus. If you already have a tablet, check whether it has a digitizer screen and, if it does, which styluses it works with.
Once you’ve established that, check the apps you want to use and see which styluses they support and what features they offer (such as pressure sensitivity). That way you won’t end up disappointed with an expensive stylus that’s hamstrung by poor software.
Buying a stylus for your phone
Phones generally don't support active styluses because their small screen size means that writing and drawing is too difficult. The main exception to this is the Galaxy Note line, which comes with a stylus built in.
Capacitive styluses, on the other hand, will work with any phone and provide the same benefits as with a tablet, namely easier button tapping and navigation. Keep in mind that a stylus with a huge nib will probably be annoying to use on a small phone, as it will obstruct more of the screen while you're using it.