When you're writing and drawing and painting in the real world, you have a wide choice of pens, pencils, markers and brushes. When you're doing it on a tablet, you probably stick with your finger (unless you have an active digitiser pen with a tablet like the Surface Pro or a "phablet" like the Samsung Galaxy Note). Active pens give you smooth lines, fluid ink and different levels of pressure sensitivity, so you can press harder to get a thicker line when you're drawing; they also turn off touchscreens temporarily so you don't have to worry about resting your hand on the screen as you draw and write.
Capacitive styluses can't do quite as well. No matter how thin the tip, they're working with a technology designed to detect things the size of your fingertip and work out where you were probably trying to draw the line. But there's a wide range of different designs that can make it easier to draw precisely on-screen, and you can write far more smoothly with a stylus than with your finger (although if you have Windows 8 on a system with a touchscreen, you might be surprised at the accuracy of the handwriting recognition option on the touch keyboard, even using your finger).
There are also more specialised styluses, designed to feel like familiar art tools such as markers, pencils, pastels and brushes. Here's a collection of our favourites.
Griffin Number 2 Pencil Stylus £10.99 / $19.99
Griffin's Number 2 Pencil Stylus looks almost exactly like a yellow pencil — from the angled sides and the logo where the pencil number is supposed to be, to the metal ferrule and the red eraser. Unlike an active pen, you can't turn it over and use this to rub anything out, and it's a little hard to chew the way you can a pencil. But if you like to grip a pencil between your teeth, the red plastic is pretty comfortable for that. The fact that you're going to be tempted to do that is a tribute to the realism of the Number 2 Pencil Stylus — and that turns out to be more than just a cute gimmick.
The real-world pencil's design has been refined over decades. The slim barrel is easy to manipulate, plus the angled sides are easy to grip for long periods — and they mean it won't roll off the table when you put it down. The Number 2 Pencil stylus takes advantage of that design and its familiarity in the hand. It's heavier than a pencil, thanks to the metal barrel, which works better for a touchscreen where the extra weight helps keep the tip pressed down. It's a little lighter than the Wacom Bamboo, though, and we had to press more firmly with the Pencil stylus to draw a curved line smoothly without any gaps than we did with the Bamboo. The Pencil stylus is also longer than most of the capacitive styluses we looked at, which gives it better balance in your hand. It's also huge fun to use.
Scribbly looks and feels just like a whiteboard marker in your hand — big, chunky and easy to grip. It's also comfortable to hold for quite a long time, making it good for on-screen painting as well as for drawing quick diagrams. It comes in a choice of four colours: black, red, blue and pink. Usually a stylus this light would skip over the screen when you're using it, but the wide barrel and the way you grip a marker pen with more of your fingers makes up for a lot of that.
The tip is nicely to scale with a marker, so with the right software you feel pretty much as if you're drawing with a real marker pen. It's accurate for straight strokes, but we didn't always get a smooth curve when writing letters such as S; the large size of the tip and light weight just doesn't give quite as good contact with the screen as with the Wacom Bamboo, for example.
Of course, just having a stylus that's bigger in your hand doesn't give you a thicker line on-screen, so you'll need to change pen settings in your app to get something that looks, as well as feels, like you're drawing with a real marker pen. That's true of all of these styluses, apart from the capacitive brush. What you get from the different physical designs is something that feels more natural or comfortable in your hand, and Scribbly's marker styling does just that.
Wacom Bamboo Stylus solo £24.99 / $29.95
Wacom's capacitive Bamboo Stylus solo is one of the least quirky options evaluated here — although it comes in a nice range of colours, including lime green and baby blue, if you want to match it to your iPad Smart Cover. It has a slightly slimmer tip than many standard capacitive styluses (6mm rather than 8mm), which can give you slightly finer control. Wacom also has a firmer tip on the way that you can screw in to replace the standard soft rubber tip, if you prefer the feel of something less squishy on screen.
The metal body and the clip on the end give the Bamboo an excellent balance in the hand, with a comfortable grip. It's heavy enough to make good contact with the screen without you needing to press too hard, which is what gives you clean, smooth strokes when you draw. Overall, this is the benchmark for a capacitive stylus.
The AluPen and AluPen Pro look rather different. The AluPen is a squat, chunky, pencil-shaped stylus that comes in a range of colours; it looks like an overgrown version of the free pencils you get at Ikea, but in solid and weighty aluminium that's comfortable to grip — especially if your hands are on the large side. The angled sides and the weight mean the AluPen isn't going to roll away when you put it down.
The AluPen Pro is longer and slimmer and quite a bit lighter, although that still makes it heavier than most of the capacitive styluses on the market. It also looks a little bit more professional — like a cross between a pen and a pencil — and comes in more sober red, black or silver. Twist what would be the point on a normal pen or pencil and out pops a ballpoint pen, so you can take real notes on real paper. At the other end is the same capacitive rubber tip as on the AluPen; when you use them on a touchscreen, the only difference is the feel of the stylus in your hand.
Both styluses have enough weight and conductive metal to maintain contact with the screen smoothly and accurately, no matter how fast your draw or how much your strokes curve around. Although the tips are the same size, we could draw and write far faster than with any of the other rubber-tipped styluses — even the Wacom Bamboo — and still get clear lines without any ink breakup. On a Surface RT, drawing in the modern OneNote for Windows 8 app was much smoother with either AluPen than it was with the Griffin Pencil stylus; only the Wacom Bamboo matched them.
Many digital artists are fans of the AluPen because of the firm grip you can get on the angled sides and the accuracy the extra weight gives them. The AluPen Pro feels different in your hand, but draws the same on-screen. Either is a luxury, but if you spend a lot of time drawing or painting on a touchscreen the indulgence could be worthwhile. At this price, it's also nice that both models come with a spare tip and a protective rubber case.
Nomad Brush £24.95 / $35
Natural media painting apps like ArtRage and Fresh Paint let you paint with what looks like watercolour and oil paint. The capacitive brushes from Nomad Brush let you do that with something that feels like a real paintbrush. If you have any experience painting with physical paint, it feels much more natural to have something with actual bristles. The long handle makes it easy to make long sweeping strokes across the screen to lay down a wash of colour or to dab on spots of colour. The flexible bristles let you work at almost the same angle as a real brush.
The thickness of the brush stroke you get on-screen is, as always, controlled by the settings in the software you're using. But because the bristles and the long handle give you such a natural grip and feel, you can get a slightly more delicate, nuanced stroke on-screen than you would if painting with your fingers. And somehow, picking up a brush makes the whole thing feel more like painting; we found we were holding the tablet like a sketchpad and brushing on paint with a more fluid wrist action. We could also see a difference in the results; some of that could be a purely psychological effect, of course, but we still enjoyed painting even more. And you can still use the brush for scrolling through web pages and tapping larger buttons on screen, although it's not ideal for handwriting.
DAGi 501 & 101 $20 / €15 & $20 / €13 DAGi's styluses look like something your dentist would use to check the back of your teeth. They're lightweight (you could say flimsy) plastic styluses with a transparent tip that has a red dot to suggest where the line you're drawing is going to show up on-screen. The 101 is very small and thin, like a mechanical pencil, while the 501 is a little longer and thicker — more like a normal pen, with a protective clip to cover the tip when you throw it in your bag. Both styluses have a handy lanyard hole through the end clip.
Not only do they look strange, they're not that comfortable to use. You have to hold them so the angled tip is flat on the screen and although we were able to draw lines on iPads, Android tablets and smartphones, few of the Windows tablets we tried detected the DAGi tip at all unless we pressed very hard.
oStylus & oStylus Dot $39 / $38
Designed by a Canadian jeweller, the original oStylus is an aluminium stylus with a pivoting O-ring on two long wires. The wires and pivoting ring mean you can draw or paint at the most comfortable angle on your touchscreen, while the hole in the middle of the ring means you can see what would be under the tip of a normal stylus. You get lots of control and cam make big painterly strokes to lay down a wash of colour quickly and smoothly.
However, the ring doesn't always give you an even contact on some touchscreens. On Windows 8 tablets, for example, we found a straight stroke in a painting package introduced charming but unexpected wiggles in the paint. The oStylus Dot does away with the hole in the ring, and the smaller "dot" feels less fragile as well as more accurate. We found strokes with the oStylus Dot were smooth and precise — it feels more like painting with a brush than drawing with a pencil, but not so much that it feels odd to tap buttons or scroll web pages with it. It's not as good for writing because it's awkward for drawing out letter shapes at speed, but if you want a stylus for artwork that doesn't try too hard to look like a real brush, the oStylus Dot is our pick.