The Stylus

Touch screens never used to really be touch screens — we all knew that they required one very important tool to use: the stylus. That small, cheap, piece of plastic, that bent uncomfortably in our hand, is what we used to control our Palm Pilots, our Treos and the grocery store credit card terminals.

Touch screens were devices that lived on TV and while they could be operated with our chubby fingers they were imprecise tools at the forefront of technological dreams. We bought styluses in packs of three, four times a year — losing them was a common occurrence.

The iPhone came out and we Treo and Blackberry wielding masses wondered where the stylus was stored. Turned out, the iPhone was the first device that didn’t require such a clumsy input device. Then came the iPad, further pushing out the idea of the stylus.

This all seems logical, except: last week I bought a stylus for my iPad.

iPad Stylus

Sixty-seven seconds after unpacking the stylus I immediately regretted the $20 purchase.

I should be clear here, I purchased the Griffin Stylus for iPad and it is not a flawed product – it is an unnecessary one.

Why

The few people that saw me using the stylus immediately asked why I would want one and the answer is simple: to have another piece of digital ammo for meetings. I thought that perhaps a stylus in conjunction with the iPad and an app like Penultimate would make for a killer setup. I wanted to accomplish a few things:

  1. Better sketches.
  2. Be able to write readable handwritten scrawls that don’t take up an entire screen.
  3. To be able to draw straighter lines and rounder circles. 1

I figured that $19 plus shipping and handling wasn’t too much money — so why not just give it a go.

Result

Much in the same way as Photoshop can’t make you a better photographer — a stylus for your iPad does nothing to make you a better sketcher. My hope was that I could get more nuanced control of the sketches, but in actuality the stylus is no more finite than using my pinky finger is. 2

That’s OK, I moved on to the handwriting tests. I tried very hard to see if I could get normal looking handwriting with the stylus and the best I came up with were scrawls that were 20% smaller than if I used my index finger.

That is: no you don’t write better with a stylus than you do with your finger on the iPad. I think a large factor of this is the multi-touch surface. You really need to be able to rest your hand on the screen, without invoking an action, before you can write legibly on the iPad.

I bet you have guessed by now that having a stylus will not help you draw straighter lines or rounder circles. I actually think it may be worse off for that.

At the end of the day the stylus I bought did nothing that I wanted it to do.

In a fit of desperation, trying to find something good to say about using a stylus with the iPad I opened up Layers Pro. I will say that the stylus does seem like it might be helpful for painting type work — but people seem to get along just fine with their fingers alone.

Hardware

That leaves use with the hardware of the stylus itself. There isn’t much to say as it is a sturdy, but small piece of aluminum. The tip is interesting — it feels like a deflated inner-tube. It is rubber and glides across my finger print laden iPad screen with greater ease than my finger normally would.

iPad Stylus Tip

Overall I think it is a solidly made product.

Future Improvements

The greatest reason why a stylus doesn’t make sense for the iPad is because there is no pressure sensitivity on the multi-touch input tablet. Most people that have used a Wacom tablet will tell you that they love being able to vary the brush size based on how hard they are pressing — this is how you actually draw, with light and heavy strokes — all without having to stop and adjust the brush size.

Right now there is no pressure sensitivity on the iPad and therefore no reason to own a stylus.

This is not to say that the iPad needs pressure sensitivity — it probably doesn’t — but in order for a stylus to make sense with the iPad, the iPad needs pressure sensitivity.

  1. No, really.
  2. I honestly should have guessed this.
Originally posted for members on: February 9, 2011
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