Stylus Shoot-Out: Which writing stylus will reign supreme?

There are many, many styluses for the iPad out there. I know, because I’ve looked at a lot of them, putting together reviews (and drawings) for nearly three dozen pens and writing implements for tablets and handling even more.

But even the most extensive chart doesn’t always get to the heart of the question that tablet owners want to know: Which stylus is well-suited for what I want to do? To answer that question, we’re going to dive into specific tasks and how they’re handled by specific capacitative styluses. My goal: Bring you the three best tools for writing, sketching, painting, navigation, multifunction capabilities, music-making, and kid-friendliness. And when the first pressure-sensitive styluses come on the scene later this summer, we’ll do an extra-special round-up just for them.

So, without further ado, let’s get started with our very first challenge—writing.

Words, words, words

With apps like Paper and Penultimate encouraging people to take notes digitally (but without the use of a virtual or physical keyboard), writing on the iPad is perhaps the biggest question I get from curious stylus-seekers—it even outranks sketching.

Some apps, like Penultimate, have built-in palm rejection, but it doesn’t always work.

Writing digitally is a difficult task to conquer, for a few different reasons. For one, it’s the only real job your finger fails miserably at. It turns out your finger is not so great for taking detailed notes or lettering speech bubbles.

To top that off, the iPad loves touch—perhaps a little too much—making it very difficult for those of us accustomed to writing with our palms resting on whatever surface we’re working on. There are apps (like the aforementioned Penultimate) that build in palm rejection, but it’s not perfect—and you’ll have to turn off multitasking gestures to get that feature to work at all.

As such, a writing stylus with good balance is important. And to get that, you generally need to look for a 2-in-1 tool—half stylus, half ballpoint pen. Adding a pen mechanism instantly makes the stylus heavier, and usually provides a better balance for the writer, since there are implements on each side of the tool. There are a few well-balanced styluses that aren’t in this category—such as the Architect Stylus—but they’re eclipsed by the 2-in-1s.

Meet the contenders

Let’s meet the three 2-in-1 tools ready to duke it out.

The HyperShield 3-in-1 Smart Pen

When I first reviewed it, the rubber-nibbed HyperShield quickly vaulted over its competitors to become my favorite writing stylus. It’s inexpensive—just $10!—but well-built, has great balance, and has a built-in magnet for sleeping and waking your iPad.

The Bamboo Stylus Duo

The 2-in-1 version of Wacom’s vaunted Bamboo Stylus, the Duo is everything I loved about the company’s original offering, but with some added heft and a beautiful ballpoint pen.

The Jot Flip

Unlike the other two rubber-nib styluses, Adonit’s Jot Flip boasts the company’s signature transparent precision disc, a slipperier but often more-precise option. In addition, it has the nicest design of any 2-in-1 I’ve seen—its sleek steel body and hidden ballpoint compartment wouldn’t be out of place in James Bond’s toolkit.

These three may be at the top of their category, but they’ve still got a long way to go before any of them can claim victory—three challenges, in fact. So let’s get on with it.

Challenge 1: Balance, heft, and positioning

As I mentioned earlier, weight and balance is a much bigger factor when you’re looking for a writing stylus than a sketching or painting one. Humans aren’t generally used to angling their hand so that only their pen touches the surface; most excellent writing styluses compensate by allowing you to angle the pen (and your hand) very close to the iPad without actually touching skin to screen.

The HyperShield is so light that I have to write vertically when trying to take notes at speed.

The HyperShield 3-in-1 is the lightest of the three styluses; that said, its anodized aluminum shell provides an alarmingly decent balance for such a feathery-feeling pen. It also has the advantage of being long—almost five and a half inches—which allows you leverage to to dip very close to the screen for writing. It fails only in writing quickly; angle + weight defeat it there.

I was able to hold the Duo just a few centimeters higher than I normally would writing on paper and still get decent speed.

In contrast, the Bamboo Stylus Duo may be the stockiest of the three, at just 4.5 inches with its cap removed, but its weight and manufacturing provide unparalleled angle and balance. You simply speed along when writing notes; you need only pause to turn the page. Its plated metal and rubber grip make it heavier than the HyperShield, but lighter than the polished steel body of the Jot Flip.

Though I can get an even better angle on the Jot Flip than I can on the Bamboo, the Jot’s lack of spring tip makes my printing slightly sloppy at speed.

The Flip is nothing to sneer at: I actually rather like the extra heft of the steel, and handwriting with this tool is a breeze—you fly across the screen. It’s unfortunately not as good as the Duo for quick printing, but it comes awfully close.

Winner: Bamboo Stylus Duo, with all-purpose speed

Challenge 2: Resistance

When it comes to nibs, size does make a difference. The picture above shows the HyperShield’s 8mm nib, left, and the Duo’s 6mm nib.

Unlike drawing or sketching apps, most writing-centric apps eschew zoom controls; what you see is what you get. So if you’d rather your digital notebooks not look like a first grader scribbling with their first 2B, you need a stylus that gives you enough resistance against the iPad’s screen to prevent slipping and sliding your letters all over the page when you’re trying to write quickly. (It’s best not to go too far in the other direction, either: Too much resistance, and you’ll find you can’t take notes with any rhythm at all.)

And then there’s the nib. In order to conduct properly with the iPad’s screen, nib sizes have to more or less resemble your fingertip; unfortunately, this originally resulted in a lot of 8mm rubber nib behemoths that kept writing big and clunky. The ideal writing implement allows you to easily see what you’re scribbling, so that you don’t accidentally write the next letter over the one you just finished.

To test the resistance or drag of the nibs as I wrote, I did a quick note-taking speed test: How much of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” could I scribble out with each stylus in five seconds? It turns out, not too much—styluses still aren’t as fast as a good writer with a ballpoint pen—but there was a definite discrepancy between tools.

The HyperShield, with its larger nib, was the slowest, getting out just four words before the allotted time.

The Bamboo won the speed test, writing the full first phrase before time ran out.

When writing in cursive, as shown above, the Jot Flip is almost as good as the Bamboo; when printing, however, the pen barely finished three words before the buzzer.

Both the HyperShield and the Bamboo Stylus Duo have roughly the same type of rubber nib with an equal level of resistance: To put it into words, it feels rather like dragging your pinky across the screen.

The Duo, however, has a much smaller nib—6mm to the HyperShield’s 8mm—and this gives it a slight edge on its competition: It has a more pen-like glide that, while not particularly close to the feeling of writing on actual paper, works a good deal better than the 8mm option.

Sadly, while the Jot Flip’s non-existent resistance from its plastic precision disk makes it amazing for speedy handwriting—it makes a girl seriously consider brushing up on her calligraphy—it belly-flops when you attempt to print. The Jot also has no spring to its tip, which makes for a very clanky experience moving from letter to letter. My print writing for the Flip was by far the sloppiest and slipperiest, and I couldn’t write smaller than half an inch without letters becoming indistinguishable.

Winner: Bamboo Stylus Duo, for clean, quick penmanship

Challenge 3: The writing

Yes, this is primarily a stylus test, but I’m not going to go ahead and test three multifunction tools without telling you how their opposite ends perform.

Both the Duo and Flip have high-quality ballpoint pen cartridges, but the Flip gets extra points for pen integration and style.

The HyperShield is the weakest of the three here: Its ballpoint nib is better than any dollar-store pen, but not by much. The Bamboo Stylus Duo and the Jot Flip are the clear victors, though the Jot Flip trumps the Duo by a hair. Not only is it the neatest implementation of a multifunction stylus I’ve ever seen, but it’s the kind of ballpoint pen you’d put on a high-falutin’ executive’s desk even without a stylus end. And it’s one of the few 2-in-1 pens that allows you to hide the stylus or pen end completely, so no one at your office need ever know you’re using one tool for multiple uses.

Winner: Jot Flip, picking up a few style points along the way

Crowning a victor

In my opinion, the writing stylus to beat right now is the $40 Bamboo Stylus Duo. The weight is exemplary, it excels at printing and handwriting, and the ballpoint pen on the other end is actually useful, rather than for novelty alone. Some people have knocked Wacom for its wear-through 6mm nibs, but hey, they’re replaceable. Besides, it’s not surprising to me if you use a rubber nib on a daily basis, it’s going to eventually wear through.

The $40 Jot Flip doesn’t quite meet the overall mettle of the Duo, but it’s a respectable runner-up: Weight and design make me tip my hat to this stylus, but its disc is just too slippery to be good for printing or lettering. If your iPad note-taking is primarily handwriting or calligraphy, however, I might recommend the Flip over the Duo—that same lack of resistance makes for an excellent cursive tool.

Sadly, the $10 HyperShield 3-in-1 has been bumped down to third in my writing rankings; its larger nib and body construction is better than most, but outclassed by both the Flip and Duo. That said, it’s by far the cheapest writing stylus that still provides some level of quality; so if you’re on a budget, you can’t go wrong.

Next time: We tackle the wide, wonderful world of capacitative sketching styluses. Have a suggestion for a stylus we should test? Leave a note in the comments.

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