Stylus Shoot-Out: Finding the best sketching stylus

After the iPad's debut, sketching became one of the first tasks trotted out whenever anyone wanted to argue that Apple’s tablet wasn’t just simply “for consumption.” In the few years since the iPad’s release, we’ve seen drawing contests, amazing art, apps for sketching with friends, apps for sketching your life, and—let’s not forget—styluses.

We began our stylus shootout series with a look at which input devices excelled in writing. And for good reason: Writing beats out sketching and drawing as the top reason most readers emailed me about when asking about styluses—but just barely. The rest want to know: Which stylus should I buy for drawing in Paper? In Draw Something? What about my other drawing-related apps? So this time around, we’re looking at how styluses compare when it comes to sketching.

Meet the contenders

From my 40-odd stylus reviews, I’ve whittled the competition down to four: Studio Neat’s Cosmonaut, SGP’s Kuel H10, JustMobile’s AluPen, and the GoSmart Stylus.

The Cosmonaut

Though the Cosmonaut looks like a cross between a giant crayon and a black rubber monolith, it sketches beautifully and accurately, and I find it a great tool to carry along for quick sketches. The capacitative rubber is flush against the Cosmonaut’s pen tip, eliminating the squishy nib phenomenon and allowing you to work closer to the screen.

Kuel H10

The Kuel H10 was an early favorite of mine, the only stylus at the time with a tiny 6mm nib. The pen itself is compact as well; when traveling, it’s a mere three inches long, though you can telescope that out to four inches when sketching. The tiny nib makes it easier to see and work on detail in your sketches.

JustMobile AluPen

My former personal sketching champion, JustMobile’s AluPen was unseated by Studio Neat’s Cosmonaut, but I’ve brought it back to battle once more. The AluPen has a nice weight to help keep lines steady, and its body construction—built to resemble a large pencil—feels comfortable in your hand.

GoSmart Stylus 300 Series

The GoSmart Stylus is the upstart in this category, having just been released in August 2012. Unlike the other three styluses, it uses a wire disc rather than a nib to contact with the screen; the disc is coiled, providing both resistance and the spring needed to quickly sketch.

Wait...where’s the Wacom Bamboo?: I love the Wacom Bamboo line (the Bamboo Stylus Duo even won the writing challenge in our last Stylus Shoot-Out) but if you’re looking for a tool solely for sketching, I’d choose one of the aforementioned four first. The Bamboo is better suited for those who need a good all-around stylus: It’s a pretty good sketching tool, but it’s not the best out there.

Now that we’ve gotten the introductions out of the way, let’s get to the challenges.

Challenge 1: Balance and comfort

Similar to the test done for our writing styluses, I took a quick look at how comfortable it was to hold each stylus when sketching and the angle needed to comfortably draw without rubbing your hand against the multitouch screen. (If you like the comfort a rested palm provides, the Hand Glider is a good supplementary option to your stylus needs.)

The Cosmonaut is by far the most comfortable of the four to hold, long-term. Its grippy rubber body sits well in your hand, and you can draw at a comfortable angle hovering over the screen, or by resting your palm on the bezel and angling the stylus out. There’s just enough heft in the Cosmonaut to keep your hand at the proper angle (and off the screen) when you’re working on the middle of a drawing.

Nimble and quick, the Kuel may not have the longer-term comfort level of the Cosmonaut, but it gets by. If you’re sketching with the Kuel, chances are you’re working on a scribble or a tiny bit of detailwork—not necessarily a two hour life sketch. Despite being much lighter than the other styluses tested, it holds its own on balance thanks to the grip of its rubber nib and the build of the telescoping handle.

Though you don’t want to grip it too tightly, as its metal body may crimp your skin, the AluPen is still perfectly pleasant to hold for a fair amount of time. The pencil-like build fits nicely in your hand (just like a real jumbo pencil), and its relatively light aluminum body manages to have a surprisingly deft balance when sketching—probably thanks to the large 8mm surface area of the AluPen’s nib.

The GoStylus is definitely not as comfortable to hold as the other three, due in part to its metal body and rocket-shaped rubber grip. But it allows you to work at a much lower angle than the others thanks to the bend and spring of the metal disc, making it easier to fix small details without accidentally marking your hand against the screen.

Winner: The Cosmonaut, for sheer comfort and best balance

Challenge 2: Nib resistance

Of the four styluses we’re looking at, three have rubber nibs of some kind, while the last sports a wireframe disc. But not all rubber is created equally. To see the practical effects of each nib, I timed each stylus doing a quick inking over a sketch of a girl with pom-poms. To win this challenge, styluses needed to be speedy, but not at the expense of accuracy or discomfort.

The Cosmonaut finished in 39.1 seconds. The stylus had almost no drag at all when tracing lines, though it never felt out of control; this allowed me to get the detail work (the cartoon’s face) out of the way quickly and precisely.

The Kuel H10 finished in just 35.1 seconds, the fastest of the lot. Its 6mm nib is incredibly squishy, and this, paired with a rubber resistance on par with the Cosmonaut, allows it to fly across the screen, though perhaps at the expense of perfectly clean linework.

On the other side of the spectrum, The AluPen finished in 42.9 seconds, the slowest stylus tested. Compared to the Cosmonaut, its nib is incredibly resistive to the iPad’s screen—in part due to its size, in part due to how much it compresses when pressed against the screen—and that made drawing quick lines a much messier affair. The resistive nib helps the AluPen in balance, but it absolutely destroys it when trying to do anything quickly.

Balancing accuracy with speed, the GoSmart slid in at 37.5 seconds. The wire disc has absolutely no resistance whatsoever to start with, using only your hand’s pressure to dictate how fast it should go. In some ways, I like this model: Inking was speedier than the Cosmonaut, with about as much precision, and I felt like I had a decent amount of control over the stylus. That said, I worry about the method for controlling the GoSmart; though it’s similar to how you might use a pressure-sensitive stylus, people may not want that kind of control for a simple sketching tool.

Winner: Tie between the Cosmonaut (for easy control and accuracy) and the GoSmart (more difficult control, but still fast and accurate)

Challenge 3: Accuracy

Though we may not always need perfect accuracy when doing loose sketching, it’s nice to know how accurate your stylus actually is before plunking down your money. In this test, I wanted to not only see how each stylus inked a pencil sketch, but how well it did when inking smaller drawings, too. As in the previous two challenges, I used Paper, which doesn’t allow you to zoom or otherwise alter the canvas. I recorded the results below in a short video.

I was somewhat surprised to find that despite having the biggest, bulkiest nib of the lot, the Cosmonaut had the best accuracy across the board, even when inking the tiniest sketch. The Kuel came in a close second, though it again suffered from control issues. I really wanted the GoSmart to be more accurate than it was, but it seems like the centering point for lines is somewhat off-center on the metal disc, making it difficult to accurately pinpoint where to start and end a line. And sadly, the AluPen’s resistance dragged it down in the ratings for this challenge yet again.

Winner: The Cosmonaut

Crowning a victor

Top: The Cosmonaut and AluPen with no pressure applied. Bottom: The Cosomonaut and AluPen when pressed against a surface.

I already quite liked Studio Neat’s $25 Cosmonaut, but these challenges confirm it in my mind as the top tool on the market right now for sketching and drafting work. It’s comfortable to hold for long periods of time, has a perfect balance between resistance and movement on the iPad’s screen, and is surprisingly precise, even with such a large nib. I attribute that in part to how close the rubber adheres to the Cosmonaut’s nib tip: With other rubber styluses, when you compress the nib, you wind up not knowing where the line will start, whereas with the Cosmonaut, it will start exactly where you place the pen.

Those looking for a cheaper option can take comfort in the Kuel H10, which, for $13, provides a lot of sketching power for little cash. It suffers from being a little too overeager, but if you like frenetic sketching to begin with, it might be right up your alley.

While I wish I could recommend the $25 GoSmart Stylus, and I think it has a lot of promise, its accuracy is just a little bit troubling for my taste. (And, while I didn’t notice it creating any scratches on my iPad, it’s possible the metal disc might wear at your device’s screen over time.)

For the $25 AluPen, sadly, I think its time has passed as the tablet sketching champion. Its large nib and heavy drag work well for keeping it balanced, but make it very tough to sketch quickly or accurately.

Next time: We take on styluses designed to help you paint and illustrate. Have a suggestion for a stylus we should test? Leave a note in the comments.

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