21 January 2012

The Tablet (iPad) Stylus: A review of three options

     Steve Jobs was famously anti-stylus. The whole point, if you will, of the iPhone was that the stylus was superfluous to the experience. And on the iPhone, which I use to set down the initial words of this essay, exceeds that goal. But there's iPad. The younger, bigger brother to the game changing smartphone uses the same iOS UI, and is fully functional, no sticks required to make the thing work. However, as iPad became a larger part of my personal computing experience, I found my fingers inadequate to my more creative tasks. And thus was born my quest for the perfect stylus. I have used 3 styli in the past 7 months of my near year of iPad ownership and as the old cliche goes third time's the charm. That's foreshadowing (here ends the bit I wrote on my iPhone) I'll give each stylus a score from one to 7 for these features: Value, Durability, Usability, Screen Feel. Keep reading for my thoughts on each of the three styli, in chronological order, after I give some background on my measurement dimensions.

From Left to Right: Targus, iFaraday Basic, Studio Neat Cosmonaut

     Value is dependent on the other dimensions to determine it's value; that is, it considers the price of the stylus as a function of those other dimensions. Scoring higher in the others makes a more expensive stylus still maintain a decent value score, but a crap instrument is going to score poorly and even more so the more it costs. Durability is how well the stylus has held together with regular use, how worried you are that the tip is going to come loose and fall off after heavy use, and how it has survived being dragged around in my bag. Usability and Screen Feel are two parts of a whole, but measure separately because I came up with 4 dimensions. The former is a measure of how the stick feels in your hand, whether there's any awkward rubbing or chafing, and how long it takes for fatigue and/or cramping to set in. The final dimension, Screen Feel, describes how the tip of the stylus feel moving against the glass, how worried you are that the non-tip material is going to scratch the glass, and how well the capacitive display reads the input from the stylus. The best possible score is 28.

     My first stylus purchase was the best Amazon had to offer at the time where price and quality (using the average review score as measured in stars on Amazon as a metric) intersect: the Targus stylus for Apple iPad, etc.. It's 4.5 inches long with a mushy rubbery tip, and I paid $12.70 for it back in June of 2011. I knew I needed a stylus but I wanted to dip my finger in, not dive in head first only to regret it later (to take a bath, as it were). For the occasional stylus user, or for someone with small hands it's an entirely adequate stylus. It's still in one piece 7 months later, the only sign of wear a slight silver scratch in the coating where I rubbed the ball end of the clip against the barrel. That clip; the stylus is just long enough that the clip rests in the webbing between thumb and index fingers, and after a short period of use that rubbing combined with the light weight and mushy feel of the tip create fatigue and frustration in the user. It's okay for using as a pointer or a very rough sketch, but it's not great for any precision work like note taking, which was one of the big reasons I wanted a stylus. That and drawing. See the irony? So for a tool meant for occasional non-precise use it's perfect. For someone looking to use handwriting or do any real drawing on their tablet the Targus stylus isn't the tool for you.

Targus Score
Value: 5
Durability: 7
Usability: 3
Screen Feel: 3
Total: 18

     In conducting the research to write this review per the second stylus acquisition it appears that the manufacturer of this stylus (iFaraday.com) has made an improvement that resolves 50% of my problem with the stylus. This makes me happy. Onward! After 4 months with the Targus stylus I knew I needed something more. I needed something, as I said above, that I could use to take notes and draw. I needed more than a fancy poker. That's what my fingers are for. After some Internet research I discovered the iFaraday stylus. I paid even less for this stylus, only $12.50. It's incredibly light metal (aluminum?) with a conductive cloth tip, a much smoother glide over the screen. Though the thin hollow tube has not been so much as dinged in the past 3 months, the clip that was mounted to a hole in the tube popped out after about a month. The mounting of the clip seems to be the thing that the maker of these styli has changed for the better. Ironically, losing the clip has made it easier to use by removing the irritant, as this is only .25 inches longer than the Targus stylus, though it's a good bit lighter. The iFaraday stylus is so light that it's hard to tell it's there, and it's marginally thinner that the Targus. Where the Targus is like a slightly hefty pen, the iFaraday is like a pencil, only nearly weightless. iFaraday cautions you to buy a different than the base model if you intend to use the stylus at acute angles, since the tip on the basic model isn't very large and the edge of the aluminum cylinder can come perilously close to the glass of your tablet. The thinness, smoothness and incredibly light weight of the iFaraday stylus means quick hand fatigue for me, too. Smaller hands, again, may feel differently. Adding some rubberized grippiness to the barrel might aid the cause, too. It definitely feels much nicer against the screen, but I don't know that it was any better for taking notes than the Targus. The light weight makes for a delicate feel that prevents one from pressing it against the screen with sufficient pressure. Still, I like a small businessman and a tech entrepreneur, and some people might prefer the lighter, thinner barrel, but it just wasn't for my big hands.

iFaraday Score
Value: 6
Durability: 5
Usability: 5
Screen Feel: 5
Total: 21

     Finally, my most recent acquisition. Studio Neat (studioneat.com) is a startup that gave us the Glif last year, a great tool for adding a tripod mount to the iPhone 4/4S, and at the end of 2011 they came out with the Cosmonaut. According to their site they weren't happy with the state of styli themselves, and their theory was that you didn't need a pencil to write on a tablet screen, you need a thick marker. I watched their clever making of video and was sold. Of course, at Christmastime $25 is for spending on everyone else, and not me. January is when you buy that sort of thing for yourself. So I did. Relative the the other 2 styli, it's heavy. It's diameter is roughly equivalent to the diameters of the other 2 styli combined. It has an aluminum core with grippy rubber surrounding it, and the tip is rubbery like the Targus, but not as mushy - there's an Al tip nestled in that rubber, adding some oomph to your use. I've had this for less than a week, but I already know that the Cosmonaut is the stylus I've been searching for the whole time. It's more than adequate, it's equal to the task. I've used it to draw, I've written on the display, and I've used it for basic navigation just to get the feel of the thing. The grippy rubber is going to pick up grit over time, and I don't know tht there's anything ti be done about that. You can't have it both ways. I'm also a little worried about the rubber grip getting nicked or sliced by the errant sharp edge. It might be more durable than that. It's incredibly usable. Unlike the others that I liked less the more I used them, I want to use the Cosmonaut more. I like just holding it in my hand, and it glides across the screen perfectly. The weight might cause me some hand fatigue, but that fatigue won't be from having to hold it so tightly in fear of it slipping loose. This stylus is the one, to put it simply.

Cosmonaut Score
Value: 6
Durability: 6
Usability: 7
Screen Feel: 7
Total: 26

     So, Targus 18/28, iFaraday 21/28, Cosmonaut 26/28. I'm tempted to give the Cosmonaut perfect marks, but it not only is as wide as the other 2 put together, it cost as much as the other 2 put together. Also, Durability took a slight hit due to my concerns regarding the rubber grip. There's something for every user looking for a stylus here, and even though Mr. Jobs would likely bemoan the fact these tools extend the usability of tablets and are great value adds. I'd recommend any of these if they meet your need.

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