Stylus Academicus: What stylus is optimized for handwriting and conceptualizing ideas?

Stylus for handwriting and conceptualizing ideasMany people ask me what stylus I can recommend for taking notes in class or to conceptualize ideas; and for a long time, I became unusually quiet. The truth is: I am somewhat torn about using a stylus. For the most time, I have found neither hardware nor software developed enough for digital handwriting, but this has been changing for some time now with improvements on both sides. And with Bluetooth 4 being introduced in the new iPad, even better styluses are looming around the corner.

It is therefore time to finally enter the stylus debate: Does it make sense to buy a stylus for university and college work? The short answer is: Only if you don’t expect miracles. A true paper-notebook-like experience is impossible until the next generation of styluses rolls around. However, there are a few styluses today that are optimized for handwriting and drawing conceptual maps, and these are worth a try if you are willing to experiment a little in your analog/digital workflow.

This article brings you up to date with what you should look out for when shopping for a stylus today, tells you what I think is the best stylus for academics (spoiler alert: its the Adonit Jot), and discusses what exciting developments in the stylus world are lying ahead.


“Who wants a stylus?”

When introducing the original iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs famously dissed the stylus as an input device with “yuch… nobody wants a stylus”. He had a point for navigating the small screen of a phone, but with the iPad it is a completely different story. Its large screen allows for all kinds of content creation, one of which is to use it as a canvas or notebook to take handwritten notes or to conceptualize your ideas in free-hand sketches.


I want a stylus!

“Yes!”, was I thinking in 2010, “I will never have to buy another paper notebook again.” I went out and bought a stylus from Griffin, but soon realized that I was totally wrong.

In my opinion, most styluses out today are unfit for academic users who want to use it for writing and sketching out ideas in conceptual maps.

The most familiar type of stylus is the one with a rubber nib that resembles something like a digital crayon. Even slimmer ones are a far cry away from fine-lined pens, which are my weapon of choice in Higher Ed. Check out the pic below, do you see my dilemma?

Rubber nib stylus vs. fine lined pen

The problem with this kind of rubber nib stylus is that you are not able to do fine handwriting, because the line is always hidden under the tip. Together with the problem of accidental inputs with your resting palm, the writing experience is just too far removed from a traditional paper notebook.

Having said all this, the benefits of a digital notebook (editable, expandable, sharable) are still very tempting. So if you want to go for a stylus today, what things should you keep in mind?


A stylus that fits the needs of academics and students

Lets start off with a little bit of needs assessment. For most iPad users in Higher Education, the ability to do fine handwritings and to draw lines (for conceptualizing ideas) are the most important aspects of a stylus. Less important, however, are doing more elaborate paintings (unless you are a Fine Arts or Design student) and navigating through iOS with the stylus.

For handwriting and line work, it is important to have the tip of the stylus as small as possible, so that you can see what you are actually writing. There are two options, but if you are serious about handwriting, you can skip forward to option 2:


1) Get a rubber nibbed stylus with a small nib

Yes, the size of your pen does matter. The size of rubber nibs vary from stylus to stylus. For example, my first stylus from Griffin has a 8mm wide nib, whereas for example the Wacom Bamboo stylus ($24-30) has a 6mm rubber nib. Smaller is better in this case, because it allows you to make finer lines and to get more detail into your handwriting.

Wacom Bamboo stylus

The Wacom Bamboo stylus gets blazing reviews all over the net, and if you not only write but also do some finer artwork on your iPad, then this stylus is probably a good investment for you. Also, if you prefer to use a stylus to highlight text on the iPad (instead of using your finger), I think that the softer tip of a rubber nibbled stylus would be an advantage.

However, if your main use for a stylus is handwriting and line drawing (e.g., flowcharts, conceptual maps), I think you will be better off with option number 2.


2) Get an Adonit Jot (Pro or Flip)

Adonit’s Jot stylus family (the Pro for $24-30 or the Flip for $40, amazon US link) is one of a kind in the stylus world, and in my opinion the Jot is the best stylus that you can get for handwriting and line drawing. And if my word isn’t enough: The Verge thinks the same.

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Adonit Jot Pro for handwriting

While conventional rubber nib styluses resemble digital crayons, these styluses look more like ball point pens thanks to their “Precision Disk”. The smaller tip allows for a finer line than rubber nibs, and more importantly, the clear disk lets you actually see the line right under the tip. Thus, this design makes it a lot easier to write, connect lines, and edit / correct previous work.

The Precision Disk of the Jot makes this a good stylus for handwriting

I am using the Jot Flip for a while, and I can attest that it is a great stylus for academics. The built quality is good, and writing on the iPad is much less frustrating than it was with my Griffin 8mm rubber nib stylus. Here is my full review of the Jot’s pros and cons (including a comparison between the Jot Pro, Flip and Touch).


A fine-tipped stylus can improve your workflow today, but don’t expect it to resemble pen and paper (yet)

While I am still excited about the potential of digital note taking, the truth is that we are still one tech-generation away from a truly immersive handwriting experience. This is because accidental inputs with your palm are still an issue until Bluetooth 4 styluses come out (see below).

In addition, there is no single best note taking app in sight that would make me want to dump my paper notebook. Amanada recently reviewed Notability here on academiPad, and while her review made me switch over from Penultimate, I am still waiting for the killer note taking app to appear on the scene.

Nonetheless, a good (that is: thin-tipped) stylus can be a useful tool in your workflow even today. Especially when I know that I will make a lot of changes to my work (e.g., when sketching out an article, or when designing my new research homepage), I find myself reaching for my Jot Flip stylus more and more often.

On the other hand, when I am in a meeting and need to scribble away quickly, I stick to a traditional fineliner and my paper notebook, at least for now.

A fine tipped stylus such as the Adonit Jot (my first choice) or the Wacom Bamboo (if you want to draw more than just lines) is therefore a good investment if you have the money, energy and time to figure out how to fit digital handwriting / note taking into your workflow.

However, if you expect the same experience as writing on paper (especially if you like to rest your palm on the surface), it is probably better to invest your money into pen, paper, and an Evernote account to store photos of your most important handwritten notes and sketches. At least for now, until both hardware and software has improved further.


The Future: Bluetooth 4 stylus with palm rejection

Things are moving quite fast in the stylus world, and interesting products lie ahead. Adonit has just released its Jot Touch, a Bluetooth 2 stylus that promises more accurate and more realistic interpretations of your strokes through taking into account the pressure you apply with the stylus. However, be warned that the current Jot Touch is based on Bluetooth 2 (not on the newer and less power hungry Bluetooth 4 standard). That means that despite its hefty price tag of $99, it does not feature palm rejection technology.

Palm rejection technology, however, is necessary to make writing and sketching on the iPad a more immersive and paper-like experience. Academic users, for who pressure sensitivity is not that important (in comparison to artists), can therefore save their money until the second generation Jot Touch will add palm rejection to its list of features.

Ten One Design is also working on a Bluetooth 4 stylus. Check out this concept video from Ten One Design:


The downer is that these styluses will be quite expensive. However, prices will go down over time, and once a break-through note taking app appears, the pressure sensitivity and palm rejection features will make a Bluetooth 4 stylus a good investment for students and academics.


What do you do today?

But enough of the future, and back to what you can do today. Should you go for a stylus, with or without bluetooth? Unless you are an artist who really needs pressure sensitive strokes, don’t waste your money on a Bluetooth stylus that does not have palm rejection. And if you expect a truly immersive, paper-notebook-like experience, don’t get a stylus until the new Bluetooth 4 styluses are out.

On the other hand, if you are willing to experiment a little with your analogue and digital workflows, get a stylus that is optimized for the needs of most students and academics: handwriting and drawing conceptual maps. For this, a fine-tipped stylus such as the Jot Pro or the Jot Flip (Adonit webpage , amazon US) and (to a lesser extent) a 6mm rubber nib stylus such as the Wacom Bamboo stylus (if you want to do some finer drawings sometimes), are the best styluses available for you today.

Disclaimer: All images by academiPad. All product links are affiliate links.

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  1. Aryn says:

    One stylus that you don’t discuss which really needs to be mentioned when talking styluses for writing is the Hand stylus. It started out as a Kickstarter project and is the smallest rubber tip stylus available. After testing out both the Hand Stylus and the Adonit Jot Pro I much preferred the Hand stylus and opted for that. It is much quieter for writing and just had a better feel to it. I have been using it now since January and am very happy with it. I definitely recommend checking it out.

  2. Kelvinkind says:

    You can also try use a physical palm rejection. It really helps jotting notes.

    Stylus handpad is a patented product from us and you can find in here:

  3. John says:

    Thanks for the reviews of the stylus’. I’ve now purchased an Adonit Jot Pro and have realised that the note taking ability is profoundly unsatisfying due to a lack of palm rejection technology. I just can’t get used to holding my stylus like a paint brush.

    A stylus that appears to hold promise is the Ipen 2 by Cregle (currently on Kickstarter at the link provided). Has anyone used their first iteration (Ipen 1:

    • Jo says:

      I hear you, John. Thats exactly the general point I am raising in this article: Until there is palm rejection, note taking on the iPad is only for enthusiasts.

      I never tried iPen, but I closely watched some videos about it some months ago. From what I have seen and read in other blogs, the lag time is just too long. Also, the accessory you have to plug in is cumbersome.

      At least they came up with a better plug in solution for the iPen 2. However, it takes the video about 100 seconds before actually showing an iPad! It seems more like this iteration focused on expanding the iPen to the Mac (mmh…). There is little indication that they focused on reducing lag time.

      I would be happy to proven otherwise, and please if anybody has the iPen 1 or later 2, please contact me. But I rather wait for Bluetooth 4 styluses to come around that don’t require me to plug in my iPad into a specific case.

  4. Tammy says:

    I too have a Bamboo stylus. The stylus comes standard with a soft nub(tip). You can order firm nubs for under $5 at Wacom’s website. This might alleviate having to press down.

  5. Gwen says:

    Thank you for the article. I bought a Bamboo because of the reviews but the first attempt to use it produced a shock. Yes, it works fine, but it takes getting used to smoothing the pen and pressing harder than I do with a fountain pen or roller ball. However, today I played with the Jot in the store and immediately bought it. I think I persuaded two gentlemen to do so too. There is no smooshing necessary, no hard pressing needed. Yes, there is a slight sound when the pen connects to the pad but I can live with that. I can see how it might annoy someone else though….
    I use Notes Plus which has a software palm wrest built in. I am very much looking forward to Ten One’s new pen when it finally comes out and hope Notes Plus works with it.

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