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The Stylus Pen: Not just for geeks any more

Stylus pens, meaning bone-fide writing instruments featuring a tip dedicated to controlling touch-enabled devices, have long been reserved to the geekier strata of the writing population. They are historically difficult to come by, often shoddily made, fitted with cheap ballpoint refills — and of limited use outside of network control rooms.

However, as public spaces — and our own pockets — continue to fill up with an ever-increasing number of touch screens, I feel the time has come to re-evaluate our prejudices of yore.

Kaweco AL Sport Touch

In answer to our adventurous urges, reputable manufacturers with a keen design sense, such as Kaweco and Platinum, have begun to offer attractive, well-thought-out pens, that write smoothly *and* tap well. They're also quite good-looking, even though designers are severely constrained by technical requirements. Since carrying a stylus pen no longer means offending one's design sense, or sacrificing the comfort and reliability of a high-end ballpoint, I have gotten into the habit of always bringing one along on my travels. I keep it in my jacket, next to my Lamy or Pelikan staple. At present, my weapon of choice is a JustMobile AluPen Pro, but I have also been known to use the less expensive Monteverde Poquito, when travelling to insecure destinations.

Monteverde Poquito Stylus

I hear you: today's smartphones and tablets are designed to be operated with fingers, not styluses. Tapping and swiping on your iPhone or iPad with a stylus — outside of a design app, that is — can be a frustrating experience indeed. But taking off your gloves to reply to each poke and notification can be time-consuming and perilous, too. Be they the woollen mittens you bought for the cold season, the oven mitts that give you two left hands, those thick rubber contraptions you scrub the sink with, or the small cotton ones that shine the silver, chances are you spend at least some time in gloves, both in and out of the house. Even in purely private contexts, a stylus pen is therefore a great « backup finger » to keep handy.

While travelling, a stylus can also be a great way to avoid the dirt and germs that liberally coat the surface of all public touch screens. From airport kiosks to hotel checkout counters, it sometimes seems every public terminal is a hazard to our health. And when screens are on the fritz, the smaller, well-defined tip of your stylus may be able to register taps where your fingers can't. Anybody who has had to print out boarding passes at an automated checkpoint, before filling in a customs form using a black ballpoint (in legible caps, please!) will appreciate the convenience an all-in-one design can afford.

Before you rush to pick your favourite option, I ought — pardon my inner geek — to point out the difference between resistive and capacitive screens. The former are to be found in older devices, or wherever resistance to outside contaminants is a key concern. These devices work by registering pressure on the screen, and will require a small, hard-tipped stylus. The latter is to be found in modern smartphones, tablets, and all the kiosks being built with, around, and upon them. They work by detecting changes in an electrostatic field, and will require a conductive stylus, usually a small blob of foam or rubber.

Because each technology requires a different type of stylus, it is important to assess your needs before purchasing. Putting the wrong stylus to the right screen (or vice-versa) will, at best, do nothing, and, at worst, run the risk of damaging either screen or stylus. Since my world is filled with modern capacitive devices, I have opted to carry a capacitive stylus pen, and to use the rounded edge of a plastic card to coax the occasional older kiosk into submission. (Pro tip: don't use your credit card, as it is just begging to have somebody snatch it from your fingers.)

Because the first resistive screens were all but unusable without a stylus, and because styluses are so easy to break or mislay, motley manufacturers were quick to flood the market with every possible brand of twist, tweak and improvement on the originals. That abundance of options, however, belies the lack of quality instruments, especially when attention is brought to the writing end of the implement.

If you are mostly concerned with pressure-driven screens, you should have no trouble finding somebody to sell you something, at almost any price point. Connoisseurs will find the Lamy M70 IT refill is their best friend. Yes, it is a bit of an indulgence as far as « hard plastic bits » go, but it fits in some of the world's best-engineered writing instruments, is entirely unobtrusive, and feels perfectly natural to use. I recommend swapping it with the colour you use the least, such as your highlighter, and keeping it alongside the black refill in your pen, for these pesky official forms.

If you absolutely must keep an existing cheap stylus ballpoint, don't forget that most such pens are fitted with a criminally low-end Parker- or D1-style refill. Such refills are easily procured, and Cult Pens carries a great selection of both ballpoints and rollers in this format. While you will never turn a free promotional pen into a piece of jubilant craftsmanship, feeding it a quality refill can go a long way towards improving your experience.

Choosing a capacitive stylus pen is mostly a matter of taste, as most of them will be built along the same lines.

Certainly, the feel of the rubber tip will vary from brand to brand, depending on size and thickness. If the rubber membrane is too thin, or too slack, the tip will compress laterally, making for imprecise and unreliable inputs. If it's too thick or too taut, you run the risk of the device not registering your input at all. The ideal combination will depend on the device you use the most, and the pressure you naturally apply to the screen. (Lighter is better.) If you have never used a stylus, it pays to start with an inexpensive pen, such as said Monteverde Poquito indeed, to get a good idea of what your « ideal feel » would be.

A good stylus, well cared for, should last a goodish time. Do, however, remember that a commercial capacitive stylus is essentially a blob of special foam or rubber attached to a barrel. (Should you doubt the wisdom of my highly technical description, I encourage you to peruse DIY options…) You will, therefore, want to protect it from any excessive forces that could tear or crush the rubber. Above all, resist the temptation to squish the little ball with your finger when collecting your thoughts: doing so is a sure way of pressing it a little too hard onto the pen's sharp inside edges, and damage it in a couple of strokes. (Damage may not be visible at first, but will result in the progressive deadening of the stylus.)

It is not uncommon for cheap styluses to tear or crack after a while. While we can only hope that manufacturers will find the proper balance between cost-cutting and durability, we can, in the meantime, take basic steps to protect our investment: avoid exposing your stylus to excessive heat, refrain from cleaning it with plastic-damaging chemicals (no swabbing it with your freshening towelette on board the plane!), and do not store it stylus down in your pocket. (Although by storing it with the ballpoint side down, you run the risk of staining the pocket or drilling a hole into the bottom stitching, so that last consideration is far from a straightforward choice.)

Higher-end brands will ship one or two replacement tips with the stylus by default: don't take this a sign of weakness — at least not until more reliable technologies hit the market. It follows that the stylus tip of more expensive pens is generally detachable, as opposed to being glued to the barrel: this may, paradoxically, result in a slightly bulkier design, to accommodate whatever magnetic or mechanical system the manufacturer has chosen.

Professional designers will obviously want to invest in a genuine pressure-sensitive stylus, developed with their specific needs in mind, and supported by compatible applications. In a pinch, however, a good stylus pen will offer a familiar experience, and should be perfectly suited to rapid sketching and basic line art. If you are used to working on a graphics tablet at the office, keeping a stylus pen in your pocket may be a great way to capture fleeting moments on the go.

As an aside, if you're hoping to hand-write on a modern tablet with your capacitive stylus, you may be in for a disappointment. It has been known to be done, and applications exist that attempt to read your input and convert it to text. The sad truth remains, though, that our fingers, and the styluses that spoof them, are much too large and soft to comfortably draw letters onto a screen. If you wish to give it a try, definitely pick the smallest stylus you can find — or investigate disc-tipped capacitive styluses, which, to my knowledge, are not yet to be found in stylus pens.

Stylus pens are an emerging category. Many innovative manufacturers have not yet entered the market, and I, for one, look forward to seeing their take on the matter. For the time being, the comparatively fragile nature of capacitive tips restricts stylus pens to the lower price ranges — or the uncharted territory of pseudo-luxury items, alongside USB thumb drives sheathed in rare leather. They may not be objects of lust and desire, like high-end fountain pens, and they may never become family heirlooms, but they are genuinely useful additions to one's writing arsenal.

Find your perfect stylus pen on the Cult Pens website.

By François Joseph de Kermadec.

François Joseph is a professional word-wrestler, who has written professional copy for leading brands as well as contributing regularly to publications around the web. Find out more about François Joseph on his website.

1 October 2013

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