The Apple and the Pen: Trades-offs with iOS


Note: includes specific comments on Incipio and Kennsington Pen/Stylus products
I was using my Fujitsu T731 recently, and I realized just how much I wish Apple would find a way to implement a pen on iOS.  Blasphemy, yes, but….First, my T731 sports a dual touch/pen digitizer.  That means I can use my finger to navigate, but that I can also use the precision of a pen to do things like sketch, draw or sign documents.  And I can do so with a modicum of fluidity. Apple’s touch screen is not pressure sensitive like the devices that use an active stylus. With devices like the Fujitsu T731 (running Windows 7) the tip of the stylus senses pressure differences against the screen and sends that data back to the PC, which interprets it. If you think of a simple line, pressing harder would make the line thicker or darker depending on how the software was configured. You can imagine the value for artists, particularly those trying to emulate watercolors or pen-and-ink. And a very cool feature of the Fujitsu T731 is its ability to turn off the touch feature while keeping the pen feature active.
Although iOS recognizes gestures, it is all about multiple touch points, not the pressure applied. And the ability to recognize multiple touch points causes all of the issues people have with iOS and a stylus.  When you lay our hand on the screen to write something, the iPhone or iPad recognizes that touch. Some apps have started creating a feature called “palm protection” but it’s pretty sketchy.  You lose part of the screen for input and even then, a few fractions of an inch off and you’ve gone and touched the touchy part of the screen.
And finally, unlike pure pen or the pen portion of hybrid-devices like the Fujitsu T731, iOS devices are made to recognize fingers and really only fingers. B ut just because iOS isn’t made with a stylus in mind hasn’t stopped companies from making a number of styli for iOS.
iOS pens come in two general styles: cloth and rubber. Cloth can be found often on one of the original iOS styli, the Pogo. The rubber version is more common.  Adoit makes the Jot, which is a completely different creature. I haven’t used one so won’t comment here.
Incipio recently sent me a few of their new pens and iOS stylus items.  I like the Inscribe Executive and now regularly carry it along with my Montblanc Starwalker. Its red and glossy and has a pretty good writing feel on both the iPad and the iPhone (and on paper).   Though like all the rubber styli, it can skip and snag along the way depending on screen smudges or not. And that brings up a good point in favor of the styli: fingers contain oil and oil creates smudges and smudges create those ugly iOS screens that you can’t wait to wipe down with a microfiber cloth. A stylus, any iOS-compliant stylus, doesn’t include oil. It does, however, have to look like a finger to the iOS device, thus the large size of the styli and its relative impression.
When I’m editing on paper (yes I still edit on paper) I use the Inscribe Dual Ink.  I like to write with red so I can see it more easily (I continue this practice even on feedback to others despite recent educational PC guidance that read means bad, so one should use a less threatening color). The Inscribe Dual Ink is a little more compact than the executive and offers red and black with a simple twist.
And if you want just the stylus without a pen, you can get just the plain Incipio Inscribe.
Kensington makes a stylus too, the Virtuoso, as do many other manufacturers. Most of them, quite frankly, appear sourced from China and then private labeled. The Virtuoso has a rubber tip opposite its the removable cap (which removes to reveal a pen.)  Unfortunately, like so many pens made by non-pen companies, the cap doesn’t fit over the end of the pen (in this case, the end with the rubber tip).  I have a hard time recommending a pen with a cap that doesn’t integrate. Too easy to lose, too much to think about when you’re supposed to be thinking. (And yes, I understand the incongruity of hoping for a real iOS stylus, which would imply a separate item to be lost from the iPad, but that is a problem that doesn’t have a clear solutions, whereas fitting a cap to an end of a pen is old hat, so to speak.
The stylus on a Windows-based Tablet PC (yes, I know all about Surface, but I’m writing about what is in the market today) or an Android device like the Samsung Galaxy Note, is made of plastic. They are pretty durable. I worry about both common versions of the Apple-oriented styli because they could dry out over time, get punctured or  in the case of the Pogo, snag on something.  Like everything else related to technology, I guess it’s all about how you take care of them (I have a small drawer full of styli from the Pocket PC days, which work none of the current devices).
If you want to be precise with your touches on an iOS device, you need to learn new ways to move, to hover and to drag — otherwise, you’ll be left, like most of us, to fat-finger navigation, which works fine, because that is the assumption going into the  user experience.  I do hope at some point dual screens like those found on the Fujitsu can make it to the basic consumer devices like iOS. Until they do, writing or drawing may look cool on commercials, but it often evades the most of us.
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Daniel W. Rasmus is the Founder and Principal Analyst at Serious Insights. Rasmus is the author of Listening to the Future and Management by Design. Rasmus is a member of the Pinchot University faculty academy in Seattle, Washington, where he teaches influence and strategy.