WHEN IT COMES to touch-screen computing, your digits—the kind on your hand—have their limits. You wouldn't draft a letter or sketch a still life with an ink-stained finger, but that's what writing or drawing on a tablet amounts to without the proper tool. When tackling tasks that require more precision than simply tapping and pinching, an appropriate stylus can be transformative.
Most are simple designs, essentially a pen with a rubber tip that mimics the conductive property and shape of a fingertip.(Steer clear of styluses with fine, hard plastic tips, which are designed for older gadgets like the PalmPilot and won't work with today's touch screens). A handful of "active" styluses are more advanced: they use Bluetooth to communicate to the tablet how much pressure is being applied, so that a harder press will draw a wider or darker line on the screen, for example.
Using a stylus requires a small learning curve: it helps to work without resting your palm on the screen, for example—a skill that can take time to master—and some styluses work best when held at a certain angle. Just as there's no single pen that's perfect for every job, there's no stylus that best suits every app and task at hand. The perfect one for drawing may not be ideal for handwritten notes. Some tablets, like the Samsung Galaxy Note, have their own proprietary styluses, but we looked at models that will work with a range of devices.
1. Best for Sketching: Pogo Connect
The ergonomics of this Bluetooth 4.0-connected stylus aren't perfect—it's a bit too light, and the button on the barrel is easy to press accidentally—but the Pogo Connect is still the best active stylus on the market. When paired with a third- or fourth-generation iPad and a compatible app, pressing more firmly with the Pogo Connect creates darker lines on the screen. With some apps, you can use the button on the stylus to trigger shortcuts, such as cycling through different pen colors or, in the case of the drawing app Paper by FiftyThree (free, iOS only), undo strokes with rapid-fire clicks. If you misplace the stylus, the Pogo Connect app can help you track it down: A radar-style screen will tell you how far the stylus is from the tablet. $80, tenonedesign.com
2. Best for Note Taking: Hand Stylus
Ever wonder why tablet styluses—even the most slender ones—tend to have such broad tips? It's because most touch screens can only detect an object that's the width of a fingertip or wider. If you're accustomed to finer-tipped implements, a blunt stylus can feel clumsy, as though you're writing with a pencil eraser instead of the point. But the tip on the Hand Stylus is 4 mm in diameter—just over 1/8 inch thick—which is the minimum that most tablets can register. Because of its reduced surface area, the Hand Stylus requires a firmer, straight-on press than styluses with larger tips (if you hold the Hand at an angle or apply too little pressure, lines don't always register on the tablet). Still the Hand's marker-like nib, hefty anodized-aluminum body and knurled grip afford the most penlike feel. And like a classic ballpoint, you can retract the Hand's tip with a click. $30, handstylus.com
3. Best for Painting: Sensu Brush
The Sensu Brush has a cluster of capacitative bristles that turns a drawback of most styluses—the broad tip—into an advantage: While a head this wide may feel clunky for a pen, it's just right for a paintbrush. In fact, painting with the Sensu is a blast. Pair it with the art app Procreate ($5, iOS only), and you can transform this physical brush into a staggering range of virtual ones, from something broad and gloppy to dainty and dry. Using the brush to blend paint colors in Procreate feels surprisingly realistic, and the app has virtually no lag—when you apply a stroke, it appears on the screen instantly. Most stylus-and-tablet combinations are still only approximations of the pen-and-paper experience, but the Sensu Brush makes you feel like you're really painting, rather than pretending to. $40, sensubrush.com