It’s always struck me that handwriting was a natural way to use a tablet computer, though maybe this is a hangover from my days as a Pocket PC user! But the Apple Way is not to use a pen or stylus but to poke at a touch-sensitive screen with a finger tip.

Steve Jobs famously disliked the idea of using a stylus with a tablet.

(Steve Jobs) It’s like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it.

So iPad users generally have to make do with either their finger or a third party ‘stylus’ that mimicks a finger tip, usually with a squishy rubbery tip that frankly is not much use when it comes to writing. I’ve tried a few of these, without really finding the experience useful for writing – they are a bit more practical for scribbling quick diagrams in my experience.

I also have a Samsung smartphone, the Galaxy Note 2. I bought this largely because it comes with a stylus and surprisingly good handwriting recognition software. I can use the stylus for text entry for most, if not all, of the apps for which it would be appropriate. The stylus fits snugly and neatly into the phone’s case.  It’s not a simple device – (this article explains how the thing works – Break It Down – How Does The S Pen Work?) but it works admirably, giving the real sensation of writing. In contrast to the spongy rubber blob of a typical iPad stylus, you pretty well know where the line you’re writing will appear on the screen. The S-pen is good enough in use that it may well be the deciding factor in which model of tablet I buy to replace my iPad3 in the future.

There are several iPad apps I’ve always felt would benefit from the use of a stylus:

  • Any of a number of note-taking apps – ideally with handwriting recognition.
  • Sketching apps (which would include the Evernote app Penultimate).
  • Pdf annotation apps such as iAnnotate or Papership. Papership is particularly useful to me as it accesses my library of pdf files indexed and organised in Mendeley.
  • Evernote. This would be a dream, but really I think script entry would be limited to Penultimate. On my Galaxy Note 2, I can scribble into Evernote to my heart’s content.

A few weeks ago, the Evernote Market Place (which pops into my awareness from time to time when using Evernote) advertised the Jot Script iPad stylus by Adonit, which has the nearest thing to a pen-like point that I’ve seen in an iPad stylus. For a third-party iPad stylus, it’s a bit on the pricy side but I thought it would be worth a punt. This is something of a preliminary review after a few days of use.

The Jot Script stylus works with all iOS devices, though you need to have Bluetooth 4 for all the advanced features such as palm rejection – this includes iPad3 and later models (and the iPad minis). Also, unlike the Samsung S-pen, it’s powered (by a AAA cell). You need to turn it on and let it pair with the iPad. In the hand, the Jot Script feels very much like a pen – it’s got a pretty fine point to it, and it’s pretty much the same length and weight as a largish ballpoint pen.

I’ve tried the Jot Script with the following apps:

Penultimate. This is a graphics app for sketching that’s part of the Evernote family, so your sketches and scribbles end up in Evernote. The difficulty I’ve had so far (only a few days in) is that the line being drawn doesn’t always appear where you think it will. I imagine this may get better with practice. I don’t find my handwriting particularly legible. The software offers quite good protection against accidental ‘inking’ by one’s wrist. Penultimate also offers a ‘drift’ function where you can zoom in to a page, and it drifts across as you write. This allows you to generate pages with reasonably fine text, but it strikes me as a ridiculous workaround of a pretty glaring defect in iPad design – the lack of a really functional stylus from the get-go. Still, it is quite good, and works quite well.

JotStudio – made by Adonit, this is a pretty basic sketching app. It has a few pen types, and limited ‘pressure sensitivity’ – line width seems to be mostly dependent on the speed at which the line is drawn (this is true also for Penultimate). Only seems to function in landscape orientation. This works quite well, but has limited functionality.

WritePad – this app features handwriting recognition and is made by PhatWare who used to make handwriting apps for the old PocketPC platform. I have trouble here because, as with the other apps, there’s a bit of uncertainty where the line will appear and when it’ll start appearing. I find it quite difficult to write sufficiently clearly (given the limitations of the iPad screen and the stylus) for effective speed writing and handwriting recognition. I find that if your wrist contacts the screen, you can’t write with the stylus (and you make a random squiggle where your wrist touches the screen). Limited use for me, but perhaps it’ll get better with practice.

iAnnotate. Perhaps the leading pdf annotation software. The stylus is useful for freehand annotations. Works pretty well, though the highlighter tool seems to select rather more text than I intend to with the stylus.

Papership. This is a pdf viewer and annotater that works with Mendeley libraries. The app is free, but the full range of annotation tools needs a £2.99 in-app purchase. This is worth it in my view. Papership is for me one of the killer apps. Annotated pdfs are snychronised back up to the Mendeley server, so the annotations are visible on your desktop PC or laptop. The Jot Script stylus makes reading and annotating research papers really easy and intuitive.

My conclusion is that the iPad remains pretty much unworkable (for me at least) for text entry with a stylus, but that for quick diagrams and, more importantly for me, annotating pdfs, the Adonit stylus is a useful addition and one that’s much easier to use than a finger tip or the more usual blunt rubbery stylus.

For handwriting entry on a tablet or phone, I reckon that Samsung’s S-pen wins. When (or if) I’m in the market for a new tablet, I will try out the Galaxy Note 10.1 with the S-pen.