Artist Guide to Active vs Capacitive Styluses

There are many styluses in the market but it generally comes down to two types: active and capacitive.

When you're buying a tablet for drawing purposes, or for use as a digital sketchpad, you should know the difference between active and capacitive styluses so that you can spend your money wisely.

The pros and cons to each type of stylus are related to how the stylus works and the technology involved.

How does a capacitive stylus work?

A capacitive screen has an electrostatic field. When tapping on the screen with your finger, it will distort the field. The processor will detect where the distortion happens and work out what you're tapping on.

One condition for this to work is, the tip has to be wide enough to generate capacitance for the screen to register. That's why styluses cannot have tips that are too small.

How does an active stylus work?

An active stylus works with a digitizer screen. The digitizer is a special sensor built into the touch screen that actively senses for the presence of a compatible stylus.

This digitizer technology allows for additional features that are not possible with capacitive styluses. For example, when the stylus hovers on the touch-screen, a cursor may appear, and when the cursor is over a file you can click on the stylus side button to get a contextual menu. Or with some styluses, you can flip the stylus around and the tablet would automatically switch to erasing mode.

Pros and cons of capacitive styluses

+ They work with all touch-screens: Such styluses will work on both Android, iOS and Windows tablets. By the way, the iPad uses a capacitive screen. There aren't any active styluses that work with iPads.

+ They are cheap: There really isn't a lot of technology involved to justify a high price tag.

+ They don't require batteries (usually): A capacitive stylus can also be a digital stylus. I'm not sure whether these digital styluses are actually capacitive so I shall just use the term "capacitive" with quotes. For example, Adonit makes a lot of such styluses for iOS devices. These digital styluses require battery power. The battery power is used to simulate capacitance to work with a small tip. These digital styluses typically connect to the tablet via Bluetooth for extra features, e.g allows for the use of shortcut buttons on the side or pressure sensitivity.

- The tip is big and blocks off the lines beneath: Self explanatory.

- The tip is not as accurate as an active stylus: A capacitive stylus is not as accurate because the large tip blocks the line of sight with the lines produced. However, there's a stylus called the Adonit Jot Pro with a plastic disc that allows you to see through to the line and is extremely accurate.

- There is no palm rejection: The tablet can't really differentiate the stylus tip from your finger tips. So no easy way for the tablet or app to implement palm rejection perfectly. Apple Pencil seems to be the only stylus currently to have good palm rejection capability, but it's not 100% flawless either.
Drawing with capacitive stylus will involve lifting your hand from the screen to prevent stray strokes.

- There is no pressure sensitivity: There's no digitizer to sense the pressure you apply with the stylus so you don't get pressure sensitivity with capacitive styluses.

- Can have parallax error: Where the lines come out from beneath the tip depends on the angle the stylus is held at. That's why some drawing apps allow you to choose your hand posture. Sometimes, parallax may appear when the touch-screen is in portrait mode, not landscape mode, and sometimes it's the other way round.

- Digital "capacitive" stylus have jitter problem: The major downside of digital "capacitive" styluses is when drawing diagonal lines slowly, those lines tend to be affected by jitter and appear wavy. Some stylus will exhibit more obvious jitter while others less. This affects accuracy and is often a deal breaker for artists who demand accuracy. This problem only affects digital styluses. And such digital stylus are only created for specific devices.

The capacitive styluses below will work with all tablets:

These are digital "capacitive" styluses:

Pros and cons of active styluses

+ They can be more accurate: Active styluses does not suffer from parallax error. The cursor is always beneath the tip. Hence, they are more accurate. However, the accuracy can be affected by the diagonal-jitter-line effect that plagues digital "capacitive" styluses.

+ They have pressure sensitivity: Pressure sensitivity is also a feature sought after by artists. The digitizer screen is able to register the pressure you apply with the pen and create the appropriate thickness for the stroke.

+ They have perfect palm rejection: Main advantage of an active stylus is they support palm rejection. With active styluses, there's the hover mode when the stylus is near the screen, and a cursor will appear. The device will know that there's a stylus and treat other contact on the screen as unwanted, hence you can get flawless palm rejection. However, the stylus must be close to the screen at all times.

+ Can have more features: With some styluses, you can flip the stylus to switch to eraser mode.

- More expensive: Active styluses are definitely more expensive compared to capacitive styluses. E.g. The Adonit Pixel for iOS devices currently cost USD $80, the Apple Pencil is USD $100.

- Requires app support for full customisation: To have full support of the features, the active stylus requires support from the OS and apps. For example, the OS must provide some driver that allows you to adjust the pressure sensitivity, or customise shortcut buttons.

- They only support the devices they are made for: The more significant downside is active styluses only work with devices they are made for. It's usually the case that you cannot use an active stylus that's not designed for the products they support. For example, Microsoft Surface Pen only supports Microsoft Surface products. You cannot use a S Pen on a Samsung tablet that does not mention that it supports S Pen. More specifically, the Samsung Tab A cannot work with the S Pen while the Samsung Tab A with S Pen can. Even though they are both Samsung Tab As, the former has no digitizer built into the screen.

Conclusion

So what's the best tablet and stylus combination out there in the market today? If you are thinking of buying a tablet, check out the list of Surface Pro 4 alternatives that I've compiled

If you already have a tablet, it depends on what tablet you have.

iOS devices: If you have an iPad non-Pro, the best stylus currently in my opinion is the Adonit Pixel. For iPad Pro, the best stylus is of course the Apple Pencil.

Android and Windows devices: Unlike iOS devices, there aren't a lot of digital "capacitive" styluses you can choose from. So it comes down to mostly the simple capacitive and active styluses. The best capacitive stylus for drawing is the Adonit Jot Pro but as mentioned earlier, it does not support pressure sensitivity and palm rejection.

The best active stylus is the one that's designed to work with your tablet. If your tablet does not specify that it can work with an active stylus, it cannot work with one. E.g. Microsoft Surface Pen works only with Microsoft Surface products. Samsung S Pen works only with phones and tablets that mention explicitly that they can work with the S Pen. Lenovo Active Pen only work with their Miix 2-in-1 tablets (another others that I may not know of).

Samsung TabPro S is a 2-in-1 tablet that works with a digital "capacitive" stylus. But seriously, if you're going to buy a Windows tablet, buy one that supports an active stylus because of all the advantages that it can offer. My recommendation, Microsoft Surface Pro 4, Lenovo Miix 510, Acer Switch Alpha 12 or the Lenovo Yoga Book. If you have more budget, consider the Wacom MobileStudio Pro.

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