In this article I'll share with you the features to look out for when choosing a tablet for writing and note-taking. What I'm sharing is based on my experience of having reviewed many tablets, pen displays, laptops, foldables with pen support over the years.
My general advice when it comes to buying any tablet or computer is to choose based on the app you want to use. If don't know what are the good note-taking apps, no problem because there are many good note-taking apps on Windows, Android and iPadOS.
At the end of the article, there are some tablet recommendations which I will update occasionally whenever I review any new products.
Make sure the tablet mentions official pen support. Having pen support is a feature so most companies will advertise pen support and pen features prominently, such as support for tilt, pressure sensitivity and palm rejection, sometimes details on the latency and response time.
If the tablet does not mention pen support, the only pens usable would be those rubber or disc-tipped stylus which are awkward to write with due to the pen tip design, and there is no palm rejection so you cannot rest your palm on the tablet white writing.
Pens may be battery powered and batteries can be built in or removable. Find out if the pen requires charging and how it charges will affect convenience.
Xiaomi Pad 6 (2023) with attached Xiaomi Smart Pen (gen 2)
Nowadays it's common to see pens that attach to the side of the tablet for charging, and that's quite convenient. You will never have to worry about battery life for such pens since they are always charged by the side.
Pens use different technology to write on displays.
Apple has their own tech. Only Apple Pencil will provide tilt, pressure sensitivity and palm rejection. Third party alternatives provide tilt, palm rejection but not pressure sensitivity.
Microsoft uses Microsoft Pen Protocol (MPP), currently version 2.6 found in their Microsoft Slim Pen 2. Third party alternatives can be used with Microsoft pen-supported products.
Samsung S Pen uses Wacom EMR. Any pen that uses Wacom EMR can be used interchangeably with Samsung S Pen.
Some pens from Lenovo, ASUS and android tablets use the Universal Stylus Initiative (USI), currently version 2.
All these pen technology support tilt, pressure sensitivity and palm rejection.
As to how sensitive pressure really is will depend on the pen so always check reviews. From my experience, Apple Pencil and Samsung S Pen are on par for performance, followed by Microsoft, and in last place USI. Pressure sensitivity is not needed for writing, but having pressure sensitivity will make your handwritten strokes more characteristic.
Some tablets and pens will show the hovering cursor which is nice to have but not a must-have for writing. Some cursors can be enabled or disable through settings.
Do not get tablets advertised with bulbous rubber, mesh or disc-shaped tips.
Some pens have side buttons for shortcuts. But shortcuts for those side buttons usually depend on the app you use. Sometimes the side buttons don't work at all, or are not customisable.
Apple iPad 10 (2022) and Apple Pencil 1
Charging a pen with cable is still alright but there are pens that require additional charging accessories (extra cost and inconvenience). When a pen can charge by the side of a tablet, you don't have to remember to bring the cable or charging accessories out. Battery life is not a concern when the pen is always attached by the tablet.
It's important to find out how replacement pen tips can be purchase, and the cost of those pen tips.
You don't always have to buy original pen tips when cheaper third party alternatives are available. In the photo above are all the third party Apple Pencil pen tips I've reviewed over the years. Some work well, some don't work so well. So it's good to check reviews online before buying.
One place to find affordable third party pen tips is AliExpress.
For writing purposes, go with pen tips that are smooth on the display as that will let you write fast. Hard pen tips are smooth.
Rubberised or soft pen tips have more friction on the display and this provides more control but writing speed will be slower, relatively speaking. Soft pen tips do not make loud or sharp tapping sound while writing. It's important to read the product description to check whether the pen tip is hard or soft. If you also draw, I recommend soft pen tips. For Apple Pencil users, I recommend this US $2 silicone pen tip. For Samsung S Pen users, I recommend this.
Matte screen protector
Matte screen protectors prevents scratches on the display and provide a tactile writing and drawing experience. Downside is the anti-glare diffusion (shown above) can be quite glaring to look at, and the image quality is affected by the fuzzy grain due to the matte surface.
The anti-glare diffusion can really be a problem when outdoors where light source is coming from everywhere.
Matte screen protectors will also wear off pen tips much faster due to the extra friction. So if you choose to use matte screen protectors, it's good to buy more replacement pen tips.
Nowadays there are even metal pen tips that can never wear down, but as to how well they work, check reviews online.
You don't have to spend too much on matte screen protectors. The brand I recommend is SuperShieldz which is usually below USD 10 on Amazon.
Apple iPad 10 with a non-laminated display
A laminated display does not have any gaps between the glass and display beneath.
On a laminated display, there is no noticeable gap between the line and the pen tip, and this makes it feel like the line is really coming out from beneath the pen tip.
Non-laminated displays will produce that hollow tapping sound when pen tip is in contact with the display.
Display size will affect multi-tasking, how much content you can see and whether there's space to rest your palm.
I probably recommend getting a tablet that has at least an 11-inch display. The size is slightly larger than A5 and that's a comfortable size to work with.
For tablets 12-inches or larger, you can open a note-taking app together with other apps in split-screen mode which is good for multi-tasking or productivity. With split-screen mode, you can write and have your reference by the side.
Writing experience is affected by latency which is affected by a combination of response time, display frequency and the note-taking app used.
Response time is the time it takes for the display to register the pen's movement.
Ideally, you'll want instant response time, e.g. 0 seconds, so that there won't be any latency.
Latency is that gap you see as the line is trying to catch up with the pen tip.
Latency affects writing more than drawing because when writing, you write fast so you'll definitely want low response time and low latency for better writing experience.
Always check the response time for the pen and tablet from the product page or specifications.
So what's a good response time? Let's look at the response time for some products:
- Apple Pencil 1: 20ms
- Apple Pencil 2: 9ms
- Samsung Tab S7: 9ms
- Samsung Tab S8 or newer: 2.8ms
- Microsoft Slim Pen 1: 25ms
- Microsoft Slim Pen 2: 12ms
- OnePlus Stylo: 2ms
- Huawei M-Pencil 2: 2ms
- Pen displays from Wacom, Huion, XPpen, etc: Usually 15ms to 25ms
Based on my experience, anything less than 10ms for response time is good for writing. While it's possible to write with higher response time, experience is not good because when you write next stroke, the previous stroke may not even appear yet.
In the list above, I mentioned the Samsung tablets instead of Samsung S Pen. That's because even with the same S Pen, the response time can vary on different tablets.
Another thing that affects writing experience is the display frequency. 60Hz displays are common and more 120Hz displays are entering the market. The higher the refresh rate, the more times the screen will redraw to show the most updated screen. Displays with higher refresh rate can give you the perception of better response time.
The note-taking app used will also affect latency. You can use the best tablet but if the note-taking app is not updated to take advantage of the latest tech, there can still be latency. That's why companies often advertise the best latency response time with their own note-taking apps, e.g. Samsung Notes, Apple Notes.
Diagonal line jitter or wobble
Some pens can produce jitter or wobble with slow diagonal lines.
This isn't really an issue with writing because when writing, we usually write fast and won't be affected by the diagonal line jitter or wobble.
Note taking apps
It is difficult to talk about note-taking apps because there are so many out there.
There's no lack of note-taking apps on iPad, Android and Windows. You just have to find one that suits your workflow.
Do consider where you may need your notes because some apps are exclusive to certain platforms. E.g. Samsung Notes is only available on Samsung devices. Microsoft OneNote is available on iPad, Android and Windows.
Some apps do not have palm rejection enabled by default and you'll have to enable that in the settings. With palm rejection, you can rest your palm on the display while writing without fear of your palm adding any stray unwanted strokes.
As long as the tablet specifically mentions support for pen, that tablet should be good enough for taking notes. I will avoid tablets with USI pens though as they usually have more latency.
Apple iPads are good for note-taking and there are many models at different price points to choose from. Check out my iPad reviews. The main difference between different iPad models is the more expensive models have more features. Writing experience is mostly similar although for best writing experience I would recommend you get an iPad with a laminated display. Apple Pencil is sold separately.
Samsung Galaxy tablets with included S Pens are great for note taking. First of all the pen is included so you don't have to spend extra money, and there are many affordable alternative pens and pen tips to choose from. Tablets released from 2022 or newer with S Pens are recommended. You can go with Tab S8, Tab S9 FE, Tab S9.
The Xiaomi Pad 6 and OnePlus Pad released in 2023 are also good for note-taking. The Xiaomi Pad 6 provides really good value for money because it has good specs and a comparable Samsung tablet will cost significantly more. OnePlus Pad's main selling point for me is the 7:5 aspect ratio for the display but it's a much more expensive tablet so it won't provide more value compare to more affordable ones, such as the Xiaomi Pad 6.
Microsoft Surface products with pen support are kinda expensive. Most Windows tablets are kinda expensive. The main reason to get a tablet with Windows OS is because you need a desktop OS, which is why I say early in the article that you should choose based on the software you want to use. If you don't need Windows OS, there's really no reason to buy a Windows tablet just for note-taking, not even the cheaper ones because Windows tablets usually have much lower battery life than iPads and Android tablets.
Here's a video where I compare various tablets from 2023 for note-taking performance and experience: