Best Digital Pen
Despite the high-caliber tech behind Apple's second-generation Pencil, it really does write like one. Just pretend your iPad is a notebook and have at it. It offers painless pairing; just slide the pen onto its magnetic port on the iPad, and you're linked and charging. During our art test using Adobe Illustrator Draw, splashing colors around the page was simply enjoyable. With pressure-sensitive line thickness and no noticeable lag, we were in complete control of every little line and paint stroke. None of our testers wanted to put it down. It's equally faithful when writing in Evernote and the Nebo App. And Nebo converted our notes to near-perfect text at the quick press of a button. Since the pen and iPad work together to ignore your palm while you're writing, you can rest your hand on the screen while working, which few styluses on the market offer. That little detail and the Pencil's top-notch attention to detail is what makes this tool one we reach for daily.
The only real downsides to the new Apple Pencil are its high price and the fact that it's limited to four iPad models, the first two generations of the iPad 11" and the 3rd and 4th of the 12.9". You'll also need to track down apps to convert your writing to text or record audio while taking notes at a meeting or lecture. The nib also squeaks occasionally, which we ran into when rearranging icons. While the Pencil is supposed to create broader strokes if you lay it over on its side (think of smudging graphite on the page with the side of a pencil), we couldn't make it happen. It was easy to make lines thicker by increasing pressure on the tip of the pencil, though. The term digital pen encompasses both styluses and smart pens. The Pencil, a stylus, offers you the best and most wide ranging note taking and art skills of both categories. All you need is a compatible iPad.
The Neo Smartpen N2 is our favorite smart pen. Using a small internal camera to track its movements across specialty microgrid paper, the pen sends all of your musings to the Neo Notes App. From there, you can accurately transfer your handwriting to text and send it to cloud services or friends. Once you convert your notes to text, you can search them for keywords, or add searchable tags via the app. Neo also makes a planner that you can sync to Google Calendar, iCal, or Outlook. When connected to the app, the pen transfers handwriting in real-time. If you're listening to a lecture, you can record via the app. The app will also bookmark the audio with your notes, making it easy to revisit a particular discussion topic. If you aren't near your phone, it will save your notes and upload them the next time you sync. The app itself is easy to use, letting you quickly flip through your notebooks, which it automatically recognizes and catalogs.
While Neo's notebooks and planners are reasonably priced, it still takes some mental effort to remember to write on them instead of, say, a sticky note or normal paper notebook. And the pen's large, triangular shape takes time to get used to. It does help you keep the integrated camera oriented correctly though. While you can choose to make the line a different color and thickness on the app as you write, or after the fact, the pen is better suited to simple line art. The N2 also has the shortest continuous battery life in the test, but since we use it intermittently, we don't have any problems. It also functions while plugged in. While a stylus writes directly on a touchscreen, a digital pen writes on paper and sends your scribblings to an app. It's an extra step, but if you dream of escaping screens but still want to keep all your best ideas safe and sound in the digital cloud, this is the tool for you.
The JamJake is a slightly less sophisticated version of the Apple Pencil, but it offers way more bang for your buck. It looks and feels a lot like the Pencil. It's a touch thicker and has a charging port at the top. You have to tap the top to turn it on, whereas the iPad automatically recognizes the Apple version whenever it's paired. Like the Apple, it feels much like holding a regular pencil, and its palm rejection technology allows you to rest your hand on the screen. You're free to write and draw like you can with crayons in art class, just with an infinite palette of colors, no mess, and cloud storage.
The biggest differences between the two are charging methods and pressure sensitivity. (That and JamJake recommends that you get a glass screen protector for your iPad.) Whereas you just click the Pencil to the iPad's magnetic strip to charge it, the JamJake needs a usb cord. It also takes longer to charge than the Pencil, about an hour and a half. The Pencil's pressure sensitivity feature is certainly cool, and makes a big difference to hardcore artists, since it lets you vary the strength of your line as you draw it. But, it's a jump in price to get those two features. If you don't need them, the JamJake is an excellent option.
The Livescribe Symphony Smartpen is a nice piece of hardware that is only held back a bit by its app, which is less user-friendly than Neo Notes in all but one area. If you record audio while taking notes, this is absolutely the pen we recommend for you. The app pulls out your "Pencasts", which are any notes you take while recording audio files via the app. Listing them separately from your regular notes makes them easier to find. Like the Neo smart pens, the audio is time stamped by your notes, so you can navigate back to a specific discussion easily. The Symphony's round shape is easy to hold and write with, which helps to keep your handwriting natural, neat, and tidy. It also does an accurate job of translating your written notes into text. You can also choose unique line colors and thicknesses before you write or afterwards, but we don't usually bother.
But unlike the Neo App, which organizes your notes as full pages, Livescribe breaks them into random seeming "snippets." You can only translate one snippet at a time. It's very easy to do, you just swipe right, or left, but much more time consuming. If you're more likely to record audio during lectures than you are to convert your writing to text, this is a high-quality, high-value option.
Samsung's S Pen is device-specific. The one we tested is compatible with the Galaxy Tab S6 Lite. As such it works in concert with this tablet better than the generalist styluses we tested, and we definitely recommend it for that purpose. It charges and stores itself easily via a magnetic dock on the tablet. The S Pen is light in your hand, and the soft, responsive nib glides across the touchscreen with just the right amount of traction. It also offers palm rejection, though it seems touchier than the two iPad styluses we tested with this feature. Still, those features lead to pleasant and accurate writing, particularly in Samsung's Notes App. The app is included with the tablet and lets you transcribe your writing to text and record audio while you write. This is our favorite aspect of the Samsung offering since the iPad options require third-party options to complete both tasks.
The S Pen showed no delay when we tested it in the included Notes app, but it did display noticeable lag in Evernote and Adobe Illustrator Draw. In Adobe, the displayed line trailed the pen by nearly a quarter of an inch. That doesn't make for the most nuanced artwork. But the lag is even worse when you use any of the generalist styluses listed below with the Samsung tablet. There's no question the S Pen is the best option for its dedicated tablet. If you're a fan of Samsung devices, it's the best option we've tested.
The Bamboo Folio is unique in the smart pen world. Instead of housing a sensor in the pen itself, the bottom of the system's folding portfolio is a signal receiver. It tracks the pen's movements, and every time you press the button beside the pad, it transfers your words or drawings to the Wacom Inkspace app. We love the pen itself. Light and compact with a soft rubber feel, it's slightly triangular and a joy to hold. And, since you don't have to hold it in any certain orientation because it doesn't house a camera, it's much more natural to use. The system is incredibly accurate, picking up even the lightest lines. As such, it is our artistic testers' favorite option for pen drawings. (You can paint in color over the picture later in the app, but, to our knowledge, you can't change the line color.) Then you can easily store all your art with the 5 GM of free storage Wacom offers up on its cloud.
We really appreciate that you can use any old A5 notebook paper that fits into the folder. You want it to fit snuggly though so your lines don't overlap, because the sensor doesn't know what page you're on at any given time. This is the cause of the Bamboo's biggest bummer. If you write one word and press the Folio's button, it transfers to the app on its own page. Write two more words beside it and press again, those two words get a new page. Then write 1,000 words on 5 pages and press the button, and all 1,000 words show up stacked on top of one another on a single page. The app offers a clunky "split" feature to pull them apart again. Ugh. Still, we do love this little pen and how faithfully the sensor captures its movements. Just use it with the app on and press the button after every page, and let your creative juices flow.
Shaped like a regular pen, with an easy-to-grip texture, the Smartpen M1+ is a pleasure to use. The M1+ works just like Neo's N2 pen since they share the same app. Both of them automatically turn on with the first pen stroke. They upload information in real-time when synced to the app and after the fact when they aren't. It's easy to turn your writing into text a page at a time, and you can change the color and thickness of your lines in the app as you draw or afterwards. You can also easily record audio that's time-stamped to match up with your notes. Organization is simple, the app lets you flip through your notebooks and you can buy a Neo planner that links to your digital calendar of choice, either Google Calendar, Outlook, or iCal.
The reason the N2 outranks the M1+ is that it transcribes your handwriting to text more accurately. That also means that it's also easier to search your ramblings for keywords, since you can only do so after you've translated them to text. We suspect the N2's slightly more awkward shape, which helps you hold it in the ideal orientation for its internal camera, makes it more accurate. This is still an excellent option, and it comes with our favorite smart pen app at a better price point.
Of the digital pens we tested, the reusable Rocketbook is one of the few that actually saves resources. The notebook is made of wipe-clean plastic paper, and the app works with a phone you likely already own, so no need to source more paper or precious metals for notebooks and touchscreen tablets. The low-tech pen is durable, easy to hold, inexpensive to replace, and it has a functional eraser. It feels like a thin-tipped sharpie sliding over plastic, and you can get an array of colors and sizes for art projects. After you've made your masterpiece, you just scan it page by page. The app cuts out any background. Shortcuts let you quickly send it to the cloud or email of your choice. Rocketbook also sells "beacon" tiles that let you scan a whiteboard brainstorm to the app. You can share these with colleagues in near real-time.
Don't get us wrong, adults can appreciate the many advantages of the Rocketbook, but it's indestructible nature, reusable pages, and lack of accurate text transcription seems to lend itself to kiddos. The surface takes 15 secs or so to dry, so it's easy to make a mess as you go. That eraser really is key. But, when you really want to wipe the slate clean, you'll need a damp cloth. If you leave writing on the notebook pages for over a month, the ink could stain. If you aren't looking to transfer your words into text often and don't mind the whiteboard vibe, the Rocketbook is a fun, creative, and affordable way to lift your work from the page to the cloud.
The Meko Universal packs in the value. You get two double-ended pens, which each have a disk and a mesh nib tip and six nib replacements. Both nibs work well enough, though we don't love disks. The mesh tip provides a nice balance of friction and glide to give you plenty of control over your line. The stylus itself is well-balanced and comfortable to hold, like a compact pen. As a universal stylus, it works on all capacitive touchscreens, making it a handy tool to have around for everything from navigating your smartphone to jotting down a to-do list on your tablet.
Disk nibs consist of a very fine tipped nib surrounded by a clear disk to distribute pressure. Since they let you see exactly where the nib is, they can be nice for detailed work. But, we find that it takes time to ignore the circumference of the transparent disk, to focus on the point, which defeats the purpose. They are also slippery. The Meko is fairly accurate, but since you can't write with it while resting your palm against the screen, we find it hard to do so very neatly, and the effort tires out our hands. What we love about this stylus is how many options it gives you. It worked well on all of our touchscreen devices and is a solid, inexpensive option for yours.
Why You Should Trust Us
Lead digital pen tester Clark Tate works as a freelance writer. She spends half her days taking notes, recording conversations, and creating compelling visuals at a moment's notice. During the other half, she works with a remote environmental nonprofit network, which means being able to easily share infographic sketches and data visualization drafts is a big plus. She uses smart pens and styluses to easily capture and share all kinds of content, some of it created in the field, beyond the reach of the common keyboard.
Clark worked with our editorial team to investigate nearly 70 styluses and smart pens and test them before selecting the best to include in this review. We tested the styluses with a Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 Lite, a Google Pixel 3a (running on Android), an iPad Pro 12.9" (4th gen), and an iPhone SE. Then we downloaded Evernote and Adobe Illustrator Draw to each tablet, adding Nebo to the iPad and using Samsung Notes on the Galaxy. After that we wrote out a standard set of poems with each digital pen and translated them to text to check their accuracy. We also recreated the same artwork with each pen. Clark also asked family and friends to try them out to see how they worked for different hand sizes and writing styles.
Analysis and Test Results
A digital pen can unlock your creative streak that may have slowly faded away in the digital age. It's hard to pick up a plain old pen and ink when you know you'll just have to type up your draft or notes later. Being able to create something by hand that you can still save and share may give you more motivation to pursue your latent writing or doodling passion. Keep reading to find out which pen could help you bring it back.
Writing and Note-taking
When these pens are lined up on the desk, we reach for the Apple Pencil most often. It writes just like a pen and paper, thanks to its excellent palm rejection technology, while digitizing our ideas directly. The smart pens do too, if you have their respective apps up and running. Still, they feel more complicated because you need three objects instead of two — a notebook, a phone or tablet, and a pen. The stylus option is irresistibly streamlined if you own a tablet.
When we're heading out for the day, or just need to get away from screens and their endless scrolling ability, we turn to the smart pens, specifically the Neo Smartpen N2 or Wacom Bamboo Folio. Both offer excellent text transcription abilities, so we know every word we write can easily be captured in a document or email. Of the two, the Bamboo is more comfortable to hold, but its app isn't as easy to navigate after the fact. So when we're heading out to write, we lean towards the N2. The Livescribe Symphony is our go-to if we're worried about battery-life, though.
For a stylus to serve as a daily writing and drawing tool, it really has to have palm rejection to compete with the ease of writing on a notebook with a smart pen. The Pencil, JamJake, and S Pen are the only styluses we tested that do. The JakeJam performs the task just as well as the Pencil for less but doesn't magnetically dock and charge. This slight inconvenience made a big difference when we had the choice. It wouldn't if we didn't.
The Meko can take notes for you on any touchscreen device. It's nice that it's versatile, but it also wears your arm out since you have to hover your hand over the screen. We use it for jotting notes on our phone or navigating a touchscreen, but would not recommend it for writing longer passages or lengths of time.
Text Translation and Audio Recording
The only downside to the two iPad-based styluses is that the 4th generation iPad Pro 12.9" we tested didn't come with an integrated app to translate handwriting to text or link audio to our notes. (Or, if there is one, we couldn't find it.) The Nebo app, which we downloaded to translate text, is inexpensive, but you do have to go find it. And it doesn't help with audio. The S Pen's integrated Samsung Notes app accomplishes both tasks right off the bat.
The smart pens all provide app-based text transcription. All but the Bamboo Folio support audio files as well. As we mention above, the Neo N2 and Bamboo Folio pens are the most accurate when it comes to text. The Symphony isn't far behind, the app is just a pain to wrestle with only letting you transcribe "snippets" at a time. The Neo N2 and M1+ pens both let you quickly translate full pages to text. Unfortunately, the M1+ miss-translates more words than the other options.
The Symphony app does the best job of organizing audio files in the test, giving you quick access to your "Pencasts" via the main menu. We recommend it for folks who plan to listen to playback often, or just want to both write and record audio.
If you're in it for the art, it's hard to argue with the Apple Pencil. We lost hours unspooling smooth lines of digital paint in every color we could dream up and playing with fine line drawings. The stylus's pressure sensitivity lets you control your line width by the force of your hand. It's the only digital pen in the test to give you that much control.
Again, the JamJake is similar, but without the pressure sensitivity, it doesn't provide nearly the same nuance. The S Pen works well if you want to draw in the Samsung Notes app, but lags noticeably in Adobe Illustrator Draw.
The smart pens work best for line drawings. Though you can change their line color and thickness either before or after you start drawing, if you make the line thicker, you can only tell on your screen, not your notepad. That makes for a disjointed experience. That said, we love using the Wacom Folio for line drawings. It records them perfectly and the charcoal sized pen is a joy to hold. It's our favorite park-bench-sitting digital sketchbook.
If all else was equal, the Wacom Bamboo Folio is the digital pen we would choose to write with all day, everyday. It's just too good to ignore, comfort-wise. The Apple Pencil and JamJake rank right up there, mostly for being incredibly inoffensive and delightfully functional. The palm-rejection technology of these two styluses, as well as the S Pen, make them much more comfortable than competing styluses that lack this tech, because it quickly becomes tiresome to hover your hand above the touchscreen when writing with these lower-tech styluses.
The Symphony and Neo M1+ hover around the same just-like-a-normal pen level of comfort. They give us absolutely no complaints. The Neo N2 does stumble here. Though we have certainly embraced its broad, triangular shape, it takes time to master for those of us with small hands. We gratefully accept the learning curve for the accurate writing-to-text magic and easy to use app.
The Meko Universal and Rocketbook win the battery life challenge hands down, as neither of them need one. The JamJake claims that it offers 20 hours of continuous writing time, but our experience didn't seem to back up this claim. It also turns itself off after five minutes of idling to preserve battery life, but we ran it out of batteries in a few weeks without writing for 20 hours straight. It also takes a while to charge, roughly an hour and a half.
In contrast, we never run out of juice with the Apple Pencil since it charges anytime you store it on the side of the iPad. It's the same for the Samsung S Pen. If you hop up to get a cup of tea, just store and charge the pen. You never run out of juice as long as your tablet has juice. This is one of those features we appreciate more and more the longer we use it.
Battery life feels a bit more important for the smart pens, which we are more apt to carry further from a power source. Of these, the Livescribe Symphony is the most impressive. It claims 10 hours of continuous writing time. We didn't have the stamina to test it that far. What we did do is keep all the pens on for 7 hours straight, waking them up every 15 minutes. The Symphony had the most juice left by far at the end of the trial. The Wacom Bamboo Folio claims 8 hours of run time, but in our experience, we ran out a few times. Still, it was fine to get away for a few hours as long as we remember to plug it in when we're not using it.
This is another area where the Neo N2 does not nail it, claiming only 5 hours of continuous writing time. (Note, it lasted through our 7-hour test, but we weren't continuously writing with it.) We're comforted by the knowledge that you can still write with it while it's charging. But you do need to pay attention to the battery life to avoid losing work.
Digital pens have certainly made 21st century note-keeping a lot easier and more convenient for us. We hope our hours of testing have helped you understand which one's abilities can make your work or study life easier, as well as a little more fun.
— Clark Tate