With the rapid developments in technology happening in front of our very eyes, one might be prompted to guess that Styluses are a thing of the present.
But in actuality, the stylus has been around for quite some time, almost since 3000 B.C.
Back in the day, the Sumerians used styluses made of materials like bone, ivory, and wood to note down important facts and information on clay tablets.
Similarly, the modern-day stylus helps man to jot down notes and drawings pertinent to him. And also, we have moved on from clay tablets to the state of the art digital touch screen tablets.
And then arises the question of which stylus to choose. Styluses are broadly classified into active and passive ones, both similar in some regards but different for the most part.
An active stylus requires an active connection like Bluetooth to operate, while a passive stylus doesn't require any such complexities. The passive stylus also provides universal compatibility with any device with a capacitive touch screen, unlike the limited compatibility of the Active pens. Another great differentiator is the accuracy of the strokes registered. Active devices provide a much more precise stroke than a passive pen, thanks to their battery-operated active connection.
Now, let's take an in-depth look at these two types and conclude which one is the best for you.
Passive Stylus Pens- the Affordable One
As the heading suggests, these pens are the affordable ones among the two competitors. Available almost for dirt-cheap prices, these pens are one of the most widely used accessories in the market.
And there are good reasons for such low prices, mainly due to its simplicity in implementation. Passive pens don't have a lot of technology in them, like active pens.
It basically relies on the traditional electrostatic distortion to register an input on the screen, much like how we use our fingers to interact with the screen.
Don't worry, it's not rocket science; all you have to know is that our fingers do produce some electricity natively. When you touch a capacitive touchscreen, this electricity distorts the electrostatic field of the screen.
These distortions are intercepted by the device processor. The processor then converts them to appropriate inputs on the screen. Simple right? The very same principle applies to a passive stylus.
But for generating such distortions, a large enough input has to be made with the display. Hence, most passive pens have a broader tip than an Active stylus.
Passive pens are excellent for casual surfing and swiping, or even a quick jot down of the day's grocery list. But don't bet on them for any fastidious writing/sketching.
Active Stylus Pens- Just Better
Active Stylus pens are most suited for professionals and enthusiasts who want to get the most out of their writing and sketching endeavors.
These pens are powered pens, meaning they have a battery built into them. They also require an active connection with the host device. Bluetooth is the preferred mode of pairing for most pens, but some use a wired connection too.
And since they have inbuilt power solutions and an active connection with the host devices, they also have much better accuracy and precision than a passive pen.
With the added circuitries come additional features, like pressure sensitivity and palm rejection. All these features aid the artist in his work.
These pens may feel a bit heavy, thanks to the inbuilt elements. A slightly heavy pen does have its own advantages, like providing a sturdy feel and permitting long periods of use.
The tips are usually fine pointed ones, with which you can draw fine lines and curves.
But there are some compromises. Active pens cannot be used for a long time since they run on batteries. These batteries usually run out of juice after a few hours of use(not all of them).
Active pens also lack universal compatibility. Most of them are exclusive to a particular platform.
Active Vs. Passive Stylus Pens: A Comparison
Since there are a lot of active and passive pens out there in the market, I have narrowed down the inclusions in this comparison to only the best pens available right now.
In this comparison, we discuss only the most necessary characteristics that determine the usability and quality of a stylus. No gimmicks, just straight-up facts, and deductions.
Let's get started with the comparison by looking at the Compatibility side of things.
Active pens are notorious for their incompatibility. Most active styluses retain exclusivity to a particular platform, like the Apple Pencil.
Like in the case of an Apple Pencil, most active pens have their proprietary methods of connectivity and working. An Apple Pencil is compatible only with certain iPad models because of the provision for wireless charging.
Another great example is the S-Pen. The S-Pen is an inductive-type stylus, which requires a screen with a built-in digitizer to register any input. Only certain Galaxy devices, like the Note Series, have provisions for such displays.
And due to such complex mechanisms, most active pens are incompatible with devices other than the recommended ones.
On the flipside, Passive stylus pens do not have any such complexities. And as I had mentioned earlier, they employ a similar operating mechanism to how we interact with the screen.
They only require a fully functional capacitive touch screen, nothing more, nothing less.
And so, passive pens take this round with their universal compatibility.
Features on Offer
Active pens annihilate passive pens in this regard. All the complexities aside, active pens do offer the best features one could expect from a stylus.
The most common feature of an active stylus is pressure sensitivity. With this feature, you will be able to render lines and curves with varying degrees of intensity.
Some pens offer almost 8K levels of pressure sensitivity, like the Wacom Pro Pen 2, but most of them offer at least 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity.
Another handy feature is the tilt detection feature. Tilt detection allows you to vary the girt/width of the strokes, rendering a more lifelike experience.
Other features include palm rejection which negates any unwanted input when using the pen and programmable buttons.
With programmable buttons, you can map any feature like erase, move, copy, or even launch custom templates, all at a click of a button.
With a proprietary device like the S-Pen, you could have a host of other software and hardware features like the AirCommand features. But it also lacks certain features that you may find elsewhere. More about this on Spen vs Stylus.
Passive pens take a huge trounce in this department due to their renowned minimalistic implementation. The lack of any computing capabilities coupled with the absence of a battery contributes to this disability.
Although some "digital" capacitive pens like the MoKo Universal Pen have an inbuilt battery, it is exclusively used to provide a better electric charge to the screen.
The tip used doesn't necessarily vary between active and passive pens, though passive pens tend to stick to a specific type of tip for the most part.
More often than not, passive pens rely on broader rubber tips for input. These tips deliver a much better charge to the screen than a fine tip.
But these tips tend to block the LOS(Line of Sight) with the screen, hence leaving the lines and curves jittery. A solution to this issue is the disc attached fine point tips.
These tips comprise a transparent plastic/rubber disc attached to a fine point. This implementation increases the surface area without compromising LOS.
Some passive pens, like the Meko Universal stylus, have tips at either end of the stylus. Such stylus pens are called 2-in-1 devices, usually implemented as a disc tip at the grip end and a broad 6mm tip at the opposite end.
Active pens mostly have fine tips. Since they have an active connection with the host device, most of these tips are metal tips coated with a layer of rubber or plastic.
Most fine tips have a diameter of 0.7 to 1.5mm.
Common materials used in tip construction are rubber, plastic(polyacetal), metal, fiber, wood, or even fine brush hairs.
Softer materials like rubber tend to have greater friction with the screen and wear out quickly. Harder materials like plastic have better sliding dynamics and have better longevity.
Precision and Accuracy
Another distinguishing characteristic of an Active Stylus is its accuracy and precision, thanks to the complex circuitry and the active mode of connectivity.
Active pens, since connected to the host device, are capable of registering much more accurate inputs. It also reduces the latency and parallax errors that may arise with a passive device.
The fine tip in use also helps make razor-sharp lines and curves, a disability with the broad tips on passive pens.
Passive pens are filled to the neck with latency and accuracy problems. Since they have no advanced circuitry or connection to register pinpoint inputs, parallax and jitter issues are commonplace.
The broad tips they use make the situation even worse by inhibiting the view and rendering shoddy strokes.
Hence, passive pens are not suitable for professional use.
For note-taking purposes, everything depends on the app that you use for the purpose. Selecting an inferior app that doesn't support pressure sensitivity of tilt detection can be ruinous. More about this on Best note-taking apps.
Ease of Use
Active pens require battery power to operate. This means limited usage time since once the battery runs out of juice, you will have to recharge it.
And that's one of the disadvantages of using an active pen, constant recharging. But this does not apply to all active stylus pens.
Some styluses like the Samsung S-Pen will work even after the battery dies. You just won't be able to use the remote functions on the pen, that's all.
Other styluses like the Wacom Cintique Stylus don't even have a battery. It gets its power through the screen, using the Wacom proprietary technology EMR(Electromagnetic Resonance).
Another vexing requirement with wireless connectivity is the constant pairing with the host device. Some styluses like the Adonit Pixel, even though one of the best in the market, do have constant pairing issues.
Passive stylus pens fare well in this regard. Since they don't have any power requirements, their usage is limited only by the longevity of the tip.
It also doesn't require any pairing process to establish a connection with the host device. Simply pick up the stylus, turn on the display and start using it.
So, which is the best type of stylus? Well, frankly, it all depends on your intended use-case scenario.
If you are looking for a cost-effective, casual swiping and sliding-only stylus, definitely side with a passive stylus. Its minimalistic implementation paired with the no-gimmicks ease of use might be your best option.
If you are a serious writer or architect, an active pen might suit you best. The active pairing coupled with the uncompromising levels of precision is tailor-made for such purposes.
Make sure to check and compare every aspect of a device before siding with one.
Pens made by Adonit, Wacom, Apple, Microsoft are reliable and worthy. Meko, Moko, HP-Pen are some of the best passive pen makers you can trust.
Another great comparison that you should check out is between a stylus and a digitizer pen.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do stylus pens have a disc?
Some passive stylus pens may come equipped with a disc attachment. This attachment will help provide better contact with the screen, hence resulting in better input registration. The disc attachment may be absent on active stylus pens.
What is the difference between a Samsung S-Pen and an Apple Pencil?
Fundamentally, both pens are the same, but both are exclusive to their respective platforms. The S-Pen is compatible with only some Galaxy devices and no other device outside the Samsung lineup. Similarly, the Apple Pencil is compatible with only a few iPads. Both of them fall under the active stylus category, the Apple pencil being a little bit bigger than the S-Pen. The S-Pen has an additional programmable button that is not present in the Apple Pencil.
Does my laptop support an active pen?
Some laptops, like the Surface Bookseries, support an active stylus(Surface Pen). To check whether your laptop supports a stylus, check the user manual or search online. You could also go to Settings>PC info> Pen and Touch to check for support.