Back in 2007, when Steve Jobs took a dig at other companies for launching their phones with a stylus by releasing the iPhone, I assumed it was an end of an era.
It sure seemed like one too, as most companies began their transition to the candy bar phones we use to date. All seem to point to stylus tech put on history books.
But flash forward to 2023, stylus pens are suddenly the rage. Every AAA company has already put in some form of investment in stylus tech.
During all these major historical moments of tech, there has been a similar technology that satisfied a particular audience: The Digital/Digitizer Pen.
Reading into it, it can seem very confusing as they are very similar technologies that are implemented very differently.
With this article, I intend to give you a solid rundown on the differences between the technologies involved and choose your ideal tech if you are in the market for a pen.
Stylus Pen is the absolute winner for almost everyone due to the sheer convenience of using it directly onto a compatible touchscreen device. Digital pens, on the other hand, are the go-to pen option for professional digital artists due to the better overall pro-grade raw specifications.
Stylus Pen vs Digital Pen: By Specifications
What is a Stylus Pen?
The definition of a stylus pen has varied drastically with respect to the new technologies that come associated with it.
In the initial years, a stylus was just a thin stick with a conductive tip at the end to register touch input on the touchscreen.
It contained no internal components and hence required no charging of the pen for use. It was a simple product designed for a simple task at hand.
But now, there are newer technologies involved and hence a broader definition of what we call a stylus pen.
Stylus pens now can have their own internal electronic components to communicate more information with the touchscreen device.
But before we get too in-depth, I want to mention and elaborate on the different types of stylus pens in the market right now: Active and Passive Stylus pens.
- Passive Stylus Pen
This is the type of stylus pen that sticks to the traditional meaning of what stylus used to mean.
It contains no internal components and hence requires no charging of the pen.
This type of stylus pen is meant to emulate a finger touch and hence has rounded tips for broader touch input.
Nintendo 3DS stylus pens, and Samsung Galaxy S-Pens(pre-2018) are a few popular passive stylus pens.
- Active Stylus Pen
This is the type of stylus pen that have internal components inside for deeper information tracking and relaying to the touchscreen device
The use of the components results in a much more accurate form of touch tracking on the touchscreen device
This type of stylus pen is meant to emulate a pen or a pencil, so it has a pointy tip for accurate touch inputs.
Apple Pencil, Microsoft Surface Pen, and Samsung Galaxy S-Pens (post-2018) are all examples of popular active styluses.
What is a Digital Pen?
Digital/Digitizer pens are very similar to stylus pens in terms of their utility and how they look, but their working principles are completely different.
They also have internal components inside them to relay more information to the system, just like an active stylus pen.
But the main difference is that digital pens don't provide direct touch input onto the touchscreen, and instead use an intermediary pad called a digitizer drawing tablet.
This is an external pad that has extra electronic components to register touch sensitivity and pressure while providing a much smoother drawing experience.
A company that is very popular in making digital pens and digital drawing tablets is Wacom.
Since the types of pens are radically different, I have made this comprehensive chart that further differentiates between the main types:
|Features||Active Stylus||Passive Stylus||Digital Pen|
|Power Source||Incorporates a battery to power up the electronic components||Has no electronic components to power up and hence doesn't require a power source||Has electronic components but requires no battery. Uses a magnetic field from the digitizer tablet to power up internal components.|
|Technology||Digitizing sensors on the nibs to communicate with the display||Electrostatic conduction, just like fingers on the touchscreen||Electromagnetic Resonance (EMR) to communicate with an external digitizer drawing tablet|
|Forms of communication with the device||Can communicate with direct touchscreen contact, as well as relay inbuilt sensors information via Bluetooth for better touch response and features||Only by direct contact via a touchscreen||Communicates directly with a digitizer tablet attached to the output screen|
|Size of Nibs/Tips||Small and pointed for more precise and accurate strokes||Larger and rounded to conduct the charge for touch input.||Small and pointed for more precise and accurate strokes|
|Tip material||Polyacetal||Soft rubber||Polyacetal|
|Compatibility||Compatible only with select products the stylus is certified to be compatible with||Compatible across a wide range of touchscreen-enabled products, irrespective of their screen technology or operating system||Compatible only with select products the stylus is certified to be compatible with|
|Touch sensitivity||Can be incorporated, provided the pen has required sensors inbuilt||No sensitivity manipulation||Has proper components to judge sensitivity and touch pressure.|
|Use cases||Digital art, handwritten work on a touchscreen||Daily use; a replacement for grubby finger input||Digital art|
|Maintenance||Needs to be charged according to the specified power rating. Susceptible to damage via dust and water. Tips need to be replaced when worn out.||Only tips need to be replaced when worn out.||Only tips need to be replaced when worn out.|
|Life cycle||Can last only as long as the battery capacity lasts||Can last for a very long time||Can last for a very long time|
One great example of a digitizer pen is the Samsung S-Pen. It differs from a regular stylus in a lot of areas, especially when considering compatibility. More about this on S-Pen vs stylus.
Stylus Pen vs Digital Pen: Principles of Operation
Now that you can tell apart a stylus pen from a digital pen, let's look into the key principles both technologies utilize for their operation.
Passive Stylus Pen: Principle of Operation
A passive stylus works on the principle of electrostatic conduction, similar to how our fingers work on screen.
There is no internal circuit involved, and the tip is made of soft rubber. The capacitance of the touchscreen is varied when the stylus comes in contact with the touchscreen.
Active Stylus Pen: Principle of Operation
An active stylus works with the help of digitizing sensors on the polyacetal nibs that communicate directly with the touchscreen.
Since it has its own internal electronic components and circuits, it can easily and most accurately map its touch on the screen.
Digital Pen: Principle of Operation
A digital pen usually works on the principle of ElectroMagnetic Resonance (EMR).
This tech is implemented by using a magnetic coil wound near the tip that bounces back the magnetic field emissions from a digitizer drawing tablet.
Due to this, the internal components of the pen get charged via the digitizer's magnetic field and hence require no battery to operate.
Stylus Pen vs Digital Pen: Protocols and Involved Brand Technology
For the implementation of stylus and digital pens alike, there are some predefined protocols set up that enhance the experience of using the device.
These protocols are a one-stop technology implementation for brands to make sure their stylus pens are compatible with the screens they are used on.
Passive Stylus Pens: Protocols and Involved Brand Technology
Passive stylus pens are universally applicable pens, so they require no specific protocol to be compatible with any specific screen technology.
As long as it is a capacitive touchscreen that works with fingers, a passive pen can register touch inputs on it, irrespective of screen technology or operating system.
Active Stylus Pens: Protocols and Involved Brand Technology
Active styluses being the most popular and commercially sorted out also have the most technologies involved with respect to the operating system it works with.
I will go through some of the more important and popular technologies used on active styluses:
- Microsoft Pen Protocol (MPP)
This is Microsoft's implementation of active stylus pens primarily intended to work across their Surface lineup of devices.
But Microsoft has opened up the protocol to other brands utilizing Windows and as of now, there are other brands slowly implementing the protocol across their stylus options.
They use the Active ElectroStatic (AES) technology to input touch information directly on the capacitive touchscreen without needing an extra proprietary digitizer display.
They are mainly intended for daily use across a multitude of tasks, such as jotting down tasks or even casual digital art.
- Wacom Active ElectroStatic (AES)
This is Wacom's answer to the MPP protocol regarding direct touch input on the screen of the device.
This technology is also cheaper considering the fact that this requires only one capacitive surface, compared to the two required in their digitizer pens.
This lead to a slimmer and sleeker design, although the precision and smoothness of the pen do take a slight hit.
- Apple's Active Stylus Tech
Apple uses its own proprietary stylus tech for its Apple Pencils.
Although Apple doesn't reveal its key principles, it is safe to say that Apple has its own implementation of AES tech to relay its touch information to supported devices.
- Universal Stylus Initiative (USI)
This is a protocol set up to universally provide touch functionality across multiple operating systems and platforms.
Although the nametag states it's universal, it is still an active styli implementation and hence is only compatible with select brands, and one prominent one is Google.
Thus, this is the main technology standard used across Google's Chromebook line of devices.
Digital Pens: Protocols and Involved Brand Technology
The most popular protocol used for digital pens is the Wacom Electromagnets (EMR) technology.
This is a technology that has withstood the test of time, considering Wacom has been in the business for over 40 decades now with this.
The main principle of this tech is implemented by using a magnetic coil wound near the tip that bounces back the magnetic field emissions from a digitizer tablet.
Due to this implementation, it doesn't require a battery to register touch inputs.
It is used across all of Wacom's digital pen products and is compatible with almost every digital tablet and pen displays Wacom has to offer.
Stylus Pen vs Digital Pen: Which is the Absolute Best?
Stylus pens and digital pens are both great products for anyone dwelling in the world of digital information input.
But just like any product category, each serves different purposes and is intended for different working conditions.
A stylus pen is a fantastic purchase if you just want a product that you utilize on a daily casual use basis and will be the most convenient and cost-effective means to do that.
A digital pen, on the other hand, is strictly used by professional digital artists to put out their creative minds on paper, and hence is expensive and more suited for them.
If I were to pick one, I would definitely go for an active stylus pen, as I am not a digital artist and my art ventures have never been above par for justifying a digital pen expense.
But if I were a digital artist in the industry or have serious dreams of becoming one in the future, I would get myself a digital pen and digitizer tablet instead for sure.
I hope my article has proven to be a deep and clear insight into the differences between a stylus pen and a digital pen and helped you to make a decision on what to get.
Have a good day!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How is a Light Pen different from Stylus Pens and Digital Pens?
A light pen is an old pen technology that uses a light-sensitive tip on cathode ray tube (CRT) computer screens to register input. Stylus and Digital Pens on the other hand use Active ElectroStatic (AES) and Electromagnetic Resonance (EMR)+ technology to register input on a touch surface.
Why does some Stylus have a disc at their tip?
Styluses typically incorporate a protective plastic disc at its tip to provide more accuracy on touch inputs, while protecting the screen from scratches.
Can I use a completely discharged Active Stylus as a Passive Stylus for drawing?
Using a completely discharged active stylus is not possible as active stylus pens don't have an electrostatic tip to conduct and provide touch input without its digitizing sensors having at least some charge.