What is a Stylus Pen?

What is a stylus pen? If you’re the proud owner of a touchscreen device, you’ve probably found yourself asking this question. And you’re certainly not the only one! Stylus pens have been around for millennia and their new variants keep emerging. With the development of digital displays, new technologies are coming up to operate them: passive, echo, active… Knowing which stylus is which and what they can do is the first step to figuring out which one you should go for.  

Keep reading to learn more about stylus pens, their benefits and the technologies driving them, or explore ViewSonic Pen Display Solutions 

What is a stylus pen? Put simply, it’s an accessory that can be used to write, draw, or point with precision when using touchscreen technology. This includes various digital devices like touchscreen computer monitors, smartphones, or tablets. Essentially, a stylus recreates the core functions of a pen or pencil, providing you with the ability to write and draw on a screen in much the same way as you would on paper. On top of it, you can use it instead of your finger to tap on different parts of the websites, fill-out forms, and other clickable items with maximum accuracy. 

Stylus is a Latin word designating an ancient writing and pottery utensil. It can be literally translated as an “instrument for writing.” In its 21st-century form, it refers to a digital input tool designed for touchscreen safe use. Some specific uses include notetaking, annotations, digital signatures, drawing, sketching, digital artwork, and basically anything that requires touchscreen precision. 

A stylus pen is a common device that caters to lots of everyday needs. No wonder, then, they are so widely used in a broad range of professions. Stylus pens are especially popular among writers, researchers, graphic designers, and teachers. In this article, we’ll explore the different types of stylus pens on the market as well as their pros, cons, and main uses. 

What Are the Different Types of Stylus Pen? 

There are currently three different types of stylus pen available: passive, echo, and active styluses. Each of them uses different technologies. Keep reading to learn more about what they can – and cannot – do.  

1. Passive Stylus Pen 

Passive stylus pens, also known as capacitive styluses, were the first generation of styluses made for touchscreens. They also adopt the most basic range of features. These pens register input on a touchscreen by either distorting the touchscreen’s electrostatic field or blocking the transmission of light. In other words, the stylus simply replaces your finger. 

Within conventional touchscreen technology, touches on the screen are registered when your finger distorts the screen’s electrostatic field. Passive stylus technology works in the exact same way. The stylus pen distorts the field, and the screen recognizes this contact as a valid touch. For infrared and optical touchscreens, there are also special stylus pens which block the light transmission and that’s how the touch is marked.  

Most passive pens come equipped with a broader tip, as the larger input on the display ensures the device will recognize the distortion or block. Active pens, on the other hand, have thinner tips (and we will get to that in a second). 

Pros and Cons of Passive Styluses 

The primary advantages of passive stylus pens are affordable price cost and ease of use. As the technology is fairly rudimentary, passive stylus pens are cheaper to buy than those with more advanced technology. It’s also very user-friendly as the pen can be seen as an extension of your own finger. 

However, the larger nib on the end of passive stylus pens limits accuracy. They’re then not ideal for advanced tasks such as vector illustrations, photo editing and alike. Therefore, you’ll see passive pens being used mainly with interactive flat panel displays and smartphones for more basic needs. But let’s not underestimate these tools: they can be a huge improvement for users who are looking for a more intuitive web browsing experience or wish to avoid touching a screen with their fingers. 

More advanced features like pressure sensitivity, for example, are generally unavailable. On the flip side, passive stylus pens don’t require batteries, and elemental technology can also mean fewer technical issues. 

What Is A Stylus Pen

2. Echo Stylus Pen

Echo stylus pens represent the second generation of styluses. They embrace more advanced active electrostatic technology (AES). This technology is often equipped with tablets and its working principle is simple. The touchscreen of the display uses an electrostatic grid, with the stylus acting as a transmitting unit generating an electrical field. The grid constantly registers the disruption caused by the nib of the echo pen, therefore determining the position of the stylus on that grid. 

The technology results in improved precision and a more authentic writing experience. Drawing becomes more intuitive, thanks to accurate tracking of the stylus’ movement on the touchscreen’s surface. The use of echo stylus pens is most associated with digitizers and other drawings tablets. 

Pros and Cons of Echo Styluses 

Echo or AES styluses usually represent a mid-range option, and the pros and cons embody that fact. These pens are more precise than passive styluses, what broadens their range of uses. They come very handy for digital writing or drawing, making them a perfect match for both professionals and amateurs.  

In terms of price, they are also right in the middle: cheaper than the more advanced active stylus pens, but more expensive than the regular passive stylus. Compatibility is more limited than with passive stylus, though, and they can usually only be used with compatible models of tablets. In addition, unlike the passive styluses, they’re often equipped with a battery and need to be regularly charged which may be troublesome for some. 

Echo / AES stylus pens represent a good option when your needs are more advanced than just substituting the use of your finger and when you need to use a tablet or any similar echo-compatible device. 

3. Active Stylus Pen

Active stylus pens are the third generation of stylus technology and the most advanced of the three main pen types. They offer superior functionality, including excellent precision and, in many cases, pressure sensitivity. As a result, they can be used for writing, annotating, illustrating, or any other advanced graphics tasks. 

Active stylus pens come with an internal battery. They can also require an active connection with the chosen device ensured by the proprietary protocol they embark (over specific carrier frequency), or through Bluetooth. There are many options, however, that are also optimized for out-of-the-box use. 

Active stylus pens are by far the most advanced stylus pens available, and so they are perfectly suited for both professional and personal use. They are also the best choice if you intend to use a stylus for precise drawing or frequent writing. 

Active pens use specific protocols, which results in greater control, but reduces device compatibility. Indeed, the protocols are usually tied to the products of specifics manufacturers (Microsoft, Apple, Google…), often preventing from using them on other devices. You can learn more about these different protocols later in this read. 

Pros and Cons of Active Styluses 

The biggest advantage of the active stylus is its increased functionality. Active pens cater to much more advanced needs while remaining easy to use. They are the preferred choice of many graphic designers, digital artists, illustrators, professional writers, and educators. 

An active stylus will utilize specific protocols connected to a particular operating system or a range of devices. This allows for more precise actions beyond just writing, drawing, or menu navigation. For instance, an active pen may include buttons or allow specific motions to be performed to carry out on-screen actions, like writing in a specific font or size for example. The drawing experience is also enhanced, offering smooth motions and pen-on-paper accuracy.  

The primary downside of active pens is related to their limited compatibility, as they can only be used with devices running on the same protocol. Active stylus pens – given their versatility and accuracy – are also more expensive than the other alternatives. 

What Is A Stylus - infographics

What is a Stylus Pen Protocol and What Are the Different Protocols? 

Active pens utilize different protocols offered by manufacturers to connect and communicate with corresponding devices. This means that a stylus pen that has been designed for use with one protocol is unlikely to be compatible with a device that relies on a different protocol. The three most significant protocols are as follows: 

  • Universal Stylus Initiative (USI) 
  • Microsoft Pen Protocol (MPP) 
  • Apple Pencil Active Projected Capacitive  

USI is a protocol established to try to create a universal standard for stylus pens and is a two-way protocol that can remember user stylus settings. Google is the most significant member of the USI alliance. The Microsoft Pen Protocol, or MPP, on the other hand, is associated with Microsoft Surface devices and software, while the Apple Pencil is a protocol associated with Apple devices, such as the iPad or Apple Pencil stylus. 

It’s important to note that third-party styluses can be designed to work with different protocols too. For example the ViewStylus ACP301, with its 1024 pen pressure levels meets users’ need for drawing and annotating on the MPP protocol, while the ViewStylus ACP501 has been designed to be used on iPads and a vast range of capacitive touchscreens. 

In general, active pens designed for one protocol may not work properly with another, so buyers will need to choose their styluses wisely, based on the devices they own and are planning to acquire. 

The Benefits of Using a Stylus Pen 

Now that we have covered what a stylus pen is and how it works, let’s explore the benefits of using a stylus for different purposes, settings, and devices. 

Academic Settings 

Stylus pens can serve as an important piece of education technology, assisting teachers to smoothly operate the interactive whiteboards, tablet devices, and touchscreen computer monitors. For example, a stylus can help teachers by allowing them to annotate content on an interactive whiteboard for more engaging and efficient lessons. 

They can also be used within class to create new written content, which can be especially helpful for group learning and brainstorming sessions. Moreover, styluses can help students to contribute to lessons, add to content presented on an interactive whiteboard, as well as take handwritten notes on a computer, tablet, or smartphone. 

Artistic and Creative Work 

People working in artistic and creative fields undoubtedly find themselves in need of a stylus pen. This accessory allows users to digitally recreate actions that would traditionally be carried out with a pen or pencil and paper. This can include writing, illustration, photo editing, speed sketching, technical drawing, and other techniques associated with digital arts.  

Writers may utilize a stylus to enjoy the experience of handwriting while keeping all the notes in timeless, digitalized form. Stylus pens also sort out for intuitive editing, proofreading, notetaking, or annotating content on a touchscreen. Furthermore, styluses can play a role in the design of user interfaces, allowing for greater precision when navigating on-screen menus.  

Home and Casual Use 

It’s worth highlighting that styluses have plenty of benefits for casual users too. The uses are by no means restricted to work-based applications. On a basic level, a stylus pen can make it much easier to utilize a touchscreen, ensuring smartphone and tablet users can effortlessly browse websites and apps. 

Ultimately, this can make it easier to carry out online shopping or enjoy favorite smartphone or tablet apps even more. Styluses may be used to write shopping lists, create short notes, or take up new hobbies like line drawing. The use of these accessories can also protect touchscreens by reducing the number of finger marks left on them.  

Professional Settings 

Besides creative work environments and professional settings, a stylus pen can be used to provide a faster and more intuitive writing experience. This can be especially beneficial when it comes to participating or presenting during meetings.  

The use of interactive whiteboards and similar digital display devices within workplaces is greatly enhanced by styluses. They can assist with presentations using the displays and building a stronger interaction with coworkers and collaborators by real-time mark-ups and annotations. A stylus pen can also allow users to draw, sign digital documents, or record information in ways that can’t be easily replicated using a computer keyboard. 

Final Thoughts 

To be able to answer ‘what is a stylus pen?’ in full, it’s important to know the distinction between the three different stylus pen generations. Passive styluses represent the most basic technology and are the best substitutes for a finger touch on a smartphone or a tablet. Echo styluses constitute the mid-range solution that allows for digital artwork and digital handwriting. Active stylus pens are the top tier tools for most professional graphic design and academic use adopting most advanced technological solutions. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also check out a read on “What is a Digitizer” or explore Pen Display Solutions offered by ViewSonic. 

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