What Is a Stylus?

This screen helper is handy to have

A stylus, often referred to as a digital pen, is a pen-shaped instrument used in conjunction with an electronic device such as a tablet, smartphone, or certain computer screens to enter information.

Samsung phone showing use of stylus

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Why Use a Stylus

Most people use a stylus to write notes on a touchscreen, draw images, or make other notations on their phone or tablet. Artists often use stylus pens to draw animations or other artwork on laptop computers or tablets. Using a digital pen with a touchscreen mimics using a pencil with paper, except the information is digitized and can be saved or shared.

As digital pens have become more popular, apps have sprung up to take advantage of their capabilities.

Support for Digital Pens

Many smartphones from manufacturers such as Samsung, Google, Huawei, and Xiaomi include stylus capabilities in their phones. In some cases, the stylus slides into a slot built into the smartphone for that purpose. For those that don't come with a stylus, you can purchase one separately and keep track of it on your own, assuming the device supports stylus input, which not every device does.

Many tablets also support stylus options. The Apple Pencil is available for certain iPad models. It can perform most of the same functions a fingertip can, only with more precision. Other tablets that support a stylus include the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7, Lenovo Tab P11, and Microsoft Surface Go 2.

The device is also a popular accessory for use with touchscreen laptops, including the Microsoft Surface Pro 7, HP Spectre x360, and Dell Inspiron 13, among others.

In the world of digital pens, one size doesn't necessarily fit all. Although some stylus pens work with any touchscreen device, sometimes only digital pens produced by the laptop, phone, or tablet manufacturer are compatible with their devices.

  • What is a capacitive stylus?

    A capacitive stylus functions just like your finger to distort the electrostatic field on your device's screen. It is the simplest type of stylus you can buy and works with any device with a capacitive touch screen. It doesn't require a battery or charging, but it lacks pressure sensitivity.

  • What is an active stylus?

    An active stylus includes electronic elements that give it pressure sensitivity. Just like capacitive/passive styluses, an active stylus conducts the electrical charge from your finger to any capacitive device screen so that you can tap or write on the screen. Because of its electronics, an active stylus requires a power source or charging capability.

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