Wacom Bamboo Stylus Review: Turning the iPad Into a SketchPad

Wacom's Bamboo Stylus is the best tablet-focused stylus we've seen so far--but does the iPad benefit from having a stylus at all?

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Wacom is well-known for their artist’s tablets, smallish touch-sensitive squares that graphic designers use as digital sketchpads. But a different kind of tablet has recently taken hold, and Wacom doesn’t want to miss the boat on the iPad or the various other tablets hitting the market these days. Hence the Bamboo Stylus and Bamboo Paper app for the iPad, which I can safely say is the best stylus and the best stylus-using tablet app I’ve ever used. But does that make them good?

What’s New

A quick primer: Capacitive screens, of the type used in the iPad (as well as 99% of the smartphones and other tablets on the market) can’t be prodded with a simple piece of plastic, like the older resistive screens used in gadgets like the Nintendo DS. Capacitive screens operate by sensing a small electrical charge given off by human skin, which is why you can’t use your iPhone with gloves on. That’s mostly great, since it enables very precise touches with minimal pressure, as well as extra functionality like multitouch, but it means the only styli you can use with capacitive screens are specialized products that mimic or conduct that electrical charge. There have been capacitive styli before, to the point where there are both brand name options (Targus and Boxwave make well-reviewed styli) as well as ultra-cheap generic styli, but Wacom is by far the biggest name to get in the game.

Wacom’s artist’s tablets aren’t just “good,” they’re flat-out standard for an entire industry, so when the company releases an iPad app and stylus with (some) similar functionality, we take notice.

What’s Good

The stylus itself looks and feels great. It’s a subtle but attractive pen-looking stylus, matte-finished black metal with silver accents, that’s just the right size–not too thin, not too thick. It’s also weighted properly, both in actual weight and in balance, so it doesn’t feel like you’re holding a hollow aluminum tube. The tip is most reminiscent of, well, a condom’s reservoir tip, made of a slightly thicker, firmer, black rubber. It’s a clever solution to the problem of friction–it comes pretty close to mimicking the feel of a pen on paper, despite it being a rubber pustule dragged along a glass surface.

Functionality is great, too; you can use the stylus basically in place of your finger, which is a curious feeling the first time you try swiping between the iPad’s homescreens or scrolling through emails, but works just as well.

The Bamboo Paper app, which is free in the App Store for everyone, stylus or no, is extremely simple. Maybe too simple, really. It’s meant to mimic a journal, with separate pages, and gives you minimal options–an eraser, a few different line thicknesses and colors, a bookmark, and options to “clear page,” undo/redo, or share your masterwork (you can email, print, or save a page to your photos app, though you can’t share via social networks, which seems odd). That’s it, really. This isn’t an image creation app or a Photoshop alternative, it’s just a digital sketchpad. And for what it is, it works really well. Strokes of the stylus are picked up accurately and with minimal lag, which is about all you can ask for.

While writing, I tend to rest the side of my hand on the page (or tablet), which I expected to cause all sorts of problems–triggering settings, maybe, or at the very least littering my page with unwanted digital ink. I suspect Wacom has done some tricky software writing here, because that ended up being a very minimal problem. At worst, there were two or three stray dots per entire handwritten page, which is pretty impressive in my book, considering my hand was resting on the tablet the entire time.

What’s Bad

You can’t write nearly as small as with ink and paper–the pen is pretty accurate, but gets less precise the smaller you write. Plus, the motion is slightly different: Due to the compression of the reservoir tip, you have to lift the stylus up off the tablet a bit higher than you would with a pen and paper, or else you tend to blend letters together (dotting the “i’s” was particularly tricky, as the space between the dot and the line often disappeared).

I also wish there was a pressure sensitivity option. That’s not really technically possible, as far as I know, due to the way capacitive screens receive stimulus, but especially with the little inflatable nob on the Bamboo Stylus, you really want it to feel when you’re pressing harder. Can’t fault them for it, since I don’t think it’s possible, but it’s something I noticed while using the app.

The Price

The Wacom Bamboo Stylus retails for $30, about twice the price of other capacitive styli. The Bamboo Paper app is free, and can be used with any capacitive stylus (or with your finger, for that matter).

The Verdict

I’m not completely sold on the iPad as a digital sketchpad. I actually love handwriting, and was looking forward to being able to jot down notes, but it turns out it’s just not as efficient on an iPad as typing. But I’m also not going to write it off, and I think in certain settings, especially for students or visual artists, the Bamboo Stylus is pretty great. Students could type notes on the iPad’s keyboard, for speed and readability, but draw arrows connecting ideas, scribble notes in the margin, or circle important passages with much more ease than using a finger. For quick sketches, the Bamboo Stylus works pretty well; you’re not going to be creating masterpieces with the Bamboo Paper app, but the stylus works great with, for example, the Brushes sketchpad app. (Note: It works perfectly well with other tablets–I tried it with a Motorola Xoom–but Android tablets in particular lack good sketchpad apps.)

Should you buy it? If you think you’ll get use out of it, I think $30 is a pretty fair price for a solid product (just don’t lose it!). If you’re just curious, well, maybe not–the iPad’s OS is still designed to be used with a finger, after all. But that’s no knock against the stylus.