When he introduced the iPhone and iPad, Steve Jobs asserted that the touchscreen devices didn’t need a stylus because humans come with 10 great touchscreen controllers sticking out of our palms: fingers.
He was proved right, and most new smartphones and tablets don’t require a stylus to work their touchscreen.
But some apps work better with a stylus, particularly painting apps.
$5 for iPad and Android
SketchBook Pro takes the prize for this category. It’s a comprehensive sketching and painting program from Autodesk, a company with decades of expertise making design software. This powerful app comes with a variety of painting and drawing tools that you can use to create sophisticated works.
If you’re no painting expert, the app is still simple and entertaining to use. It has many different controls for painting effects — pen and brush shapes, sizes, stroke pattern, and so on — but the menu system makes it a breeze to navigate. You never get lost. And while you can use this app with your bare finger, if you use a stylus it will feel almost as if you’re drawing in real life, not digitally on a screen.
SketchBook Pro also has a few extras, like the ability to time-lapse record your painting in progress, that could be used by teachers to show how an expert would create a particular image. The app is impressive all around.
$3 on iOS
Zen Brush is also an app that has styluses in mind. It’s a particularly good companion for tablet styluses that have a brushlike extension, because the app is about making Japanese-style calligraphy and painting. In some ways it’s more basic than the other apps mentioned here because there are fewer settings; it is aimed at producing images with few colors that feel as if they’ve been painted in ink. You can change the background and ink colors, but the choices are from a limited list.
What this app does well is recreate the sensation of painting with a brush. It also has an elegant interface and built-in sharing options so you can show off your artwork on Twitter. The app’s not for everyone, and you may find its choices limit the artwork you can produce, but it’s definitely worth its $3 price.
$5 on iOS
Lastly, Layers is an iOS app that’s about drawing and painting. This app’s emphasis is on creating layers of painted patterns that stack up on top of each other to produce your final image, but it’s otherwise similar to Sketchbook Pro.
The app gives users great control over the brush effects, and its small icons are easier to press with the tip of a stylus than with clumsy fingers. One issue is the app’s price — at $5, it’s expensive.
I also found that sometimes the curves you paint come out looking like a bunch of small straight sections rather than one smooth, flowing shape.
Try out these apps with your finger first, if you want — you may find that tempts you into buying a stylus so you can paint more realistically.
Kit Eaton writes on technology for The New York Times.