In Defense Of The Stylus

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People like touchscreens. For some, touching just feels like the most natural way to interact with a digital display. Those who are really into gadgets might appreciate the technical aspects of such an interface, and still there are those who like them simply because they’re so futuristic and, frankly, fun. As their popularity has grown, the technology behind them has improved by leaps and bounds; just look at today’s multi-touch trackers compared to the tethered light pens of yesteryear. Somewhere along the way, though, as we started moving from resistive to capacitive screens, and the iPhone’s design really started to drive the market, styluses fell by the wayside. Is this progress, or are we doing ourselves a disservice by abandoning such a useful tool?

For me, the big problem with fingertip input is the perception I have of a lack of precision. I love using my fingertips when the nature of my interaction with the screen is largely about direction, or velocity, like how you navigate around Google Maps. When it comes to pressing on-screen buttons, though, or selecting text, I feel like I’m not fully in control.

Now, this isn’t to say that I find fingertip input to be especially inaccurate; the combination of hardware and software in modern devices does a fantastic job at interpreting my clumsy stabs, but even when it’s working very well, I feel like it’s doing so in spite of me, and I’m not inputting position data with the precision that I’d like to.

Haptic feedback helps with the experience a little bit, reminding me of that reassuring “give” you’d feel with a stylus as it depressed a screen’s resistive membrane, right where you intended.

Ultimately, the problem is that fingertips are just too darn big. Inevitably, as you go to tap the screen, you end up covering not just where you intended to press, but hundreds of other pixels surrounding it. The idea that I have to simply trust the phone to figure out exactly which pixel I meant to touch, out of so many, is at the heart of my concerns.

Granted, there’s still a bit of imprecision when using a stylus, but the combination of a much smaller pointing surface, with the ability to input without obscuring the screen so much, goes a long way in my book to making it feel like a reliable, precise input device.

I realize that apps are designed with the constraints of fingertip input in mind, but that just seems counterproductive to me. Today’s smartphones are so much more powerful that the PDAs we had when the stylus was king; it’s like moving from a Taurus to a Ferrari, but replacing the responsive steering wheel with a left/straight/right toggle switch.

What would I like to see happen? More hardware like the Galaxy Note offering input devices like its S Pen. I realize the implementation may be a little loose in that example, but the phone’s got the right idea.

After that, I’d love to see apps written to expect such precise input; I can’t help but think that some of today’s apps are visually unappealing because they’re wasting so much of their screen real estate on icons and buttons that are larger than they should need to be.

Am I optimistic? Well, there’s certainly been a little upswing in stylus popularity lately, but I’ve got a feeling that it’s never going to catch back on in a big way; like I said, fingertip input is just too much fun, and it’s too convenient for most people to ever want to go back.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!