The S Pen’s story is still being written
I’ve been playing with a lot of Samsung devices recently.
That should come as no surprise, given the sheer volume of smartphones and tablets on the market bearing the brand of the world’s leading handset manufacturer. The company is, if nothing else, prolific. But the abundance of Samsung hardware across the landscape makes it more impressive that some of the company’s products still manage to stand out. I’m not referring to the new Galaxy Tab 3 devices we recently unboxed (check for reviews next week on each of those), but rather to a sub-brand that transitioned from punchline to paragon faster than almost any other in mobile history. I’m talking about the Galaxy Note family.
On the heels of a polite but cool Galaxy S 4 reception, Samsung devotees the world over started speculating anew about what the company’s next Galaxy Note would bring to spice up the phablet category its progenitors created. We’re due for a third iteration of the smartphone/tablet hybrid this summer, but the Galaxy Note III will launch into a world unlike the one that greeted its forebears: a world where “Galaxy Note” is an established and respected name. When the III announcement lands, presumably at IFA in September, it will join the two prior phablets, the full-size Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, and the mid-size Galaxy Note 8.0 as members of Samsung’s premiere Android experience.
These devices have more in common than a brand name, high-end specs, and oversized dimensions, though: they also pack a feature once thought consigned to the dustbin of history: the stylus. Not just any stylus, but Samsung’s special, feature-laden (albeit unimaginatively named) S Pen. And I’ve been thinking about the S Pen a lot this week.
Paired with its Wacom digitizer, the S Pen is a powerful addition to any Galaxy Note device: it augments the usual capacitive finger-control found on most screens with over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity, making handwriting and illustration tasks much easier than with a lame old capacitive stylus. As we mentioned in our Galaxy Note II review, it also serves as a very handy secondary input method for smoother control of Samsung’s TouchWiz UI, allowing for hovering previews, page scrolling, and quick shortcuts. It was this enhanced usability that Samsung aimed to replicate when porting the AirView suite to the pen-free Galaxy S 4 – an effort that was only marginally successful. Sometimes the naked finger won’t do. Some things just work better with a stylus.
It’s tough to dispute the S Pen’s force as a compelling differentiator, a life ring in the sea of sameness that Android has become. Samsung itself recognizes this, having released an SDK specifically so third-party developers can write apps optimized to take advantage of the magic stick. And the S Pen is one of the biggest reasons we preferred the Galaxy Note 8.0 over its cheaper Galaxy Tab 3 counterpart in this week’s midsize tablet comparison.
But enough sucking up to the S Pen. No product is perfect, and that goes for accessories as well – even ones as well-integrated as this. There’s room for improvement with a few aspects of 2013’s most advanced mobile writing implement, and we’re hoping the Galaxy Note III will usher in at least some of them.
Samsung’s Quick Command functionality ostensibly exists to provide a shortcut to commonly-used Note features, so you don’t have to hunt and peck for an icon or a folder when using the S Pen. You just hold the pen’s button and draw a vertical line up the screen, and the above window pops up, complete with instructions on how to use the various shortcuts.
Here’s the problem, though: none of those “shortcuts” are, you know, short. Don’t take my word for it, either: just look at the screengrab above. Getting a report on the local weather requires you to actually write out the word “weather” in that smallish space. And even then, it’s not like you’re getting a special S Pen-optimized weather app or anything; all the device does is perform a Google search in the browser. There’s absolutely no benefit to doing things this way aside from “impressing” your friends (let me know how that goes if you try it at a party).
Many of the S Pen shortcuts exhibit the same kind of over-engineered complexity. The back gesture, formerly executed with a simple right-to-left swipe of the S Pen, now requires a user to draw an awkward boomerang on the screen. That change was presumably made to allow for the S Pen’s cropped-screenshot functionality – which would be cool if its interface were just a little easier to use.
While I love that Samsung has thought to include so many software enhancements along with the S Pen, I do think it needs to settle down on quantity and focus on quality (a familiar refrain among those tired of Samsung’s feature overload). Stuff like double-tapping to open S Note should stay and be improved upon; stuff like Quick Commands should probably take a hike.
We have no idea what the next Galaxy Note’s display will look like, regardless of whatever flexible-screen rumors are the leak du jour. Odds are that, whatever the display technology of the pixels themselves on the Note III, the coating on top will remain glossy, smooth, slippery tempered glass. But I hope that’s not the case. Because there’s a funny thing about glass: it’s really uncomfortable to write on.
When the Note II was announced, Samsung made a special point of noting that the S Pen had been redesigned, its tip roughened up to offer more resistance when moving across its Gorilla Glass layer. This was presumably done in response to feedback from users of the first-gen Note that -wait for it- writing on glass sucks. But if there’s a difference on the Note II (or the Note 10.1, or the Note 8.0), I can’t really feel it. Writing with the S Pen on any of these devices is an exercise in patience and steady breathing to minimize wiggle and wander. If there’s a pen-tip material out there that offers more resistance on glass, or a screen coating that achieves the same result, Samsung should use it.
But the pen-on-paper analog requires one last element to fully sell the effect: 1-to-1 responsiveness. This is something that UI engineers have been struggling to achieve with finger input for years, so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing similar challenges with the modern-day stylus. The S Pen is consistently a step behind when writing at normal speed. Try it yourself: pretend it’s 1985 and you’re at a bar, being told a phone number you don’t want to lose: first jot it down on a cocktail napkin with a pen like your parents used to do, and then do the same thing with the S Pen on your Note. You’ll instantly notice the lag, and if it didn’t bother you before, it will now. (You’re welcome.)
Maybe that’s unavoidable with the current generation of hardware and software; maybe there’s so much complexity going on between the interaction of the S Pen with the digitizer and the OS that that millimeter or two of lag is just one of those things we have to live with. Maybe.
But I don’t believe that. This is Samsung we’re talking about: the company with so many feature ideas it built a whole class of flagship devices and still couldn’t fit them all in. If anyone knows how to improve on the modern stylus situation, it’s Samsung. And with other companies launching some pretty impressive smartphone efforts, there’s no better time to refine a key differentiator like the S Pen than right now.