Hey, OEMs: either do a stylus right, or not at all

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We’re finally going full-circle on the stylus. Back in the Windows Mobile days, the stylus was king, and if you wanted any kind of precision with that less-than-touch-friendly UI on those tiny screens, you absolutely had to have one. But as capacitive displays rose to prominence, the once-noble stylus fell by the wayside, sticking out like a sore thumb, a banner of a previous era. As the years went on, the stylus seemed to fade away from our collective consciousness, but then a little over two years ago, at the 2011 IFA, Samsung debuted the original Galaxy Note with its S Pen.

Since then, Samsung’s improved on its own product, bringing the S Pen stylus to additional phones as well as tablets, and it’s soundly become a premium item; especially with Samsung’s tablets, this effect is pronounced, and Galaxy Tab models seriously lag behind Notes in terms of performance.

While the stylus may not see the same level of use it did back in the time of the PDA, it finally looks like it’s here to stay, and has become a key selling point of many devices featuring it: not just the Note series, but models like the Surface Pro, as well.

stylusThat resurgence has been a double-edged sword, and while I’m very glad to see the stylus back in one form or another, I’m worried that a number of companies are more concerned with hopping on the stylus bandwagon – and presenting their hardware as this top shelf, cream of the crop stuff – than actually taking the time to give users a high-quality, well-rounded stylus experience. That’s a damn shame, because if you’re not going to bother to really do a good job with your stylus implementation, you’re better off doing nothing at all.

The timing of this tirade isn’t any coincidence. Last Thursday morning, as I did my morning crawl through various press releases, I saw LG’s announcement of the G Pro Lite. Its specs were colored with fifty shades of “meh,” but darn it if I didn’t find the inclusion of a stylus a little interesting – not just an add-on of an accessory, either, but the whole sliding-into-a-storage-slot routine.

Immediately after that, I turned my attention to the launch of the Pantech Vega Secret Note. Now, this one was a phone with some meat on its bones, and in addition to the 3GB of RAM and Snapdragon 800 SoC, the handset boasted a stylus of its own.

But nearly as soon as I saw both of those styluses, I got a bad taste in my mouth. Eww… capacitive…

Admittedly, these look better than some capacitive pens I’ve seen in the past, but I’ll never get past that broad, rounded tip that’s a hallmark of such designs. I appreciate the necessity for such construction, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Smartphone screens are getting higher and higher resolution all the time, and you just can’t get the sort of killer accuracy a stylus promises with such a broad pointing surface.

note-stylusEven if the panel is doing a bang-up job at tracking the dead center of that stylus tip, you’re still obscuring a lot of screen in the process, and writing with the pen at any sort of angle quickly results in imprecision.

Maybe other people are less picky about their stylus tech than I, but if you’re not using an inductive pen with a fine tip, I don’t want to hear about it.

The hardware’s just the half of the equation, though; what about the software? Actually, I’m of conflicting opinions on this. If a phone or tablet can do an absolutely stunning job with stylus hardware – near pixel-accurate tracking, great ergonomics, and all – I really could accept it with zero additional software support. That’s how much I enjoy really precise touchscreen input.

But for most of you, you’re going to want a really fleshed-out software package to go with this stylus hardware. Again, Samsung really nails this, and as we’ve seen with its latest evolution on the Note 3, the software goes a long way towards making the stylus an essential part of navigating your way through the phone, rather than a simple pointing device.

Ironically, Samsung’s probably the company that needs to worry the least about this. Instead, it’s the companies which come up a little lackluster in the stylus hardware department that really need the great software package to sell their stylus experiences. So far, though, I’ve yet to be impressed.

Maybe I’m not giving companies like LG or Pantech enough credit here, but some of these new devices with styluses look like they’re doing so just to say they have one – there’s no sense of care, of taking time to user-test and refine – and instead the styluses feel more like the results of mandates sent down from executives on-high with little concern for the details.

So take note, OEMs: if your official stylus isn’t giving users an experience that’s any better than what they’d get with some generic $2 capacitive stylus off Amazon, you should probably forget about including one in the first place.

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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!