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Why Is Samsung The Only Company Investing In The Stylus?

By Michael Fisher October 22, 2012, 6:18 pm

This holiday season is shaping up to be absolutely insane in the mobile technology space, with new products landing almost more quickly than we can cover them. The pace of announcement and release shows no sign of slowing, but if you're an OEM, one of the nice things about launching a truly impressive beast of a device is that it stays in the headlines a while.

Such is the case with the Galaxy Note II, a device we featured rather heavily in the weeks leading up to and following its release, crowned by the longest review I've ever written. It's one of the year's most significant devices, and not just because of its screen real estate, monumental spec sheet, or still-surprising success as a hybrid product. It must be said: the Galaxy Note II, and its predecessor, are successful devices in part due to their styli. Sorry — their S Pens.


The distinction is important not just from a snobby branding perspective; the S Pen really is different. In case you missed our S Pen Lesson from a few weeks back, check it out below to see a few ways Samsung has enhanced the stylus experience on the Galaxy Note II. And no, you don't need to remind me: I know about the "menu" and "back" gestures (now), but I still find them cumbersome.

Weirdo shortcuts aside, it's plain to see how much utility the S Pen brings to the Galaxy Note II experience. It's not perfect, as pointed out both above and in the full review video; the feel of the pen on the screen and the sub-1:1 responsiveness are slight dings against the user interaction. But overall, the experience of using the device is enhanced by the addition of the S Pen, and that seems true in the tablet-sized Note experience as well.

Why, then, aren't more manufacturers hopping aboard the stylus bandwagon? HTC got closest with the functionally similar (but massive) stylus for its Flyer tablet, but other OEMs seem content to offer only unimpressive capacitive styli for use with their devices. LG's Optimus Vu/Intuition suffers from this deficiency, combined with the fact that the device offers no dock or silo to accommodate the stylus.

It's the very nature of capacitive styli that immediately handicap any would-be Galaxy Note competitor. If you're not hip to the e-pen world, the difference between an S Pen and a capacitive stylus might not be immediately apparent, so check out this video on how cool Samsung's C Pen isn't:

The crucial difference tends to be this: most manufacturers are willing to slap on a capacitive stylus as an available accessory, or even to bundle one with a device. Far fewer are willing to go the extra step of changing their smartphone designs to accommodate the added technology a stylus requires to truly shine.

As we've covered before, the Galaxy Note phablet/tablet family doesn't just rely on the S Pen itself to increase its utility. The displays of these devices are different, incorporating a Wacom digitizer in addition to the standard capacitive elements we've come to know and love in our smartphones. The result is a display that can sense pressure, not just mere contact— over 1,000 levels of it, in the case of the newer Notes. The inclusion of the digitizer means Galaxy Note displays diverge significantly from their Wacom-less counterparts. As a Wikipedia clipping from XDA-Developers explains:

Under the tablet's surface ... is a printed circuit board with a grid of multiple send/receive coils and a magnetic reflector attached behind the grid array. In send mode, the tablet generates a close-coupled electromagnetic field (also known as a B-field) ... [which] stimulates oscillation in the pen's coil/capacitor (LC) circuit when brought into range of the B-field ...

In receive mode, the energy of the resonant circuit’s oscillations in the pen is detected by the tablet's grid. This information is analyzed by the computer to determine the pen's position, by interpolation and Fourier analysis of the signal intensity. In addition, the pen communicates other vital information, such as pen tip pressure, side-switch status, tip vs. eraser orientation, and the ID number of the tool (to differentiate between different pens, mice, etc.). For example, applying more or less pressure to the tip of the pen changes the value of the pen's timing circuit capacitor.

Anatomy of a first-generation S Pen.

That's a pretty hefty design change right there, and it's one that other companies have been unwilling or unable to commit to. As a result, they offer a stylus experience that's either nonexistent or severely deficient by comparison.

You could make the argument that a deficient stylus experience on a smartphone is all but irrelevant in today's world; after all, phablets have been more successful than many anticipated, but they can hardly be called mainstream. Many still consider a stylus to be little more than an artifact from the days of the Treo. But Samsung is clearly looking to change that with the Galaxy Note II; it's about to launch nearly simultaneously on all four major U.S. carriers (an event we'll be covering, so stay tuned). Clearly the company is no longer content with niche success, and has its sights set on porting the phablet concept to the masses. At the risk of repeating myself: the stylus is a crucial component of the hybrid phone/tablet formula, and doing it right is a requisite to success in that segment.

If other companies want a piece of the pie, they must be willing to execute properly rather than tacking a rubber nub onto the end of a fancy-looking pen and selling it as an accessory. And there's still time; Samsung has a lot of momentum and a ton of buzz surrounding the Galaxy brand in general, and the Note family in particular, but it's not perfect. A competitor who figures out how to improve on the stylus experience still has a chance to carve out a sub-niche in the formerly narrow phablet sector. They just have to care enough, and believe enough that they'd realize a substantial return on the effort, to do it right.

Title image source: SlashGear

S Pen anatomy info, photo source: XDA-Developers


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