Samsung's Galaxy Note: A stylus by any other name

By Barbara Krasnoff (@BarbaraKrasnoff / ) - February 13, 2012.

There has been of bit of ridicule recently aimed at Samsung's latest Android smartphone, the Galaxy Note, even before it's become available to U.S. consumers. Not simply because of the recent Super Bowl commercial, which was, let us say, a bit over the top. And not just because some people feel that a 5.3-in. touchscreen is too large for something purporting to be a phone.

But because it comes with a stylus.

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Apparently, there are a number of people out there who seem to feel that the idea of using a pointed stick with your touchscreen is as old-fashioned as -- well, as pointed sticks. After all, why do you need a stylus when you have your finger?

In fact, even Samsung is being a little coy about what to call the writing instrument that comes with its phone. I met with Samsung and AT&T today so that they could introduce me to the phone, and according to Philip Berne, marketing manager, technical media for Samsung, the S Pen that comes with the Note is "not a stylus. A stylus is for pointing, while the S Pen is more sophisticated."

He does have, well, a point. The S Pen, which is manufactured by Wacom, is a pressure-sensitive digital device that allows you to interact with the screen in a variety of ways. It also comes with a small button near the tip which you press in order to allow the pen to perform a task other than writing. For example, press the button and simultaneously push the pen against the display for a couple of seconds and you take a screen shot.

Still, I looked up several definitions of the word "stylus", and the consensus seems to be that it is a "sharp, pointed instrument used for writing, marking, or engraving." So as far as I'm concerned, the S Pen may be a highly sophisticated digital device, but it is a stylus all the same.

That being said: What's wrong with using a stylus? Certainly, styli allow for much more precise entry than a finger tip, even if you're tapping on a keyboard. (One of the reasons spelling tends to be so excruciatingly bad on many text messages is, I've maintained, because they are being entered onto tiny keypads by thick human fingers that belong to people who are usually in a hurry.)

And there are a number of practical uses for digital pens in the business and creative community -- for example, taking notes during meetings (scribbling a quick note can be faster than tapping it out on a keypad), annotating presentations or sending out images with handwritten changes ("Please alter this photo so that the chair I've circled is red instead of blue.")

ZDNet's Jason Perlow has published a well-written article called In defense of the Galaxy Note's stylus. I don't disagree with him.

Trying out the S Pen

I got the chance to work with the Galaxy Note for a couple of hours today (Computerworld's Matthew Hamblen is working on a full review which will appear later this week), mainly to try out the S Pen and see how it felt -- especially since I've become used to using just a finger to handle the touch screens on my phones.

The Galaxy Note comes with an app especially made to demonstrate the S Pen that is called, appropriately, S Memo; it allows you to create, save and share notes. You can bring it up at any time by pressing the button on the S Pen and tap it twice on the display.

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 It's an interesting app: You can, for example, use four different types of "writing instruments" (a pen, a brush, a pencil or a highlighter), change the background of the note, or the color or width of your pen stroke. You can insert a photo, a drawing or a Google map into the note and then write over or around it.

You can also add text using handwriting recognition. Anyone who has ever owned one of the older Microsoft Mobile phones or Palm PDAs will recognize the format -- you write in a box located on the lower part of the screen; the text then appears on the document showing on the upper part. The Galaxy Note offers handwriting recognition with a number of other apps, including Polaris Office, an office suite for mobile devices.

After working with the device for a few minutes, I found that, unless I was careful,writing very quickly using the text recognition -- the speed I'd use if I were, say, taking notes during an interview -- resulted in as jumbled a set of words as I would get if I were trying to type very quickly using a phone's keypad. However, I suspect that, given a few days to learn the ins and outs, I'd do a lot better. Whether I'd prefer that to using the onscreen keypad -- well, at this point, I couldn't say.

And let's face it -- there are distinct disadvantages to using a stylus. First, the S Pen is securely nestled in the bottom of the device and is not that easy to pull out at a moment's notice. And it's small -- which means it's easily mislaid. When I showed the Note to a friend who has owned a number of different PDAs, one of the first things he asked was, "How many extra styli come with it?" When I told him that it came with only the one, he shook his head. (Replacements will be available for $29 each.)

The Galaxy Note smartphone will be available to U.S. consumers through AT&T for $299 with the usual two-year contract; those who pre-ordered it should receive it on February 17th and it will be generally available February 19th. Most people, I imagine, will be interested in the device because of its large screen (which makes reading an ebook or watching a video a lot more pleasurable than on a smaller smartphone), especially if they are interested in minimizing the number of devices they need to carry around with them.

But I will be interested to find out the reaction to the S Pen by those who actually use the Galaxy Note. I wonder if, in the end, it will be considered an advantage, or simply an unnecessary add-on.

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