Galaxy Note and S Pen: Can a tweener smartphone-tablet succeed?

Analysts say stylus could help 5.3-in. Samsung device avoid problems that forced Dell to kill two Streak models

The 5.3-in. Samsung Galaxy Note, set to be available for AT&T's LTE network on Feb. 19, is called a smartphone, but its touchscreen and integrated S Pen stylus for drawing and taking notes elevates the device into a somewhat different category.

The Galaxy Note smartphone
The Galaxy Note smartphone and S Pen stylus (Image: Samsung)

Priced at $299.99 with a two-year agreement, Galaxy Note runs Android 2.3. The manufacturer's Samsung Norway Facebook page has confirmed an Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade will arrive soon thereafter, though a company spokeswoman in the U.S. Tuesday wouldn't say when the new OS will be available for the Galaxy Note in this country.

The Galaxy Note form factor faces an unknown future based on how similar products have done so far.

For instance, Dell couldn't make it with its 5-in. and 7-in. Streak touchscreen tablets, though neither used a stylus for input.

Both Streak models were withdrawn in 2011 after an auspicious start in mid-2010.

On the other hand, a Sprint spokesman said that carrier is pleased with sales of its 7-in. HTC Evo View 4G and HTC Scribe digital pen since they were introduced in mid-2011.

The spokesman did note that there's no discernable way to know just how popular the digital pen input capability is for Evo View users. Sprint currently sells the View tablet for just $250 after rebates and with a two-year agreement. It charges $50 extra for the Scribe pen, making the price of the combined offering the same as the upcoming Galaxy Note with an integrated S Pen.

Analysts offered a variety of opinions about the Galaxy Note and about the importance of the S Pen to its future success.

Some compare the S Pen to the Palm Pilot's small integrated stylus that worked well with the small 1996-era PDA, or Personal Digital Assistant. Users could tap the screen with the stylus to open various functions.

Other analysts said the S Pen appears to be much more sophisticated than the Palm Pilot stylus. For example some noted that the Samsung pen can be turned into an artist's brush, with different widths and shapes that show up well on the Galaxy Note's high resolution (1280 x 800) screen.

Samsung draws attention to the S Pen stylus and its functionality in its marketing materials, though it is hard to determine what Samsung believes is the Galaxy Note's strongest selling feature.

The Galaxy Note also has an HD-quality video camera that has shot video footage slated to be shown in a television ad during Sunday's Super Bowl, Samsung said.

Analysts said Samsung has a difficult task convincing users of the value of the S Pen stylus.

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said sales of smartphone/tablets in the 5-in. to 7-in. range have been slow to date, noting the failure of the Streak tablets despite Dell's widely recognized name.

"That form factor has been problematic," Enderle noted. "It requires a lot of marketing to be successful, which Dell didn't do with Streak."

Samsung will have to showcase how the galaxy Note is an especially different product, Enderle said.

For instance, he said that if the device is meant to be a artist's pad, a way to take handwritten notes and/or a product for video recording and viewing of movies, Samsung has to clearly establish such capabilities in its advertising and social media strategies.

"Galaxy Note does connect smartphone features to a tablet, so maybe somebody won't need both devices," Enderle said, noting that products like the HTC Evo View and its stylus could help pave the way for the Samsung device.

Samsung is already producing Galaxy Tablets, as well as some of the hottest Android smartphones, such as the Android 4.0-based Galaxy Nexus. That success indicates that Samsung has already become a product and marketing powerhouse, Enderle noted.

"Samsung actually scares both Sony and Apple half to death," he said.

Kevin Burden, an analyst at ABI Research, said he's talked with AT&T executives about the intended market for the Galaxy Note. One executive, he said, expects that it will become a smartphone-tablet for people that don't already own a tablet.

"That's a stretch for me," Burden said. "We simply don't know how successful the Note will be, since our only real experience was with the Streak. Tweener devices don't always do well."

Burden said the S Pen stylus in the Galaxy Note will be an important feature, especially depending on the kinds of applications for artists and others that are developed.

A 5.3-in. touchscreen is much bigger than that on many smartphones so it "almost demands more productivity from a user. It could get frustrating for users if they didn't have the option of using a stylus," he added.

Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates said the the stylus is "absolutely" needed for navigation and drawing beyond using a finger.

"I think the stylus is actually a great idea by Samsung to try to elevate the device beyond being simply a [multimedia] consumption device," Gold said.

"It will depend on the kind of apps that take advantage of the stylus capability that determine if users accept it or demand it. It's not a throwback to a Palm Pilot stylus for navigation. It can help content creation," Gold added.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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