Let me take you back to 2007, when Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs first introduced the world to the iPhone. At one point, he reached the subject of touch input. “Who wants a stylus? You have to get ’em and put ’em away, and you lose ’em. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus. So let’s not use a stylus.” And with those few lines, he split the touchscreen world into two camps: finger input and stylus input. For a long time, there were debates about which is better. It’s safe to say that the finger has come out on top, like Jobs predicted. But there’s one mistake he made: You don’t have to choose between the two.
No Apple touchscreen product ships with a stylus as the company still believes your finger is the best pointing device around. And that’s fair. But it’s silly to think that it’s the best pointing device for every use case scenario. Have you tried sketching with your finger, or writing notes with it?
Much like with any debate between extremes, the answer to “Which is better, the finger or the stylus?” lay in a middle path that didn’t make the user choose a camp, and instead empowered him with the best of both. That’s what Samsung has done with the S-Pen and its software add-ons for the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet. It’s good enough to make me believe tablets should ideally come with a built-in stylus.
80% Finger, 20% Stylus
Even with the Note 10.1, you will end up using your finger for 80% of your tasks. The thing is, that stylus fills a gap for the 20% which you can’t do well on an iPad or other tablets. These are simple, everyday tasks.
You walk into a meeting and you need to take notes—wouldn’t it be helpful to take those notes on a tablet and have it auto-convert them into digital text, so you can search through them later? That’s what the S-Pen does with the Action Memo.
You need to quickly open a calculator as a floating window in a specific part of the screen while working on your spreadsheet? Samsung’s Air Command has a “Pen Window” feature just for that.
You’re an artist who wants to sketch? There’s plenty of great apps built-in and the S-Pen is pressure-sensitive, making it easier to draw.
Good hardware always needs to be complemented by good software and Samsung has demonstrated this very well with the S-Pen and its many features on the Note 10.1. The apps just work! I was surprised by how accurate the Action Memo was in recognizing what I was writing. I have atrocious handwriting, as you can see, but it was still able to transcribe most of it, making only three small errors.
Not Perfect, But Better Than Nothing
Using the S-Pen stylus still has its shortcomings. For one, the button on it is placed in a way where you will accidentally click it a few times. Plus, you should still follow some of the rules of actual pen and paper, like always writing in portrait mode, since writing in landscape makes each line too long.
And you can’t be using the S-Pen all the time. A lot of touchscreen interactions have now been made keeping finger input in mind, like long-presses and gestures. Performing the same with the stylus does not work properly many times.
Still, the utility it offers in those 20% aforementioned scenarios is a godsend. And the more I used the Note 10.1, the more reliant I got on that little S-Pen. The handwriting recognition of the device is pretty good, so I often found myself using it over a regular keyboard for short replies and messages.
Samsung’s perfect pairing of great software and hardware makes you realise how good devices would be if they offered a little more choice to users. I really do wish the iPad came with a stylus, complete with custom software from Apple to make the most of it. But for now, the Note 10.1 is what you will need to buy if a high-end stylus-equipped tablet is what you seek.
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