S Pen Stylus

The one thing that emphatically sets the Note II apart from even hulking phones is its stylus, which Samsung calls the “S Pen.” It fits nicely in the hand and tucks into the lower right edge of the device when not in use. When it’s is pulled out, the Note II can be configured to jump to a stylus-centric menu page or launch a specific app.

The Note II features a pressure-sensitive stylus that can be used for pen-based input, including handwriting recognition.

In the early days of tablet computing a stylus was a necessity, but touch interfaces are now completely mainstream and most of us are doing fine with just our fingers. So what problem is the S Pen trying to solve?

We looked for clues in the included S Note and Paper Artist apps. Paper Artist is gimmicky little app that applies heavy “art” filters (“Watersketch,” “Markerpen,” “Munch,” and about 30 others) to existing photos or real-time captures. Each filter actually has two layers: with the brush tool, you can selectively remove the top layer to reveal a different one beneath it. You can also draw on the results.

The Note II comes with the Paper Artist app which applies filters that simulate painting and drawing. It also shows off the Note II’s stylus functionality.

Paper Artist isn’t the most exciting app, but it does hint at what the S Pen is good for. Painting and drawing feel more natural with the stylus. You can cycle through the tools by clicking the S Pen’s button, which could be really handy in a more useful app. Since the Note II can detect the stylus before it touches the screen (it displays a little circle onscreen below the pen) you can effectively “hover” as you would with a mouse cursor: in Paper Artist, doing this over a tool pops up a little description.

While Paper Artist does very little, the S Note app wants to do everything. The result feels a little like one of those giant Swiss Army knives that are as wide as they are long: a bit intimidating and cumbersome. You can slap images together into a note, but the app’s real strengths are in pen-based input. Its handwriting recognition is impressive, though it’s a little hard to write quickly with a stylus. It also recognizes serious mathematical formulas, something that would be a pain to enter on a conventional keyboard. Drawing diagrams consisting of geometric shapes is a snap thanks to a suite of clever tools. Want to drop a clip-art cat in a note? Just write “cat” in the Idea Sketch window and you get three choices.

From a photographic standpoint, S Note seems less useful. The app offers a number of ambitious templates for everything from interior design plans to travelogues, but even once you figure out S Note’s more advanced functionality (not easily done), it’s hard to understand why you’d want to take on those tasks with this device. 

The included S Note app has a number of productivity features, but as far as photo manipulation and layout go, it’s a bit clunky.

There’s little if any explicit S Pen support in third-party photo editing apps (though you can use it instead of your finger anytime you want). Developers have bent over backwards to make apps finger-friendly, and doing so largely means designing against the high-precision, single-point input style embodied by a stylus.

The Note II's S Pen stylus fits nicely in the hand and tucks into the lower right edge of the device when not in use.

Indeed, we’d be hard pressed to name even one Android photo editor that would be improved by S Pen support. Choosing filters doesn’t require stylus-level accuracy, and Snapseed, arguably the most flexible image enhancement tool for Android, is great precisely because of the way it leverages a low-precision, multitouch interface. We could imagine using the S Pen with the iOS-only Photogene, Photoshop Touch or iPhoto as those apps offer paintable masks and selections that would benefit from a stylus’s accuracy, but those kinds of editors haven’t taken root in the Android ecosystem.

That said, Samsung's Tab 10.1 tablet comes with a version of Adobe's Photoshop Touch that has been optimzed for use with the S Pen. Now, that Adobe has launched a Photoshop Touch version for phones there is hope a similar pen-optimized version will be offered for smaller Note devices.