Of all the features modern phones and tablets bring, the stylus was the most interesting. At first, when capacitive screens were still dreams, the PDA’s used a small pointing device, called pen, or stylus. This was very handy, as screens were small and finger touch was bad, screens were resistive so the only way to use a touchscreen was with a stylus. There were only PDA’s and phones back then, but technology evolved and capacitive screen has been borne.
Apple launched in 2007 the first capacitive phone, the iPhone and Jobs mocked the stylus and resistive screens saying that their devices should use the best pointing devices in the world, the finger. Was he right? Well sure he was, back then, the resistive screen was very slow, stylus input was ok, but you could loose it or broke it. And even with the stylus, the input was very slow. Everybody was amazed how fast the capacitive screen was, fingers could do the whole thing, input, calling, dialing, writing SMS, launching apps, etc.
Well, this was swell and dandy, until Samsung decided to launch a new line of products, called Note. At first they launched the Galaxy Note, a huge phone, with a stylus, called S-Pen. They called this device, a “phablet”, a phone and a tablet into a smaller package. It was a success, this large phone had a stylus built-in and there were many apps developed in advance for using it. The screen was capacitive, but with an active digitizer, built on Wacom technology, the master in digitizing the paper concept.
This time it was a great comeback, the original Note line sold over 10 million of phones and they are at third generation of phones, and tablets. Because also tablets with stylus were built, Samsung has two current Galaxy Note tablets with S-Pen, Note 10.1 2014 Edition and Note 8.0, a smaller 8” version. These are Android versions, Samsung also has two Windows tablets, ATIV Smart PC and Smart PC Pro.
Samsung wasn’t the first in industry with stylus support for tablets or phones, for example, HTC had also a tablet with N-Trig technology, the Flyer tablet PC, a very good tablet that was expensive unfortunately so it wasn’t sold in high numbers. Lenovo, another big company tried the market with Think Tablet, a good product with a very slow CPU, Tegra 2 by NVidia. It was an Android tablet, they sold it in little numbers, so Lenovo tried Windows market with success, and they already have three models: Lenovo Miinx, Think Tablet 2 and Helix, all three with active stylus.
Microsoft, largest software company, tried the tablet market (again, with second version of Surface). Surface Pro and Pro 2 have stylus input, built on Wacom design, with 1024 levels of pressure, they even attach magnetically to the tablet when not in use, for safekeeping.
Ok, so why this comeback? Why do we need the stylus, if we have the best input in the world, which we all know to be the fingers, right? Wrong! First of all, once the tablet PC was born, people started to draw on tablets. With fingers, this is a pain, so capacitive stylus was developed. Capacitive stylus uses a small tip of rubber that when pressed on screen, it produces touch and the screen registers an input. This was good at first, small tips were developed, but people realized that you can’t draw precisely. And you couldn’t saw the tip of the pen, when drawing or writing, many mistakes were made and you needed to erase those imprecise inputs, this was really a hard way to draw on screen. It was harder than on paper.
Well, not until Wacom developed their first graphic tablets, specifically for designers, artists and more. But they were extremely expensive, thousands of dollars this device wasn’t accessible to anyone. This technology evolved, now we have Wacom input on many tablets: Galaxy Note, Asus VivoTab, ATIV Tabs, Lenovo Tablets even phones: Galaxy Note, Asus FonePad Note, even Nokia wants to build one with Windows, the Illustrator (this is a rumor).
To answer now, why the need of stylus: As technology evolved, so does screens with larger displays were developed, with millions of pixels and the software lags behind with poor finger implementation, the need of precise input was needed. Imagine trying to close a window with the “x” mark in Windows 8, on 1920×1080 screen, on 10” display. Or clicking a link, or right-clicking. This is serious trouble, the software is unable to register input and you could press something else. This is where precise stylus comes in handy, it has “hovering ability”, where a small dot hovers above the links, or icons, even showing a preview if the implementation is good. Many apps are developed for writing on PowerPoint presentations, you could wow the room with active marking on PPT’s or if you are a student, you could write an entire course, dropping the classical paper, saving the environment.
On Android devices, there are a large number of stylus uses, hovering on photos to show preview, using apps for math or geometry, using even in productivity for easing the work with excel spreadsheets, marking or highlighting PDF documents, taking notes or even browsing the web and playing games. The stylus is so useful now, I can’t find any app that is working better without stylus, because it has gestures, air hover and preview. And for browsing is useful too, instead of face scroll, not all devices has it, you can use the stylus for pointing and scrolling up or down, or right click or clicking on small links.
Many may say that stylus input is a gimmick and you can live without it in any tablet. They may be right, but why so many tablets with active stylus then? Many will come, including Dell Venue line, Asus VivoTab, Note next-gen, Lenovo tablets, Samsung ATIV, then phones: Note 4, Asus FonePad Note, LG, Panasonic and others. Even NVidia has a tablet with stylus, a 7” screen tablet with precise input.
Students, artists, graphic designers, amateur artists, even pupils, all love it. You can’t be wrong with so many categories of users, so stylus has come back and will stay here for a while despite some naysayers are criticizing its presence. I think this is a welcomed addition and even if I am not using it 99% of the time, it’s good that it’s there and present when I need it.