Note the progress: the evolution of the Samsung S Pen from the original phablet to the Note 7
While the S Pen has demonstrated its usefulness throughout its five years of existence, Samsung's stylus has no real competitors in the smartphone market. Sure, lackluster alternatives such as the LG G Stylus series do exist, but most competing smartphone styli are not able to detect multiple pressure levels and they're usually void of any sort of advanced software assistance.
Today we're going to take a quick look at the evolution of the S Pen, starting all the way back with the first Samsung Galaxy Note and its then-innovative S Pen and ending with the recently-unveiled Galaxy Note 7 and its underwater painting capabilities.
Before embarking on our journey, however, we’d like to point out that it's not all about the stylus: all Galaxy Note handsets came with a built-in Wacom digitizer that does much of the job of keeping the pen accurate. Here’s a photo that briefly explains how the digitizer-pen system works (head on over here for a detailed explanation):
A timid first step
The first time we've seen an S Pen was back in the summer of 2011 when Samsung surprised a lot of people by launching what was then considered a gargantuan 5.3-inch smartphone. We're obviously talking about the original Galaxy Note, the product that is largely credited to kickstarting the phablet market.
Looking at the S Pen-enabled apps that Samsung bundled on the original Galaxy Note, it is retrospectively quite obvious that the software wasn't prepared to make full use of the stylus at the moment. Just to put things into perspective, note that the original Galaxy Note landed with Android 2.3 Gingerbread on board.
Although it felt experimental on the original Note, the S Pen really came into its own on the Galaxy Note 2. To start off, Samsung redesigned the stylus entirely, making it longer, thinner, and more ergonomic. Also, S Pen on the Note 2 could detect 1024 different levels of pressure. That's four times the sensitivity of the original S Pen.
On the Galaxy Note 2, the S Note app was preloaded with a lot more templates, received support for formula writing (and calculation through Wolfram Alpha), and improved handwriting.
One of the best things about the Note 2’s S Pen was the Air View feature. This allowed the user to hover the pen on top of an icon, email, or media to quickly glance at a preview without actually navigating away from their current screen. In the S Planner calendar app, for instance, hovering on top of an appointment brought up specific details:
Another great software feature that the Note 2 S Pen introduced was called Easy Clip. By pressing and holding the S Pen button, users could quickly outline and crop content from virtually any screen and then pass on this crops to email, note-taking, and image processing apps. If the S Pen button wasn’t very useful on Samsung’s original stylus, the situation changed for the better with the second iteration.
Last but not least, one of the S Pen features that we loved most about the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 was a cool software trick that brought up an S Note popup window when the phone detected that the pen was removed from its holster during a call.
Third time’s the charm
Building on the features introduced by its predecessor, the S Pen for the Galaxy Note 3 was redesigned to look more like an actual pen with an asymmetrical shape. The Note 3, based on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, also debuted a bunch of new software features aimed at productivity-minded users.
The Scrapbook was actually an extension of the Easy Clip function from the Note 2. The feature allowed users to add more information to what was being clipped from the browser. Such information could include the URL address as well additional text tags.
When it comes to the S Pen and its features, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 was more of an iterative update. The Air Commands introduced with the previous Note were refined and even augmented while the accuracy of the pen was greatly improved.
With the Galaxy Note 5, Samsung continued improving on the S Pen hardware by making the pen longer, thinner, and smoother. Unfortunately, however, there were a couple of notable problems with the pen.
With the recently unveiled Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the world’s largest smartphone maker has even further improved the utility of its stylus. Since the Note 7 has yet to make it to our underground (not really) testing lab, we’re currently going by the details that Samsung has officially announced.
The tip of the Note 7’s S Pen has a radius of only 0.7mm (down from 1.6m on the Note 5 S Pen). The thinner tip should better simulate the action of writing with a real pen on a sheet of paper. Furthermore, Samsung has also doubled the sensitivity of the stylus; the S Pen can now recognize 4096 different pressure levels. Like the Note 7 itself, the new S Pen is also water resistant, meaning that future Note 7 owners will be able to paint underwater.
On the software side of things, the new S Pen now supports 7 new brush styles and also introduces new Air Command screenshots such as Magnify and Glance. If you're into GIFs, the Note 7 allows you to create your own animations: use the S Pen to draw a frame anywhere on the display, and the changes in that frame will be automatically translated into a GIF.
You don’t have to be an expert to acknowledge that the S Pen has evolved a great deal since first launching five years ago.
When it debuted, the S Pen was an interesting feature that didn’t have too much usefulness. Fast forward to present day, and the pen can detect 16 times as many pressure points, feels and behaves more like a real pen, is supported by a vast array of software features that can boost productivity, and can even be used to draw/paint underwater. How’s that for evolution?