When the Samsung Galaxy Note was launched in 2011, everyone’s attention was focused on two things: the sheer size of the device, and the stylus that accompanies it. For its time, the first Galaxy Note sported a massive 5.3-inch display – this was 2011, remember, and any display above four inches in size was considered to be akin to a phone-y T-Rex. And then there was the stylus, or as Samsung called it, the S Pen. At a time when everyone seemed to be moving away from the stylus – even Microsoft had come up with a finger touch-friendly Windows Phone just a year ago – Samsung’s decision to go with a stylus was a bold one. In fact, many – this writer included – wrote off the first Galaxy Note because it simply did not seem to conform to what seemed to be tech common sense: devices were supposed to be compact and to paraphrase Steve Jobs, who used a stylus, for God’s sake!
The Note proved many of us wrong on that count. What the iPhone did for touchscreen phones, the Note did for large screen ones. However, for some reason, the S Pen did not quite spark the stylus revival that some had expected it would. Phones did keep getting bigger, and even the Note’s bet noir, the iPhone had to come out with Plus and Max editions to keep up with the phablet phenomenon. Today, we live in an age where a 6.5-inch display is not considered to be too large. And for that, the Note should take some credit.
However, for some reason, the other feature that made the Note, well, Notable – the S Pen – never really went mainstream. Yes, there were a few efforts by the competition, most notably by LG, to mimic the S Pen, but after a while, most of the brand’s rivals turned to simply aping the larger display and tech spec sheet.
So much so that when the Galaxy S10 and S10+ were launched yesterday, while the S Pen did get its share of attention, most of the talk was about the display, the cameras, the processor, the battery, some software tricks and well, the design. Pretty much par for the course for any Android flagship. The S Pen for its part largely seemed an add on – it even appears as the second last item on the feature list on the Galaxy Note 10’s official site, just before (oh the irony) “accessories”. And this is not really a new phenomenon.
Even though it has been an integral part of the Note series – it is rare to see a picture of a Galaxy Note without an S Pen, the S Pen’s feature set has grown increasingly…well…gimmicky, and even a little complex, such as making things happen by hovering over the display and acting as a sort of remote. It even has buttons on it to activate functions and features. Functions and features that alas, not too many use, simply because they CAN use the Note without doing so. The S Pen, one of the two foundation stones of the Note, has been largely reduced to the status of the cute household pet that is brought to do tricks to polite applause and then gently shunted to the background.
Samsung perhaps missed a trick by not making the S Pen a more integral part of its ecosystem, and by restricting it largely to the Note series. Yes, there had been some hope that the stylus would get mainstream when the relatively affordable Note 3 Neo was released in 2014, but that proved to be a one-off. Instead, the S Pen has pretty much remained an accessory to a very expensive device and has if anything started feeling more like an external add-on rather than an integral part (which it is) of the Note experience. Yes, it gets highlighted extensively on paper and in publicity, but it is the one feature of the device that none of Samsung’s competitors seem to consider worth cloning. Indeed, many retailers to whom we have spoken claim that while people are interested and intrigued by the S Pen, sooner or later, most end up using the Galaxy Note like a normal phone, simply because they can.
The result is that with every passing year, perhaps the most influential mobile phone series this side of the iPhone has been growing increasingly mainstream. A few years ago, comparing any device with the Note series used to be considered to be a waste of time simply because no other phone had a stylus – in fact, it was this uniqueness that made it the perfect anti-iPhone for many. Today, however, the Note seems to be flowing closer to the flagship mainstream, tending to fight more on generic features than unique experience experiences – the design-display-camera-processor equation.
Yes, it still remains unique. But the feature that makes it unique is ironically moving out of the spotlight. From Note-worthy to Note-able to Side Note, it has been an odd journey for perhaps the most famous stylus on the phone world.