Back in the 2000s when touch screen devices were beginning to become a thing, it was almost compulsory to see them paired with a stylus. In fact, a stylus was considered to be an enabler rather than an accessory back then. Something that was necessary rather than something that was just paired with your phone for the heck of it. Be it Palm, Nokia, iMate, or Sony, if they made a touchscreen phone or a digital assistant, there would be a stylus with it!
Then in 2007, Apple released the iPhone and joked the stylus out of the picture in the context of smartphones (check 6:46 in the launch), because your fingers were supposed to be your stylus with the iPhone (or so Jobs is believed to have said – well, he said it in the film). And while the launch of the iPhone was not exactly the funeral of the stylus, the arrival of a stylus-free Android OS seemed certain to signal that the stylus era was ending. So imagine how surprised we were when a brand released a new series of smartphones that not only glorified the stylus but made it a device USP (gutsy indeed, if you ask us) in 2011. The company was Samsung and the smartphone was the Galaxy Note.
A Note and a Pencil: Bringing back the stylus
Many considered this a suicidal move and even made fun of Samsung for releasing a smartphone with a stylus right AFTER Steve Jobs made fun of them and when both Android and iOS were actually designed to work without a stylus. But although the odds seemed stacked against the Galaxy Note and its stylus power, the series stuck to the concept and it has actually worked out pretty well. So well, that even after nine years since the first Galaxy Note was launched, the Galaxy Note series is the only smartphone series that has been able to successfully pair a stylus with a smartphone. Many brands came in, tried to copy the concept but could not really sustain the idea.
While the Galaxy Note was blending the stylus and smartphone world together, the very company that made fun of styluses, introduced one. Yes, Apple. But to be fair to Apple, it added one with the iPad Pro and not with a smartphone, and has since then extended it to cover most iPads. And guess what? This idea took off as well. Many tried to copy it but failed. Just like the S Pen.
Today, the stylus is not exactly a rage in mobile devices. But it certainly is nowhere near dead. And that is because of these two very different devices: The S Pen and the Apple Pencil.
While they are both styluses and fundamentally do the same thing– scribble – they couldn’t be more different when it comes to their core concepts. Both of them follow two entirely different approaches of existence and yet both are not just surviving but thriving.
The S Pen: A stylus proper and always with the Note!
The S Pen is a stylus in the true sense. If there was a competition about which stylus is a more of a stylus, the S Pen would win it (unless you count those big accessory things that designers plug into computers!). It is a tiny, phone-bound, stick-like device that is paired with the Galaxy Note since forever. And it is a package deal which means if you buy a Galaxy Note, you get the S Pen. And if you want the S Pen, you gotta buy the Galaxy Note.
The S Pen has had a home in the Galaxy Note (quite literally) from the very beginning. You could just push the tiny end of the pen and it would pop right out of the frame. It has a point-ier and more precise nib and has a small button on the body. Heck, it now even has a clicky button at the top for those ballpen-like clickety-click feels.
The Apple Pencil: More of a pencil, and not compulsory with an iPad
The Apple Pencil, on the other hand, lies on the other end of the stylus design spectrum. It is not your ‘Stylus next door’ and is far from what styluses are supposed to look like. If anything, it is actually closer to a real pencil when it comes to design than a stylus. It is much larger than the S Pen and has a smoother texture. You actually can picture it in a pencil box. This works for it, after all, they call it Apple Pencil and not Apple Stylus.
While the S Pen and the Galaxy Note are a pair, that is not the case with the Apple Pencil. The Pencil is very independent that way and has a very ‘no strings attached’ kind of relationship with the iPad. You can buy it separately if you need it but it is completely optional. The S Pen has had a permanent residence in the Galaxy Note all along but the Apple Pencil was a little bit of a stray in that regard up until the first generation. Now the second generation has found some space on the new iPad Pro’s side and can latch on to it magnetically.
Screen scribblers, but so so different
The difference between the handfeel of the two styli is humongous. One is teeny-tiny and it can be an effort to scribble or draw with it for a longer period while the other is more substantial and can feel more comfortable when used for prolonged periods.
But that does not make the Apple Pencil inherently better than the S Pen. Regardless of its size and the fact that it is a stylus, the S Pen pretty much has a mind of its own. Literally. And that makes it a mini-computer of sorts. It has a chip and Bluetooth inside that allows it to do more than just scribble. It can be used to switch cameras, swipe photos, change tracks, and as a clicker for presentations amongst other functions. The Apple Pencil on the other hand, in very literal terms, is a pencil by Apple. A smart-ish pencil that allows you to scribble and draw on a specific touch screen made by Apple.
The S Pen has more features and functions up its sleeve but that works largely for apps designed for the Galaxy Note specifically and not many third-party developers have picked up the concept which is why Samsung is predominantly the only creator there. This is the complete opposite in case of the Apple Pencil, where while Apple has made many of its own apps compatible with the Apple Pencil, many third-party developers have also created apps and software that are compatible with it, giving it a bit of a functionality edge as it gives you a plethora of options to explore and use beyond what is already on the device. The Apple Pencil follows the iPhone philosophy of “there’s an app for that” – right now, you even need an app for getting handwriting recognition which at the moment of writing is not built into iPad OS.
Apple or Samsung, Pencil or Pen…take your pick
They may be fundamentally two styluses but are vastly different in every department possible and which one is better depends entirely on what is your use case. We think the S Pen fits in better in professional environments where you have to multi-task and do a lot of things at once, and where you want to do everything on your phone and do not want to carry a separate device. A quick note here, a swift slide there are the functions the S Pen can handle like a pro but it will be a task to use it to create an intricate sketch or scribble even a short story.
The Apple Pencil is remarkably heavier than the S Pen, making it not-so-ideal for quick tasks, and well, it needs an iPad to work on (which needs to be carried apart from your phone). Taking out the Apple Pencil every time you need to scribble a small note would be a little tedious than using an S Pen for the same. That said, the size and the build of the Apple Pencil makes it ideal for prolonged use. So if you are into designing and drawing, this is the stylus you would find more appropriate in that case.
Then there is the matter of charging. The S Pen gets charged whenever you place it back in the Note, where you end up placing it anyway. The Apple Pencil is a different matter – the first one had to be stuck into the lightning port of an iPad and the second one charges wirelessly off the side of the new iPad Pro (temporarily making it the most expensive wireless charger in recent tech history). It is rare to find an S Pen out of charge (unless the Note it is stored in is itself out of charge), but with the Apple Pencil, this can happen!
S Pen: Apple Pencil = Iron Man: Batman…and they both rock!
They are both for writing on screens. And they both prove that the stylus remains a very handy (pun intended) tool. They do so in very different ways. The S Pen is more like Iron Man, packed with high technology and bells and whistles in a superhero suit. The Apple Pencil is more like Batman, focusing very strongly on basics and being steady rather than spectacular, and making the most of the conditions (read “apps”) around him.
They are different. But hey, they are both superheroes.
Just like those two, the S Pen and the Apple Pencil are superheroes in their own right. In a world full of non-stylus devices, they are proving that there is still room for a stylus. Or two. Styluses are not as omnipresent as they once were, but they have not gone out of style. And will not. Not while the Apple Pencil and S Pen are around.