Don’t fear the stylus comeback

The Samsung Galaxy Note

There’s a trend in smartphones, and some might call it disturbing. Hand-in-hand with the recent surge of phones with gigantic screens comes a surprise visitor, poking its way out of the technological past to stab at us here in the present: the stylus.

First there was the Samsung Galaxy Note, a phone with a massive, 5-inch screen and a pull-out stylus called the S Pen. Now, straight from the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, LG just debuted its answer to the Note, the Optimus Vu, another 5-inch phone that sports a stylus. Tablets are getting in on the action, too: The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 rocks an S Pen, and the new PadFone from Asus has a stylus that also doubles as a Bluetooth headset!

One phone that includes a stylus is an odd throwback. But four devices — that’s a clear pattern, one that is rubbing many people the wrong way. Commentators from Computerworld to Wired to BetaNews have all chimed in to point out what an anachronistic addition a stylus is to a modern smartphone. It’s also the wrong attitude. It still has a place in technology.

First of all, let’s remember that the two platforms that were synonymous with the stylus — Palm OS and Windows Mobile (the precursor Windows Phone) — are gone and won’t be coming back. Once multi-touch capacitive touch screens like the iPhone’s arrived, it was a huge relief to be rid of such frustrating, clunky technology — and stylii all but disappeared.

So why would anyone want to go back to the using an accessory when phones have evolved enough to be instantly sensitive to finger touches? Simple answer: accuracy.

“I like it for its precision,” says technologist Adrian Calderon. “Even working on an iPhone, I can often tap with my stylus much faster than I can type with my finger.”

The stylus lets Calderon draw with more care in apps like SketchBook; but when the hardware is matched to the stylus, there’s even more potential to unlock. The Galaxy Note, for example, has handwriting-to-text ability, letting you transform your dashed-off notes into something practical. Although it’s not always dead-on, it’s far better then transcription.

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