Samsung Galaxy Note 2 S Pen
Samsung has completely redesigned the S-Pen for the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. The term S-Pen was introduced with the first Note, shorthand for the digitser styluses that make phone-tablets in this range so special.
The S-Pen is capable of so much more than a standard stylus because of the Wacom digitser built into the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. This lets the phone sense differing levels of pressure from the pointer, and pinpoint the stylus's position when it is some way away from the screen surface.
Both these aspects have improved significantly in the second-generation Note. The first Note can sense up to 256 levels of pressure, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 can discern 1,024 – the same number as the Wacom Bamboo dedicated graphics tablets.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 stylus can also be identified around a centimetre from the screen, letting it double as a mouse cursor. In use the new stylus is fantastically responsive.
Arguably more important than these pure specs are the more experiential tweaks Samsung has made. The S-Pen is now an ergonomically-carved, triangular-stemmed design rather than a smooth cylinder, there's a button on one of its sides and – here's the real game-changer – the end is a rubberised nib with a little give to it. This softens its handwriting action, offering a much more smooth and natural feel than the original Note was ever capable of.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 S-Pen stylus is a joy to use, simple as.
Samsung has done a great job of integrating its skills into the interface too. What's most impressive is the sense of immediacy the S-Pen manages. Whip it out of its rabbit hole and you're automatically taken to a bespoke S-Pen home screen. As standard this includes a quick to the S-Note app, but like any home screen you can dress it as you please.
The S Pen home screen
The S-Pen is at its best when used with the Samsung apps built into the phone. For example, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2's ability to identify the pen away from the screen is only presently useful in a fistful of apps. Samsung calls this functionality Air View.
In the S-Planner calendar, it brings up info about calendar events. In the email app it pops-up the first few lines of an email. It brings up similar previews in the Gallery and video player too.
The partnership of the powerful hardware of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, the decent software and the honed, optimised Wacom digitiser makes these little feature nuggets feel like a natural additions to the UI, rather than superfluous, frivolous add-ons.
The excellent S-Pen does serve to highlight that a few parts of the Samsung TouchWiz UI are a a bit flimsy and unnecessary, though. For example, you have the option to use accelerometer motion controls to control things such as the movements of home screens and pages within the Gallery.
Thanks to the Samsung keyboard OCR, the stylus can be used throughout Android
These things have tip-toed along the thin border between pure gimmickery and neat extra features at the best of times, but in the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 they fall right into tech trash can as over-the-top bits of fluff to switch off within the Settings menu as soon as possible.
The S-Pen, though, is an almost unadulterated success. Even in apps without full implemetation of its abilities, it can be used as an alternative to a finger – including casual games like Angry Birds Space. The one issue is that only a very small number of apps can fully appreciate what it's capable of.
Samsung says that the only apps fully certified for the new S-Pen stylus are some of those of the Samsung Apps portal, the secondary app store that sits alongside the Google Play app store within the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. However, we did find a number of Google Play apps that support pressure sensitivity, including relatively high-profile drawing tools like Sketchbook Mobile.
S-Note is the S-Pen's "flagship" app though. Its lightweight name is also a bit misleading as it's now quite a fully-featured suite - although one with an eye on lighter uses. Other than making notes using the Samsung keyboard's optical character recognition, it's intended to let you make mind maps, presentations and little works of art.
You can insert videos, pictures, text boxes and shapes into your notes, veering the app close to something like Microsoft PowerPoint. Samsung supplies a bunch of templates for quick-but-organised notes for things such as meeting minutes and recipes. S-Note also lets you record the creation of a sketch as it's made, in Draw Something-like fashion.
It's also kid-friendly in parts. As well as adding photos and clip art to notes, you can use something called Idea Sketch. This lets you write the name of an object, and then pick a pre-drawn representation of it. The Samsung Galaxy Note 2 offers three different cartoon cats, for example.
Which is faster? Cat bus or whale train?
That's not the end of the "S-flavour" features, either. We can't forget about S Voice, the Apple Siri equivalent that was partly responsible for getting Samsung dropped in $1billion's worth of hot water in a recent court case.
A double tap on the central Home button makes the S Voice app pop up. Ask it a question and it'll do its best to work out what you're saying, as long as you have a network connection. All the calculations grunt work is done by Samsung's servers.
A typical S Voice result - not that great
The Samsung Galaxy Note 2's S Voice isn't quite up to the latest version of Siri seen in iOS 6, though. Anything vaguely taxing will send you straight to a web search, making it of limited use.