Stylus-specific content aside there are a few pre-installed apps of note on the Note. S Planner syncs with Google Calendar to help you digitally organise your life; the Readers Hub [sic] offers a nice interface for reading News (using PressDisplay), Books (using Kobo) and Magazines (powered by Zinio); Music Hub doesn’t work in the UK but might be a nice addition for those on the other side of the Atlantic; while the ever-competent Polaris Office is on hand for productivity.
It's the S Pen that gives the Note's app potential a boost ahead of the Android pack, though. When you take it out of its snug slot in the phone’s base, it looks much like the styli you used to get back in the days of resistive screens, before capacitive (and thus fingers) became the dominant technology. However, this 14mm-long marvel is playing in a whole different field.
Until now, stylus-operated Android-based devices – including the HTC Flyer and Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet - have used N-Trig’s pressure sensitive solutions. Samsung has taken a different tack and partnered with Wacom for its S Pen. As those into digital art and design will know, Wacom is the market leader when it comes to pen solutions like the Intuos 4.
Unfortunately, the Note’s solution is not the full-blown digitizer you’ll find in the likes of Samsung’s Series 7 Slate. Rather than the 512 pressure levels supported by that device, the S Pen is limited to 100 – that’s less than half of the N-Trig. Along with that extra sensitivity, you also lose the eraser from the top, and the traditional Wacom raised rocker switch is replaced by a single flush button that can be quite difficult to locate in the heat of scribbling.
However, the light (three gramme) stylus is comfortable in the hand and is never less than responsive – unlike N-Trig’s solution, which suffers the occasional minor hiccup. For writing and doodling, the S Pen works a treat - once you set the correct handedness in Pen Settings under the Android Settings menu, and once you’ve gotten used to the almost slippery interaction between the pen’s smooth nib and phone’s glass screen.
The stylus works throughout the interface, and aside from dedicated apps, Samsung has added a few nice OS-wide touches. For example, tapping the stylus on the screen anywhere and anytime (even when on the lock screen or system menus) with the stylus button pressed takes an instant screenshot on which you can draw to your heart’s content, after which it can be shared, printed or even set as wallpaper.
The HTC Flyer offered a similar mechanic, but it wasn’t nearly as refined. Now you might say there’s nothing particularly useful about this ability, but it comes in handy in a surprising number of situations, and at the worst is just good fun (drawing moustaches on pics of various relatives never gets old).
Well-suited as it should be to arty types, we would have loved to test the S Pen with the ‘tablet’ version of Sketchbook Pro, which fully supports pressure sensitivity. Unfortunately, this software demands ICS so it wouldn’t install on the Note. With few Android apps currently supporting pressure sensitivity (most simulate it based on the speed of your stroke), we resorted to Samsung’s bundled S Memo. S Memo offers a decent selection of tools including four ‘brush’ types with thickness and opacity, but no layers.
When drawing we did come across a few weaknesses with the S Pen. First and foremost, there’s an offset issue (especially when handedness is set to the left) with lines appearing slightly up and right of the stylus’s nib position - especially annoying when attempting fine detail work. Though the Note is supposed to calibrate automatically we tried two different handsets and both suffered from the offset.
We would have preferred a manual calibration option which could have resolved this problem. Similarly, manual pressure sensitivity calibration would be much appreciated, as right now it’s too difficult to achieve a delicate line with the S Pen.