In our continuing series of articles about smartphones and mobile technology, we’ve been looking at various different parts of your mobile phone and how the technologies in your phone work together to bring you today’s smartphone experience.
We’ve also been asking you about how you’d design your perfect smartphone and what technologies you’d like to use in it.
So far in this series of articles, we’ve looked at mobile operating systems and user interface design, looked at how LCD displays compare to organic LED displays and explored how GPS and location-aware applications work. We’ve also looked at the multitude of different ways available to interact with a smartphone: either through a hardware keyboard or software keyboard, through different types of touchscreen display and through high-tech voice recognition technologies such as Siri on the iPhone 4S.
This week we turn our attention to smartphone stylus pens. We look at the resistive styluses found on early smartphones and PDAs, the capacitive styluses that are available for most of today’s smartphones and the new intelligent “actively-digitising” styluses that can be found in devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone and the HTC Flyer tablet.
A Brief History of the Stylus Pen
Ever since the invention of the pen by the Ancient Indians over 2,500 years ago, the pen has played an important role in society by allowing us to record information and to communicate with each other. The Ancient Egyptians used reed brushes dipped in ink to write upon papyrus scrolls to record information such as stories, historical records and medical information. It’s not a far cry from the ballpoint pens that still use on a daily basis in the 21st century and the digital stylus pens we now use on our smartphones.
When personal organiser devices (PDAs) were first developed, and subsequently smartphones at a later date, many of them utilised a pen-like implement for input. These pens used ‘resistive stylus’ technology, often in combination with the Graffiti handwriting recognition system for the input of digital messages. Until 2007, most touchscreen smartphones continued to be bundled with a resistive stylus pen – many of them featuring a user interface that was designed for use with a resistive stylus.
It was only with the launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007 and its finger-friendly capacitive touchscreen that the trend began to be reversed and consumers were finally encouraged to interact with the device directly using their fingers. Steve Jobs is famously quoted as saying of smartphones: “If you see a stylus, they blew it”. It’s certainly true that most smartphones since have followed the iPhone philosophy and ditched the stylus.
More recently, styluses seem to be back in fashion again. The popularity of the ‘Draw Something’ game exposed many people to the possibility of drawing on their smartphone and has propelled capacitive styluses towards the top of the smartphone accessories lists. Meanwhile, smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note which features intelligent stylus technology have been selling surprisingly well in the market.
In this article, we explore the different forms of stylus technology and ask whether the stylus is back and here to stay.
Resistive Stylus Technology: Born from need
The development of smartphone stylus technology has been intrinsically linked to the development of touchscreen technology – the two technologies must be compatible with each other.
Last week, we discussed the resistive touchscreen technology which was found on most PDAs and smartphones before the launch of the iPhone. We said: “A resistive touchscreen consists of two flexible plastic sheets: the uppermost sheet being designed to bend under pressure. When the two sheets are pressed together (for example by your finger or by a stylus), a voltage is registered at that point which allows the phone to register your touch.”
Resistive touchscreens are pressure-sensitive. From a basic law of physics, pressure is force divided by area. As resistive touchscreens often require a reasonable amount of pressure to register a touch, smartphones with a resistive touchscreen were often bundled with a resistive stylus. This is a small piece of plastic with a thin tip. Essentially, a resistive stylus works by concentrating the force from your hand onto a smaller area. The large pressure resulting from this can be detected by the resistive touchscreen.
Resistive stylus pens were often unpopular on smartphones – users felt that interacting with the screen through a stylus was less natural than interacting directly with it using a finger. They were necessary to use some devices (particularly those based on Windows Mobile) and were popular in Asia due to the high precision that resistive styluses can offer. Many Asian languages require precise input for accurate character recognition – something that can be hard on a capacitive touchscreen.
The popularisation of finger-friendly capacitive touchscreen technology has rendered the stylus redundant. Capacitive touchscreens have been popular as they allow you to interact with a touchscreen more naturally and directly using your fingers rather than through an implement such as a resistive stylus pen.
Despite the fact that it is not necessary to use a capacitive stylus pen on today’s smartphones, it is still possible to purchase one as an accessory for about £5 (you can also make your own one for free).
A capacitive stylus will allow you to operate your smartphone or tablet when wearing gloves and can also present a more natural way of drawing or sketching on your phone (great for apps such as the ‘Draw Something’ game). A capacitive stylus essentially works by tricking the touchscreen into thinking that the stylus is a finger (it mimics the electrical properties of your finger). Because it makes use of the same capacitive sensing technology that is used to detect your finger, accuracy is still limited (the tip on a capacitive stylus is approximately the same size as your finger) making it difficult to create a detailed drawing.
If you’re looking to buy a capacitive stylus, any capacitive stylus should be compatible with all smartphones and tablets providing they use capacitive touchscreen technology.
Intelligent “Active” Stylus: Pressure Sensitivity and More
More recently, manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC and LG have begun to introduce “intelligent” and actively-digitising stylus technology into their smartphones and tablets. The devices continue to offer a capacitive touchscreen for finger-friendly interaction but contain a separate system that can detect when the high-tech precision stylus pens are used.
The most popular stylus-toting smartphone has been Samsung’s Galaxy Note. The ‘Galaxy Note’ features an inductive Wacom stylus which is powered using electromagnetic resonance (EMR) technology. The S-Pen stylus features some clever technology which allows for ultra-precise free-form input and handwriting with 128 levels of pressure sensitivity. Palm rejection technology is built in allowing for the hand to rest on the display when the stylus is being used (this is not possible with a capacitive stylus). As the device makes use of the same technology that is employed in computer tablets for creative professionals, stylus-toting devices such as the ‘Galaxy Note’ have become popular for artists and designers.
Whilst using a stylus to interact with your smartphone is less natural, it can offer greater precision when producing free-form drawings or handwriting text.
The Future of Stylus Technology & Your Thoughts…
The resistive stylus pens found on early PDAs and smartphones originated out of necessity – it was necessary to use a resistive stylus to operate a resistive touchscreen in an effective way. Whilst resistive stylus pens weren’t popular amongst consumers for day-to-day use, they did have certain benefits: for example accurate handwritten input – something particularly important in Asian languages. With the move towards finger-friendly capacitive touchscreens, stylus pens were rendered a thing of the past and have been mostly absent from the mobile world for the previous five years.
As of 2012, an increasing number of smartphone and tablet manufacturers have begun to augment their smartphones and tablets with technologies that allow “intelligent” stylus pens to be used with them. These stylus pens can feature advanced capabilities such as gestural recognition and pressure sensitivity. They allow for greater precision in free-form input – a boon to artists, designers and creative professionals.
What do you think of the idea of having a stylus for your mobile phone or tablet? Would a stylus pen allow you to do more with your smartphone or would it simply be a nuisance that slows you down? Could a stylus-enabled smartphone or tablet ever replace old-fashioned pen and paper for you? If you were designing your perfect smartphone for other giffgaff members, would you add stylus support? We’d love to hear your thoughts… please drop us a comment below!
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