While Apple CEO Steve Jobs infamously said “if you see a stylus, they blew it” in response to tablets and smartphones, the stylus has had its die-hard loyalists for the past decade or so. It’s true that it makes a lot more sense to interact with iOS and Android user interfaces using your fingertips — and most of us have our fingers with us all the time, while a stylus is easy to misplace. But some actions require precise input that’s hard to accomplish with a fingertip. If you’ve ever tried drawing or writing handwritten notes with a finger on an iPhone, you’ll note that it’s possible — but not as easy as using pen and paper — or a good stylus.

But not all styli are created equal. True fans of the form factor prefer active digitizers which allow a stylus and a display to speak to each other electronically, allowing pressure-sensitive input and palm rejection so that you can rest your hand on a tablet screen and write or draw to your heart’s content just as you would with a piece of paper.

Cheaper solutions such as resistive touchscreens work with virtually any pointed object, but you may have to press down harder on the screen and rely on often buggy palm rejection software to get halfway decent results.

Most capacitive touchscreens don’t work with a standard stylus, but there are some capacitive styli that make fine input a bit easier on a device like an iPad or the Asus Eee Pad MeMo.

But some companies are taking a hybrid approach, bundling a finger-friendly capacitive touchscreen with an active digitizer to allow precise input using a stylus. The HP Slate 500 Windows tablet takes this approach. And so does the HTC Flyer Android tablet which was introduced this week. Engadget has a great hands-on video showing how HTC has developed software to run on top of Android enabling stylus support throughout the operating system.

The company that developed the digitizer used in the HTC Flyer is N-Trig, and Engadget reports that N-Trig says it’s not the only Android tablet coming out this year with N-Trig technology. He says there will be 7, 9.7 and 10 inch slates coming out from other companies this year as well — and while he won’t name names, he’s kind of in a position to know.

Unfortunately what we’re seeing here is supply rather than demand. It’s possible that HTC, HP, and others developed their stylus-friendly tablets specifically because they were hearing from potential customers that demanded this feature. But it’s also possible that in an increasingly crowded tablet marketplace, they were just looking for any way to make their products stand out — even if that meant adding a feature that’s already been around for a decade, but which Steve Jobs seems to think is useless.

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16 replies on “Could stylus input for tablets be making a comeback?”

  1. I have a very old school PDA, a HP Jornada 525. It has a stylus. I really wish that the keyboard was bigger. The handwriting recognition is good.

    Basically, I think the best solution is something like the HTC Note. You need a LARGE keyboard (so it is actually productive to type with the stylus) and a capacitive screen would make it easier to write/draw with the stylus. The real problem with my PDA is a resistive screen and a small keyboard. So ya. 

  2. The only reason I did not buy the ipad was because it didn’t have a pen. I need a pressure sensitive pen to write and draw, otherwise I prefer a small pc to a tablet. To me it is ridiculous all this fumbling around with imprecise fingers – I am not a monkey nor a toddler, I can handle both eating and writing utensils, thank you very much. Jobs seems to both cater to and foster the consumer blob, who doesn’t create, only consumes, and soon won’t even have fingers, only staring eyes and a protruding, nervously shaking, novelty-addicted credit card.

  3. “even if that meant adding a feature that’s already been around for a decade, but which Steve Jobs seems to think is useless.”

    So of what relevance is Steve Jobs’ opinion?

  4. Most of the “pro” arguments have been of the “it’s useful to me” variety. No doubt that pen input is useful in certain capacity, ie. taking ad hoc notes, but the point made is whether the usefulness is popular enough to be considered mainstream. Up to this point, that spells out to NO.

    Tablets may improve pen input popularity, but I doubt it. If it’s the form factor, then smartphone would’ve been the best device for pen input to gain traction. But keyboards, either virtual or thumb-type, are still de rigeur.

    However, the real question isn’t whether pen input is/isn’t useful, but is it *useful enough* to command HTC’s expected premium pricing. Assuming the avg price for a Honey tab to be $400-500 by summer, would you pay another $200 on top to get the HTC name and pen input functionality? It’s safe to say that for the mainstream, the answer would still be a big NO.

    Pen computing may be a good addition to tabs as Android matures, and as touch techs get enough econ-of-scale to get cheaper. My SWAG is that magic number is “under $50 premium”.

  5. Can’t wait for a ‘cheap’ tablet with pixel Qi,active digitizer and all day battery life. As linux user I just wish there was something to compete with OneNote, the only reason to use windows 7 in my opinion( not including gaming of course).

    1. I’m guessing OneNote does some handwriting recognition, but if you don’t need that, check out Xournal.

  6. I love to draw. I love to write notes and draw diagrams in the margins of books. Unfortunately most people aren’t so creative. but if I was in Asia, I would NEED a stylus to write chinese/japanese characters. That’s the market that this device is going after.

  7. I handwrite my notes on an ipad all the time using a targus stylus and several note taking apps eg penultimate

  8. It’s the media (including the blogosphere) that is perpetuating the idea “if it’s got a stylus it fails.”

    The idea that the virtual keyboard is a better option for a tablet is laughable. Tablets are to heavy to hold in your hands and thumb type for any length of time, and having to place the tablet on your lap is not that practical in a lecture hall.

    A stylus lets you use a tablet as if it were pencil and paper.

    I have an HP Slate and virtually everyone who sees it loves the stylus.

    1. If a tablet is “too heavy” to use the VKB, how does a stylus make it any lighter, or handwritten notes any faster?

      Pen input has been around for a long time, as has been the “convertible” laptop (w/ stylus). There is a reason why it has never caught on in the mainstream, and that fundamental fact is that most everyone can type faster than s/he can write longhand.

      1. Nobody can type on a virtual keyboard faster than they can write, especially if you’re thumb typing. Convertible tablets w/stylus never caught on because they are ridiculously expensive.

        And everyone misunderstands Job’s infamous quote. He’s not saying anything about pen input being bad, he’s saying resistive touch screens that need one to even be usable, or operating systems (Windows) that need a stylus to click on small UI elements are bad.

        1. Actually you can type faster than you can write, especially if you can use all your fingers in the process, but it’s more a question of what works best for you and that differs person to person and on what’s being inputted.

          Physical keyboards are of course preferable but virtual keyboards can still work if the layout is properly set, preferably with multi-touch, and the ergonomics allow for efficient use.

          It’s mainly the forced single handed use that can make writing preferable. Otherwise it depends on how you use the system and what you need to input.

          And if you need to edit, the effectiveness of OCR will also effect whether you may prefer to type or write. Since not everyone has neat handwriting and the speed of the system can also factor.

          Though considering the lack of a mouse, the inclusion of pen input helps better round off the tablet experience for a greater range of possible usage scenarios, especially for those tablets running a less touch friendly OS….

  9. A bluetooth pen-mouse would be nice in conjunction with some ritepen-like software. Then you wouldn’t have to wait for makers to think about adding stylus functionality.

  10. I’m of the same view as Brad’s. It’s a very crowded tablet field, and despite all the hoopla, most every Android tablet are cookie cutters, differing (only slightly) in specs. The main need is for differentiation, which is what this serves.

    “Handwritten notes” don’t make sense when you can type, even with the slow 2-finger style on tablets. Point-precise input would be helpful for drawings and graphs, which is a niche demand. Yes, it would be nice to have, but it depends on the price point. It’s not a high-demand feature.

    1. Why on earth would you say “handwritten notes don’t make sense?” For students / all kinds of more or less academic reading, handwriting makes sense: Being able to scribble notes, diagrams and to mark up important stuff in PDFs is absolutely essential – be it in class or when reading at home.
      I use a Lenovo X61T for that purpose and it’s a great machine but just too heavy and cumbersome. If I could replace it by a sleek tablet, preferably with PixelQI (or similar) display, that device could substitute notepads, textbooks (and all other kinds of books, too). In one little gadget that I can carry arround everyday and everywhere. *All* my work, my books, references, and the opportunity to be productive at all times, synced up in the cloud and onto my home PC.
      Don’t tell me that’s not useful…

  11. There is no point to a tablet unless you can take hand written notes, and even better would be for those notes to be converted to text. Otherwise a tablet is an expensive netbook for web surfing and games. I for one am excited to see which other tablets come out with the active digitizers. I wish HTC decided to go with HoneyComb on the Flyer. Drop Sense and make cool widgets and apps that are worth something.

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