Pen inputMost of us have spent our computing lives tapping away at a typewriter-like peripheral and moving our cursors around the screen with a mouse, trackball or trackpad. The keyboard and its accompanying pointing device have been the input method for the vast majority of our interactions with computers for a very long time, but that position at the top of the input heap is starting to give way to new means of communicating with our devices. This was inevitable as those devices became increasingly mobile; “typing” on a tiny on-screen keyboard is at best an awkward and slow way to get commands and content from our brains to our computing systems.

Voice recognition has been at the forefront of this quiet revolution, with technologies such as Siri, Cortana and Google Now getting better and better at understanding our spoken words. But the emerging popularity of stylus-enabled devices such as the Galaxy Notes and the Surface Pros points to another important trend: pen input for recording our thoughts via handwriting and drawings.  In this article, I’ll look at how the pen, while it can’t ever completely replace voice – or for many of us, the keyboard – can make certain types of tasks far easier and is an option that I think more and more computer users will be adding to their requirements in the future.

Although it is enjoying a new wave of popularity, the stylus isn’t a new concept in computing. According to research, the idea of pen computing has been around at least since the 1950s. The stylus was an important part of early pre-smart phone personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as the HP iPAQ, Apple Newton and Palm Pilot.

When the PDA and cell phone technologies merged to create the first smart phones, those devices (running Windows Mobile, Palm OS, etc.) still relied on a stylus for precision input. Those first smart phones had resistive touch screens and interfaces that were like miniatures of a desktop computer’s operating system, so even if the screens had accepted finger input, it wouldn’t have been precise enough to manipulate the tiny icons.

When the iPhone exploded onto the scene in 2007, with its multi-touch capacitive display designed for finger input, other phone makers quickly switched to the same technology and it seemed that the stylus was to become a relic relegated to the computer museum along with the Zip drive, parallel port cables and the analog modem.

The stylus never died completely, though. Graphic design is a big (albeit specialized) computing task, and you just can’t draw very well with a mouse, finger or your voice. I’m eagerly awaiting the day when I can simply think a drawing or diagram in my mind and transfer it directly to the screen/page, but I think that’s going to be a long wait. In the meantime, graphic artists need pen input.

The way most professionals do that is with a pen-enabled tablet, either standalone or that connects to a computer. For a long time, Wacom has been the leader in that market. With early models, you had to draw on the tablet while looking at the computer monitor to see the image you were producing. That image didn’t display on the tablet itself. Newer models incorporate a display into the tablet so that you can draw directly on the display surface.  This is far more intuitive. Wacom makes such tablets in sizes as large as 24 inches, with adjustable tilting stands that make it easier to maintain the right angle for drawing.

Meanwhile, back on the mobile front, when Samsung announced the original Galaxy Note in 2011, many of the tech pundits laughed and predicted it would be a big flop. And it certainly was big – by the standards at the time. Its 5.3 inch display looked huge in comparison to the 3.5 inch display of the iPhone 4 that represented the cream of the crop then.  The term “phablet” was coined by those who said the Note was too big to be called a phone, creating a whole new device category.

Another controversial aspect of the Note was the built-in stylus. Some in the tech press belittled it as a throwback to the 1990s, but a significant number of users quickly embraced the idea of being able to jot a quick handwritten note instead of typing on a tiny on-screen keyboard.

The Note proved its critics wrong and became a success, spawning the Note 2, Note 3 and now the Note 4, each of which added new capabilities for the stylus. Meanwhile, Samsung knew a good thing when it saw one and took the same concept to full-fledged tablets. The Note 8.0 and Note 10.1 have most of the same features as their “little brother,” with larger displays.

Of course, the idea of tablet computing with a stylus had been tried before – and failed.  The Apple Newton that was released in the 1990s could be considered a tablet, at 7.25 x 4.5 inches.  The Windows XP Tablet Edition PC came out in 2002 to much fanfare and was a pet project of Bill Gates, but although it was adopted in some vertical markets such as healthcare, it never really caught on with consumers and general business. This was probably due to the devices being thick and heavy, lacking in processing power and memory in comparison to laptops of the time, and came at a premium price too (significantly more than a comparable laptop).

By contrast, Samsung’s Note tablets are light and thin and relatively inexpensive, although still not impressive in terms of computing power.  In addition, there is one “little thing” that Samsung did right: the stylus on all of the Note devices stores inside the device itself.  The Tablet PC that I had in the early 2000s didn’t come with a stylus; you had to buy it extra. And after you did, there was no place to put it.  I guess men were expected to carry it in their breast pockets and women in their purses, but that made for a lot of lost styluses.

Oddly, this is something that Microsoft still hasn’t figured out, after all these years. Their Surface Pro tablets are beautiful machines that combine the power of an i5 or i7 processor and adequate RAM with a slim, light, stylish form factor.

The Surface Pro also works well with a stylus (although the switch from Wacom technology to N-Trig between the Pro 2 and Pro 3 has caused some frustrations), but again you have to figure out a way to carry it without losing it.  In theory, you stick it to the magnetized power port – but a) that means you have nowhere to store it while you’re charging the device and b) it’s easily knocked off – and lost. With the Pro 3, Microsoft provides a stick-on loop tab that you’re supposed to attach to the side of the device and slip the pen in. It’s a laughably horrible solution; not only does it look bad, mine fell off after two days. How hard would it really be to build in a slot for storing the pen? I could live with a slightly wider (not thicker) chassis to get a secure internal storage area.

The hardware might not have been perfected yet, but it’s clear from sales of these devices that there are quite a few people out there who want a pen, even if they only use it occasionally. For touch typists like me, the pen will never be more than a secondary input device, but it can do things that you just can’t do otherwise (or at least not without great difficulty), such as tracing the outline of an object in a photo editing program in order to “cut it out” and paste it in another photo.

Voice, pen, multi-touch, keyboard, mouse – the more options we have for getting our thoughts and creative ideas from our brains to our computers, the better. The pen might not be mightier than the others, but it surely deserves a prominent spot alongside them.