How Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 S Pen Works

By Ryan Whitwam

It's not just any stylus you can pick up on Amazon.

It would have been understandable if Samsung never produced another Galaxy Note smartphone after the disastrous recall of the Note 7 last year. And yet, Note fans are some of the most committed mobile enthusiasts out there. The people demanded a new Note, and Samsung has obliged with the nearly $1,000 Note 8. And you know what? People are buying it in droves.

What is it about the Note series that sets people's hearts aflutter? It's a big phone for one, but it's also the only phone with a stylus you'd actually want to use. The S Pen is Samsung's secret sauce, and it's a fascinating technology. Here's how the S Pen on the Note 8 works and what you can do with it.

Capacitive versus inductive

You can get a stylus for any smartphone on Amazon for a pittance. However, these styli operate just like your finger. They are conductive like your finger, so touching the screen registers a press. That's all they can do—there's no pressure-sensitive functionality and no improved precision over a finger. NVIDIA tried to fake these features with capacitance on the original Shield Tablet, which used post-processing of the capacitive stylus input to apply a pressure variable. It never worked very well, and virtually no third-party apps supported it.

An inductive stylus is harder to pull off because the phone or tablet needs to have an active digitizer under the display panel. The digitizer provides power to the stylus' internal circuitry in the same way a powered NFC reader provides power to a passive NFC tag. When you get the S Pen close to the screen, the magnetic field of the digitizer induces a current, and the Pen comes alive.

When the S Pen is "awake" a lot of the magic happens inside the pen itself. The digitizer's main role at this point is to determine where the cursor is located. You can see it floating around the screen whenever the pen is close enough to become active. It's not actually contact with the screen that makes the pen signal a "tap." It's pressure on the tip. You can make the pen activate just by pressing on the tip while holding it close to the screen. All that pressure-sensitive input is coming from the pen itself.

The coolest thing about this approach is that the S Pen doesn't need batteries, and it's cheap to replace if you lose it.

Samsung's Enhanced S Pen

When not in use, the S Pen docks inside the phone so you won't lose track of it. The larger S Pen for Samsung's Galaxy Tab S3 doesn't fit inside that device, but it does have a pen-like form factor. The Note 8's S Pen is about two-thirds the length and half the girth of a standard pen. It's not the most comfortable writing implement, but it's workable. It's also IP68 water-resistant just like the phone.

There's a sensor inside the phone that registers whether or not the S Pen is docked, which allows for some cool software tricks we'll get to later. The push button end of the S Pen provides something to grab onto when you remove it, and unlike some older versions of the S Pen, you can't fit it in the slot backward. That could essentially break the Note 5 by inserting the S Pen backward.

Compared to the S Pen on the Note 5 (what many Note fans were using before this), the tip on the Note 8 S Pen has been slimmed down by 60% to a tip diameter of just 0.7mm. The pen can also register double the levels of pressure, now at 4,096. That seems like plenty for any application on a phone. The digitizer can also detect the pen when it's up to 14mm away from the display, so Samsung has made use of the hover ability in many of its custom S Pen features.

What can you do with the S Pen?

Okay, so we know how the S Pen works now, as well as what makes the new version better than older ones. So, what can you do with this tool? Well, lots of cool stuff.

For some people, simply using the S Pen instead of touching the screen is reason enough to have a Note. Even in apps that don't recognize pressure levels, the S Pen is inherently more precise than your finger. Many apps also support scrolling up and down lists simply by hovering the cursor at the top or bottom. You can also copy almost any text on the screen just by holding the S Pen button and highlighting what you want to copy.

Samsung has packed the Note 8 full of S Pen features, but most of them are holdovers or evolutions of what it has offered in past Notes. The first thing most users notice is the Air Command shortcut launcher. The floating icon pops up whenever the S Pen is removed from the slot. It offers quick access to some of the most useful custom features including note taking and translation.

The S Pen can be of use even without unlocking the phone. Just remove it from the slot while the phone is asleep, and you get a neat quick memo interface. Jot down a note and save it to the full notes app. You can also pin a note to the Always-on Display, if you have that enabled. Handwriting input is also a significant advantage of the S Pen, even if you're not using the note-taking app with dedicated support. Hover over any text field, and you should get a blue text icon. Tap that, and you'll bring up the handwriting pad in place of your on-screen keyboard. Just start writing, and the phone turns your scribblings into text on -the-fly. It works extremely well.

Screen capture and annotation is great with the S Pen, too. To use the S Pen, tap the draw option that appears after taking a screenshot. You can also launch Smart Capture from Air Command to capture just part of the screen (you can even make a GIF). The drawing tools appear at the top of the screen with various brush and color options. When you're done, the final screenshot can be saved or shared to any app.

If you're worried about losing the S Pen, the phone is smart enough to remind you to return it to the slot after use. If you take too many steps with the S Pen outside the phone, it pings you with a notification to make sure you didn't leave it sitting someplace.

Does the S Pen make the Note 8 worth buying?

The Galaxy Note 8 is substantially more expensive than the Galaxy S8 Plus, which is a very similar phone. Make it a little bigger, shave off a touch of batter, add a pen, and you've got the Note. The S Pen does add a lot of features, but you have to decide if they're more than novelties to you.

If you want to annotate screenshots or use handwriting input, the S Pen offers a real advantage. If you just like the idea of playing around with a stylus again, the added cost probably isn't worth it.