For a few years after the iPhone reshaped smartphones, it looked like the venerable stylus was going the way of the dodo. Then, Samsung unearthed a latent love of the stylus in smartphone users with the Galaxy Note. The Note series has been using the same basic stylus technology all these years, but that could change with the Galaxy Note 9. This phone looks like it will feature a Bluetooth enabled S Pen stylus, which could breath new life into the Note.
The current S Pen has no battery — it’s an inductive stylus based on technology licensed from Wacom. An active digitizer in the screen detects the tip of the stylus, powering it with an electromagnetic field. The force on the end of the stylus determines when the screen registers a tap. Technically, the tip doesn’t even have to touch the screen. If you hold the S Pen close to the screen and push on the end with your finger, the Note 8 and earlier also detect a tap of the stylus. This approach is simple but limited.
According to a new FCC report, Samsung’s S Pen for the Galaxy S9 passed through the agency. The surprising part is it was tested for Bluetooth regulatory compliance. The current S Pen doesn’t have Bluetooth as it’s just an inductive stylus. This suggests the S pen on the Note 9 could be vastly different.
For one, the Note 9’s S Pen will need power. That probably means Samsung will have some clever charging mechanism in the phone’s stylus compartment. Maintaining an active connection to the phone allows the S Pen to do much more than it can do on the Note 8 and earlier. For example, the button on the S Pen could support media controls on your phone, or it could operate as a presentation controller if your phone is in Dex mode.
Drawing and writing are the primary use cases for the S Pen, and making it function over Bluetooth could improve these substantially. The device could be aware of tilt to produce different lines or shading like a real pencil. It could also do more effective palm rejection.
Android added support for Bluetooth styluses back in 5.0 Marshmallow. Samsung has waited three long years to take advantage of it, but the time has come. Devices like the Apple Pencil have shown how much more capable a Bluetooth stylus can be on a modern OS. The key will be how easy it is to keep the Bluetooth S Pen charged. If you’re constantly running out of juice, it’s not going to be worth the hassle.
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