New S Pen Mini-Review: Why is this Stylus Better, and Why Should You Care?

New S Pen Mini-Review: Why is this Stylus Better, and Why Should You Care?

pensThe S Pen is what makes a Note a Note, and now that there are two flagship Samsung phablets competing for your pocket, that differentiator is more important than ever. I’ve been on this train since the Note 3, and with each iteration, I find a new reason to use the S Pen. While this phone stylus is what Samsung intends to be the main selling point of the Note, I feel that not many reviewers pay much attention to it and not many users care for it. In this article I’ll give you some of my impressions with the S Pen, and why I think it enriches the Note’s experience

The Galaxy Note had a rocky debut as it pioneered into the phablet space, defining what consumers should expect out of large-screen phones. Looking back, a stylus on a 5.3-inch phone doesn’t sound too useful. It was not until the 5.5-inch screen of the Note 2 came around that the Note began to shine with the S Pen. Samsung brought with it a myriad of multitasking features, and the Note 3 improved upon that with the now-traditional Air Command, which put useful stylus functions just a button press away. The Note 4 focused on improving the S Pen’s functionality by making it more of a mouse as well as a pen. Finally, we get to the Note5 and everything I’ll touch on below. This is a tool that is meant to make your life easier, but how, and in which instances?

First things first, I want to mention how the pen has improved in design from last year’s version. The new S Pen is about as wide but a little bit thinner. Most importantly, it loses the ribbed texture and replaces it with smooth plastic (which can pass off as metal as a distance, something Samsung loves doing with their products). The pen also doesn’t feel as blocky as the one from the Note 4, which makes it somewhat easier to twist around in case you need to reach its button. Then we get to the clicky button.


While a small touch, it is a very nice one. There is something authentic about it that makes you want to click it in-between notes, sometimes to aid your concentration and sometimes to annoy those around you. But it is another mechanical bit to worry about, and people are worrying. I won’t go deep into the debate regarding the S Pen controversy, but in case you didn’t know, you are not supposed to put it in backwards. Just don’t. It’s tempting, it seems to fit without issues, but it’s not a good idea, and Samsung agrees.

The S Pen is also more functional out of the box for the sole reason that the Note5’s screen density is as well. You have more information on your screen at any given time, but items are also smaller. This is the perfect opportunity to make use of a stylus’ precision. The Note5’s S Pen scribbles also follow the pen slightly faster, but the writing angles and sensitivity adjustments don’t seem major here, at least not as major as the Note 4’s. The S Pen is great for just casually scrolling around websites and highlighting or storing information. But what can the S Pen actually do for you that your finger can’t?

The S Pen is great for casually scrolling around websites and highlighting or storing information.

The screen of the Note5 could be considered too small for serious note-taking, but it is an option (which I will expand below). Taking notes with Action Memo is as easy as ever — it’s right there in your Air Command, a stylus button press away. Now it’s even easier to access it, though, as you have the optional Air Command shortcut floating button, meaning you won’t need to spin the pen around to find the trigger (but again, doing so is easier now than ever). The best part is the ability to take notes while the screen is off. You simply take away the pen and the screen will light up infinitesimally, and then whatever you write on it will be saved the next time you store the pen, giving you a notification that it did so for reassurance.


Another great feature of the S Pen is its ability to select text while holding down the button as if you were doing so with a mouse. This makes careful text selection a breeze on a touchscreen, but it also works with gallery images and other items. Moreover, the S Pen can act as a mouseover function when viewing websites, which is very useful when visiting the desktop version of various pages, if only in certain situations.

Then there’re Samsung’s Air Command features, which seemingly get trimmed down every year. Now you can still find the popular “screen write” and “smart select”, as well as the S Note shortcut and others you can configure. Screen write is very useful for when you need to share a screenshot with an annotation, and the simple sharing screen makes it fast and easy by defaulting your most-used sharing applications. What’s new, and extremely useful, is scroll capture, which you can initiate on a screen write before you begin writing anything. It allows you to take screenshots of big lists, but beware that the longer it is, the lower resolution it will be (mostly noticeable in extreme cases).


I meant “hello world”!

Smart Select is similar to screen write, but it only grabs a certain part of the screen and it’s primarily meant to be used with Scrapbook, one of Samsung’s note/information storage solutions for the Note line. If you are familiar with the feature, you’ll find pretty much the same in terms of features. The process has been made a little easier and more intuitive, though.

The S Pen can still be used to input text through handwriting, and while a little faster and more accurate, it is still largely the same, and still prone to failure if you have bad handwriting (like I do). To most, it will remain more of a gimmick than a useful feature. Something that has been lost, though, is the hidden Wolfram integration in S Finder, which allowed you to jot down math formulas and equations that would then be inputted into Wolfram Alpha. For anyone else studying for a degree in STEM, this is quite a loss in potential, but on the bright side you can now remove S Finder from your life without losing any value. That being said, remember that S Finder can actually search for words stored in screenshots/scrapbook, making this tool much more useful for those exploiting screen write, scroll capture, and smart select.

Serious note-taking is possible on the Note, but not easily with the default applications. Action Memo is useless for anything more complex than a quick reminder or number, but S Note comes back with a more streamlined approach. Now that the S Finder has no Wolfram and that S Note hasn’t had it for many versions, there is less value on the app, but it still allows for brilliant image scanning that turns the text and writings into editable text. This is great for students who simply want to take pictures of their textbooks or blackboards to manipulate content on the screen. This leads me to third party apps: many other applications have S Pen support, and a personal favorite is Squid (Papyrus), which allows you to configure the S Pen’s button and provides you with an infinite canvas so that you don’t have to make new pages when you run out of space. Math homework on the Note, in particular, can be quite fast, as you can simply copy and paste what you are working on to iterate in a pinch.


The S Pen comes with many other additions that make your life easier. One of them is the ability to scroll in certain applications simply by hovering the pen above the bottom part of the screen. You can also preview links on various applications by hovering on them, and sign PDFs or write on documents without needing to print then re-scan the thing. I think that the included stylus has a lot of potential, and with the Note5, I find myself using it now more than ever. The screen-off function makes writing down notes and thoughts easy and intuitive, but I also do love the S Pen for simply browsing around, as its length allows you to reach any screen corner with very small hand movement. The added precision and features make it great for a variety of tasks, especially when researching or editing a feature. But most importantly, I feel that the whole experience has been refined from hardware to software, and it’s more of a pleasure to use than it has ever been.

If you do not intend to use the S Pen at all, make sure to turn off pen detection in the settings, as it states that it might have a slight impact on your battery life. Also, some applications don’t properly support the S Pen (even though they did at certain points). For example, Chrome won’t let you do the hover scroll nor the hover link previewing, and Docs and Sheets have a bug where the phone vibrates whenever you get the S Pen on the screen (this happens on the Note 4 running 5.1.1, too).

Either way, I think you should simply try and incorporate some of its many features into your usecase. It has a lot to offer, and it’s one of the main things that make this line-up so noteworthy.

More about the Note5 will come in my future in-depth review coming next week. The S Pen is an important part of the Note experience, so I felt it deserved more than just a couple of paragraphs in a review feature. Now that’s out of the way!

Do you use a stylus on your phone? If so, for what? Tell us below!

Check Out XDA’s Note 5 Forum >>

About author

Mario Tomás Serrafero
Mario Tomás Serrafero

Mario developed his love for technology in Argentina, where a flagship smartphone costs a few months of salary. Forced to maximize whatever device he could get, he came to know and love XDA. Quantifying smartphone metrics and creating benchmarks are his favorite hobbies. Mario holds a Bachelor's in Mathematics and currently spends most of his time classifying cat and dog pictures as a Data Science graduate student.