“Who wants a stylus?” Steve Jobs wondered back in 2007. “You have to get ‘em...and put ’em away... and you lose ’em. Yeech.” Instead, Jobs favored what he deemed the “best pointing device in the world…fingers.”
Fingers are good, I’ll grant him that. There may be no better tool on the market for cleaning a nostril, for instance, or playing the piano. But technically speaking, what you really tend to use on a typical smartphone is not a finger at all but a thumb. And as Oxford Dictionaries helpfully explains, while both qualify as digits, they are not the same thing by any stretch. A thumb is not a finger, Steve. A thumb is a thumb. With the exception of Bill Clinton, pretty much nobody uses a thumb as a pointing device.
The cool thing about Samsung’s Galaxy Note series—which just released its latest iteration, the sleek Note5—is that it lets us have it both ways. You get to use a thumb for thumb things and a stylus for stylus things. I’ve had a Note4 for several months, and it’s by far the best phone I’ve ever used. The 5 is better.
For one, the overall phone is smaller than the 4 and fits perfectly in a pants pocket, despite boasting the same size screen, a crystal-clear 5.7-inch AMOLED display. That’s just a touch larger than the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, of course. But you still have to give props to Samsung for identifying the ideal size a few versions back, when Apple was still petulantly insisting that its puny iPhone 5 all we needed. (I wonder how many iPads that helped them sell, and also I wonder where my two iPads are since I haven't seen them in months.)
But back to the stylus. Samsung calls it the “S Pen,” not the greatest name. But new version has a nifty spring mechanism, sliding out from the bottom of the device like a sword from a stone.
One tech blog recently pointed out with great seriousness that if you poke the S Pen into the Note5 backwards, you can truly f-ck up your phone. This is probably true, but it’s hard to see it as a serious design flaw. Literally nobody would ever do this. Also, don’t throw your phone on the ground and stomp the living shit out of it, or fling it into an roaring incinerator.
You’re King Arthur. Just, like, be cool.
Using the Stylus
Employed properly, the S-Pen allows you do all kinds of things your thumb doesn’t do, like draw half-decent pictures, scribble notes, and jot down hot girls’ phone numbers that you can then easily drunk-text later that night if you're really that thirsty. It takes a little commitment at first, but the Note 5 is actually a joy to actually write with, especially if you install a third-party app, such as Write. In absence of an actual keyboard, longhand beats thumbing a phone any day.
Here’s a sketch I just whipped up. And I can’t even draw. Why yes, that does look like Ronda Rousey now that you mention it!
The Note 5 has added a simple feature that makes the S-Pen infinitely more useful. Pull out the stylus when the phone is off, and you can write on the screen instantly—white on black, chalkboard style. Your notes are automatically saved.
The Click Button
It also has one of the most extraordinary technical features ever devised—and one that Apple wouldn’t dream of: a little click button on the top of the stylus that does nothing whatsoever except click.
Actually, that’s not true. The spring-loaded button allows for the easy removal of the S-Pen from its sheath. But when you're holding the pen, the button is just something to click. Click-click-click.
Apple, of course, would never sanction this. Steve “give ’em the finger” Jobs would have regarded the unnecessary clicking of a little button to be a design abomination, a capitulation to his users’ most base instincts. He thought his devices should make us better, elevate us, not enable our worst most bestial habits.
Clicking, however, is awesome.
I was a photography student in high school a few decades ago, and making out with my girlfriend under those amber safelights in the photo lab while inhaling the sour aroma of chemical fixer is one of the most cherished memories of my youth.
This is better.
The camera is 16 megapixels, which is plenty. It takes great pictures and video, and can livestream directly to Google. Best of all, you can turn on the camera with two quick taps on the home button, which means that you’ll be able to take way cuter and sharper pictures of your dog than ever before, thereby garnering incrementally more Facebook likes than your slow-ass iPhone-using peers.
Samsung fans will be heartbroken to hear that unlike previous versions of the Note, the Note5 does not let you open the back of the phone to swap out a fresh battery—one of the key features that fans used to rub in iPhone users' faces at every opportunity. That said, the phone has a glass back panel that is way chicer than the nubby plastic back of the Note4, and the battery is plenty powerful, at least for now. Batteries do degrade though—let's be real—and I do miss having the freedom to go online, buy a handful of cheapo replacement batteries from China and avoid that not-so-fresh feeling.
This is it. There is no better phone. It’s expensive, yes ($670–$740, depending on your carrier), but when you consider how much time you spend using a smartphone and how much you can do with it, that seems like a bargain. As a journalist, I can use the phone for everything: audio recording, taking pictures and videos, livestreaming and taking notes.
Which leaves my pockets free for other essential tools of the trade, such as Lorna Doone cookies, diet root beer, and fistfuls of jerky.