Samsung’s line of Galaxy Note phablets and tablets have a single important feature that is unavailable in any other Android or iOS device: the built in S-Pen that fits inside the device.
For those unfamiliar with it, the S-Pen is not a regular stylus but one that has evolved since it’s introduction with the original Note 1 in 2011 and become a highly sensitive stylus that recognizes speed, tilt, rotation, and pressure, in order to provide an excellent user experience.
For many of us who LOVE the S-Pen (and I count myself among them), it is the one feature that keeps us not just faithful to the Note franchise, but practically glued to it. The only way that you could get many of us to switch to another phablet (or tablet) is to provide a device that combines high end features with an advanced built in pressure sensitive stylus, and some functionality built into the device that makes use of it (such as a nifty note-taking app, etc.)
Before going any further with this article I will disclose the following: for almost 3 years now I have been using the Note series of phablets and tablets to create art, using the stylus and a painting app called Infinite Painter.
In 2013 Samsung, in fact, have sponsored a show of my art and paid for the venue, the printing and framing, as well as interactive displays that showed the process of making art on the Note, including a video interview with yours truly. (You can see some of the art here).
However, this happy story of S-Pen created art seems to be very much an outlier. Samsung, in fact, apparently concluded that Europeans did not care too much for the S-Pen, and in 2015 it initially did not even bother to launch the Note 5 in most of Europe, opting to only launch the Galaxy S6 Edge+ there.
The Galaxy S6 Edge+, of course, is a phablet-sized version of the Galaxy S6 Edge that features the admittedly stylish curved glass edge, but without the S-Pen. Since then there have been ‘reports’ that the Note 5 (and S-Pen) will in fact be made available in Europe in early 2016. (Has it been launched where you live in Europe? Let us know in the comments). Disappointingly, there was no S-Pen equipped version of the S6 Edge+, such that Samsung was effectively saying that customers can choose between having the S-Pen on the one hand, or the stylishness of the ‘edge’ on the other, but not both.
What also didn’t happen in 2015 is that although Samsung did release two high end tablets (the Tab S2 in 10’ and 8’ versions), it did not release an S-pen equipped Note tablet. I took notice because I was ready and waiting for Samsung to please take my money and give me an upgraded version of my (by now somewhat aging) Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition, but no new Note tablet was forthcoming in 2015. The last Note tablet they released, in fact, was the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 in 2014, which featured a large 12.2’ screen but, disappointingly, the same screen resolution as my Note 10.1 (not bad at 2560x1600, but where’s the 4K resolution(s) we’ve all been waiting for?)
This article was borne out of a desire to make sense of reasons behind this neglect of the Note brand and the S-Pen. As far as I can make it out, their decision making process was probably something like this:
- In 2014 Samsung’s Mobile division, although still profitable, saw a massive 57% annual decline in it’s profitability (source: here). This was probably due to competition from the likes of LG and HTC, who had been consistently hammering out competitive high end phones that were in many cases better in their form factor than what Samsung had to offer. They had also followed Samsung’s lead by introducing large-screen phablet versions of their phones (albeit without a built-in stylus).
- Perhaps scarier at the time was Apple’s decision to release it’s first phablet, the iPhone 6 plus, in late 2014. Although this phone did not feature a built in stylus, Samsung seems to have decided that they need to have a really compelling phablet in order to keep up their standing in the phablet category. In the same month (Sep 2014) Samsung released the Galaxy Note 4 and a variant on it called the Galaxy Note Edge. This latter phablet did include a S-Pen, but was only released in limited markets as a ‘test-release’ to see if the edge concept would be well received. (It was).
- I speculate on what happened next: some Samsung execs probably looked at data that showed that only a sub-set of customers actually (a) used the S-Pen, (b) cared about adding an SD card, and (c) cared about replaceable batteries. In response they decided to remove (b) and (c) from the next Note (the 2015 Galaxy Note 5) and to release a phablet sized ‘edge’ phone minus the S-pen. They also apparently decided that releasing a Note tablet was not necessary in 2015. What they failed to do, however, is recognize who those users were who did use the S-pen and did care for SD card support; namely: advanced users, brand loyalists, and Note fanatics. In other words, people like myself who form the backbone of the brand. By betting that it can ignore the hardcore fans and aim for the mainstream, Samsung in my opinion is risking losing both.
Although I expect that there will be a new "Galaxy Note 6" phablet released in 2016 that will feature the S-Pen and that will restore SD card support, I cannot help but wonder if Samsung is already considering the S-Pen (and even the Note line itself) to be a dying brand, something that it can once again afford not to launch in a major market like Western Europe.
As a Note loyalist, I would very much like to see a super high end Note 6, an ‘Edge’ version that is equipped with an S-Pen, and a high-end Note tablet released in 2016 as well (I am ready to upgrade from my Note 4 and Note 10.1 both). If they do not release a Note 6 that is sufficiently better than the Note 4 (esp. with higher screen resolution) then I will not buy it, and if they do not release a new Note tablet (again, with 4K resolution) then I will probably end up moving away from the Note line of tablets and purchase a Microsoft Surface instead. I have already spent many hours playing with it at the Microsoft store, and I like both the stylus and the screen resolution on it.
Still, I am willing to cross my fingers and to wait and see what happens.