Sometimes When We Stylus

A review, more or less, of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0, plus a bit of marveling on the current state of tablet computers.

Back in March of 2009, Kindles still had keyboards, and we were still a year away from enjoying all the feminine hygiene jokes that came with the release of the iPad. I took advantage of the release of the Kindle 2 to describe what would be my ideal tablet computer.

Reading that blog post now, what stands out the most is what a fundamental shift in thinking the iPad was. Looking back, it’d be easy to say that the iPad was inevitable — of course they’d just make a bigger iPhone! But that’s definitely not where the speculation was before the iPad’s announcement. People were still thinking that there’s a clear distinction between computer and media device. It’s why there’ve been so many “hybrid” laptops with removable screens that become “tablets,” that invariably have tech journalists swooning and declaring them the perfect solution right up until the point that the thing is released and fails to make a dent. It’s why people still insist on making a distinction between devices for “consumption” vs. ones for “creation.” If you’d asked most people in 2009 to describe what the iPad was going to be like, they’d have described something basically like the Microsoft Surface Pro.

That includes me; what I had in mind was essentially a thinner, lighter Tablet PC (in other words, the Surface Pro). The iPad undercut that, not just in size and in price, but in function. It made good on the promise of a “personal computer:” portable enough for media consumption, but multi-purpose enough not to be dismissed as just an evolution of the e-book reader or PDA. It’s clear now that that was absolutely transformative, and anyone who suggests otherwise is not to be trusted with your technology prognostication.

I’m not claiming to be prescient; at the end of that blog post, I gave a spec list for my perfect tablet computer, and it’s not an iPad. However, it is eerily close to a tablet computer that exists today, with one major difference: it wasn’t made by Apple, and it doesn’t run OS X. It’s the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0.

Why Would You Even…?!

I’ve already been completely converted to the form factor of the iPad mini, and this one reportedly had all of that plus removable storage and a Wacom digitizer. The existence of refurbished models, some left-over gift certificates, and “reward” points, meant that I could get one for about $250. (They retail for about $400, and not to spoil the review, but I really can’t recommend it at that price). If you don’t think I chomped on that like the star attraction at Gatorland, then you just don’t know me at all.

Most of the reviews for the Note 8 that I’d read acknowledged that it’s a fairly good — but soon to be outdated — tablet whose main draw was stylus input, and that unless you need the stylus, either the iPad mini or the Nexus 7 is a better value. They still treated the digitizer as an extra feature though, as opposed to the whole reason for the tablet’s existence. (Which is fair, since Samsung’s treating it basically the same way by selling a Galaxy and Galaxy Note line in parallel). I hadn’t seen any that reviewed it mainly for the strength of its digitizer and its appeal to digital artists; the closest I could find was Ray Frenden’s review of the Galaxy Note II smartphone.

Over the years, I’ve tried out various graphics tablets, tablet PCs, styluses, and art software with the hope that I’d find the magic bullet that suddenly turned me into a better artist. I’ve finally given up on that idea and resigned myself to the fact that only practice is going to turn me into a better artist. By that measure, anything that reduces “friction” and encourages me to practice more often is a worthwhile investment. I’ve got several Moleskines that were going to do exactly the same thing, but instead just frustrated me with their analogness. Without an “erase everything” button, they’re like tiny Islands of Dr. Moreau, the misshapen forms of my previous failures staring back at me and discouraging me before I’ve even begun a new drawing.

A tablet that I use as often as the iPad mini, on the other hand, but that has a pressure-sensitive stylus and palm rejection and layers and simulates different media and colors and download reference material directly into my art program? And for less than 300 bucks? How could that not be ideal?

As a Digital Notebook

The sketch above is the most effort I was willing to put into a drawing for this blog post. Obviously better artists could show more of the capabilities of the device; even I have generated better drawings on the Note 8 when I’ve put more time into it.

But sample images for these things are always deceptive. I know I’ve gotten in the habit of looking at Frenden’s reviews and thinking, if I buy this thing, I’ll be able to draw like that!, which is of course a lie. And you can find amazing pieces of work done on just about any device, from a cell phone to a Cintiq, by artists who already know what they’re doing. What I wanted to see was what kind of results you’d get if an average person interested in being a better artist sat down and tried to use it.

That drawing was done in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for Android, and it’s intended to show off the basic advantages of using a digital notebook. Reference art from the web, multiple layers for sketching & inking, brushes with variable line weight, and a tool that makes it easy to add simple color.

Pressure Sensitivity: You can tell that it’s a pressure-sensitive pen, but you’re not going to see dramatic differences in line weight unless you’re willing to do a lot of fiddling with brush settings. There is a way to increase the sensitivity of the S-Pen, apparently (instructions are in that Frenden review of the Note 2), but I had no luck getting it to work.

Palm Rejection: Even though there are now pressure-sensitive styluses for the iPad, one of the biggest annoyances remaining was that none of the software (at least that I’m aware of) supported any sort of palm rejection. As a result, you had to hold the stylus out as if you were using charcoal or pastels, which to me kind of defeats the purpose of having a stylus. On the Galaxy Note 8, of all the apps I’ve tried — Sketchbook Pro, Sketchbook Ink, Photoshop Touch, ArtFlow, and Infinite Painter — it only worked reliably in Sketchbook Pro. The others would either leave a smudge at the bottom of the screen, resize the view, or interrupt the current drawing stroke. Even in Sketchbook Pro in “Pen Only” mode, it seemed eager to interpret my palm as an attempt to resize the canvas. I get the impression that both pressure sensitivity and palm rejection have to be implemented by each app for itself, although it seems like it’d make far more sense to have it implemented at the OS level.

Accuracy: The other big problem with drawing on the iPad is that you need a blunt tip to register on a capacitive display. The S-Pen is much, much better at this, as you’d expect. The other thing that helps is that the tablet detects proximity of the pen to the surface, not just an actual touch, so you get a cursor showing where you’re about to draw. (It also means you get tooltips throughout the entire system when using the pen. Which is nice, I suppose, but I’d prefer just to have simple clarity of the UI, and I’d been hoping that touch screens meant tooltips were dying off for good).

Drawing on Glass: Earlier I said I wanted something that would reduce the “friction” of drawing so I’d practice more often; drawing on the Note 8 takes that a little bit too literally. I’ve gotten used to drawing on graphics tablets, and with rubber-tipped styluses on the iPad. That’s entirely different from drawing with a plastic nib on a glass screen, enough to make me wish they’d sacrificed the display brightness a bit in favor of a more matte surface on the screen. That would never have happened, since Samsung’s trying to position the tablet as a superset competitor to the iPad mini and is going to make a big deal out of the slightly better pixel density. But I think it would’ve been a good way to further differentiate this as a stylus based tablet, instead of a table that happens to also have a stylus.

Responsiveness: It varied from app to app, with Sketchbook Ink being the worst. When I turned off the “Smooth Brush” option in Sketchbook Pro, the lag was all but imperceptible to me, unless I was drawing with a particularly large or complex brush.

Bezel: Unlike the iPad mini, the Note 8 has a bezel that’s as wide on the sides as it is on the top and bottom. While I think it does actually contribute a bit to the overall “cheap and plastic” look of the device, it’s absolutely essential for a tablet with a stylus. If you were to simply slap a Wacom digitizer onto an iPad mini, there’d be no good place to hold it.

Software: If it’s not obvious by now, Sketchbook Pro is the clear winner of all the apps I’ve tried. That’s no big surprise, since it’s been around for years and was designed specifically for tablet computers. I’ve bought a version of it for every operating system and every computer I own, and they’re all excellent; it’s nice to finally be able to use it as it was designed to be used. I do wish that it were possible to import brushes on the tablet version as you can on the desktop versions; if there is a way to do that, I have yet to find it.

Overall, I’d say that even though our skill levels are vastly different, my take on the Note 8 isn’t all that different from Frenden’s take on the Note II. (Much of that’s intentional on Samsung’s part, as they want consistency between the phone, 8-inch, and 10-inch tablet devices in their line). Don’t expect to use it for finished art, and don’t expect it to function like a $300 Cintiq tablet. But as a sketch book with a complete set of art tools that you always have with you, it’s fine. Whether you have the Note II or the Note 8 — every review I’ve read of the Note 10 says that it’s underpowered, so I’d avoid it — just depends on which one you’re more likely to have with you everywhere you go.

For my part, I can definitely see myself practicing more often on this thing.

As a Tablet Computer

Practicing art was only part of the thing; even I can’t justify spending a couple hundred bucks to replace a $10 Moleskine. The idea was that I’d have something that would do everything the iPad mini can, and function as a digital notebook. In that regard, I’d say that it’s not quite there, but it’s pretty close.

When I had my semi-religious experience in an Apple Store, I said that the iPad mini seems absolutely silly until you actually hold one. I still think that’s the case, and I think that the build quality of the Note 8 really drives that home. It’s got a white plastic back and a silver border that makes it seem 1) like a prop from 2001 or Space: 1999, 2) thicker than it actually is, and 3) kind of cheap. The iPad mini feels like a solid block of metal and glass; the Galaxy Note 8 just feels like a plastic consumer product.

According to the specs, the Note 8 has a slightly higher pixel density than the mini. It shouldn’t be enough to be perceptible, but whether it’s more clarity, better use of fonts, brighter colors, or just placebo effect, the picture does look better than the mini’s. Especially with text and line drawings (by which I mean comics, of course). The colors also seem brighter than on the mini.

Battery life is middling. I haven’t stress tested it (and I’m unlikely to), but it has been completely drained of power just sitting idle for three days, which has never been the case with any iPad I’ve used. I suspect that if I took it on the road, I’d be having to charge it every night.

It does support micro SD cards up to 64 GB for external storage — one of the items on my “ideal tablet computer” list from 2009 — but for documents only, not apps. (Since it’s Android, there are instructions online on how to root the tablet so you can use the SD card for apps, but I’ve always considered rooting or jailbreaking these things to be more trouble than it’s worth). Since the tablet is limited to 16 GB of internal storage, and you’re left with around 9.7 GB after all the pre-installed software, the extra space is definitely nice to have. It could store my entire library of Kindle books and comic books, and have enough space to actually store a significant chunk of my music library, which is something I’ve never been able to do with the iPad. Consistent with the build quality of the rest of the tablet, the door for the SD card is one of those tiny plastic covers that always seems in danger of breaking off.

The stylus is definitely closer to a Palm Pilot stylus than a Wacom pen, but it’s perfectly adequate for drawing. It’s more white plastic, it fits snugly in the underside of the tablet, and pulling it out automatically brings up a page of Samsung’s pen-enabled “S Note” app. Unlike the bloatware I would’ve expected, that’s actually a pretty solid app. It’s got a set of templates of questionable usefulness, but the technology underneath is solid. Handwriting recognition is flawless enough to be eerie, and it’s got additional modes that recognize mathematical formulae and shapes for diagrams. The latter one was the biggest surprise for me, since I’ve been surprised that I haven’t see any tablet computers pull off the potential of OmniGraffle very well, when it seems like it’d be a natural. (It’s possible that OmniGraffle for iPad is an excellent program, but at $50 I’m never going to find out).

Handwriting recognition is available throughout the system as a “keyboard” mode; the others are a traditional keyboard and voice input. (Somewhat surprisingly, handwriting is faster and more accurate for me than voice input. Could Star Trek have gotten the future wrong?)

Samsung has re-skinned the entire OS and included its own apps, but I didn’t think either one was particularly obtrusive. All the apps other than S Note were quickly relegated to a different page. Having a “Samsung Cares Video” icon that can never be deleted from the system is kind of an annoyance, but at least I never have to look at it. And I tried using a different launcher for a bit, but soon went back to the default one.

Considering how often I read comments online from people demanding that this app or that service be released on Android, I’d expected the Google Play store to be filled with nothing but fart apps and tumbleweeds. But I’d quickly found and downloaded every one of the apps I use most often on iOS. I’d be more disappointed if I’d any intention of giving up iOS completely, but there’s a respectable amount of software out there.

It’s also got two cameras, and they’re both terrible. Which is as it should be, because if tablets had good cameras, you’d have even more people taking pictures with them in public.

Android vs. iOS

Believe it or not, I did go into Android with a completely open mind. As long as it’s functionally equivalent to iOS, then there’s no point in getting butthurt over all the differences.

And at least with the version of Android that’s installed on this thing — I don’t know, it’s Peanut Buster Parfait or some shit — it is pretty much functionally equivalent. On a task-by-task basis, there’s little that’s inherently better about one way of doing things than the other. Widgets and Google Now seem better in theory in practice, and the only thing that’s outright worse about Android is the lack of a gesture to immediately scroll to the top of a screen.

What’s surprised me is just how much the cliches about each OS are true. Overall, Android seems like an OS that was made by programmers, while iOS seems like an OS that was made by designers. iOS tends to have a consistent aesthetic, while Android has that weird combination of sparseness and excess that you see on Linux desktops: there’s only an icon for a Terminal window and an open source MS Office clone, but they glow and rotate in 3D space with The Matrix constantly scrolling on top of an anime girl in the background.

I’ve certainly got my own preferences. The lack of options and settings common to iOS apps is often, bafflingly, described as a failing, but what it is is an acknowledgement that having a consistent experience that just works is preferable to having to fiddle with a billion different settings. I often have to read people complaining about Apple’s “walled garden” and its arrogant insistence on one way of doing things as opposed to giving the user choice; what I see in Android is a ton of meaningless, inconsequential choices that I’m simply not interested in making.

One of the “features” of the Note 8 that I didn’t mention above is that it supports multiple windows. You can open a little task bar and drag a separate app onto the screen to have two apps running at the same time. A lot of reviews that I’ve seen for the tablet list this as a major advantage of the system. I say that it’s a clear sign the developers have learned nothing from the failure of the Tablet PC. They’re still trying to cram a desktop OS onto a tablet with a touchscreen, when even Microsoft has learned to stop emphasizing windows in Windows. The iOS limitation of having only one app running concurrently isn’t just some technical limitation; it’s one of those constraints that makes the design of the entire system stronger. It means the designer can’t just lazily port a desktop interface to a tablet, but has to put real thought into how to optimize the app for the new device and how it will be used.

(There are definitely, absolutely, major inconveniences to having only one app running at a time on iOS, as anyone who uses 1Password will tell you. But I’m convinced that the best way to solve it won’t look anything like what works on a desktop OS).

I think the best example of the whole divide between Android and iOS is in the file system. iOS is notoriously closed; each app has its own sandbox of files that only it can touch, and transferring documents between apps is cumbersome. Android is notoriously free and open; you have access to the entire file system of the device, with a file-and-folder-based GUI that should be familiar to you because it’s the exact same one you’ve been using for 30 years.

Some people will say this is a perfect example of each person being able to choose the operating system philosophy that works best for him. I say it’s an example of how stubbornly sticking to one way of doing things results in something that’s best for nobody. I’m perpetually frustrated by the file handling in iOS, where I just want to use this app to open that document but can’t find any flow of import or export that’ll make it work. But I’ve been just as frustrated with Android, where I keep creating files and then am completely unable to find them in any of the dozens of folders and subfolders on the system. (Sketchbook, for instance, doesn’t save pictures you’ve exported in Pictures. Nor in Documents. It saves them in Autodesk/SketchbookPro/Export).

I’m hoping that Android will eventually get over its problems with market fragmentation, let go of the desktop, and finally embrace a post-PC world. And I’m hoping that iOS will eventually let go of Steve Jobs’s pathological fear of multiple buttons and develop a scheme for cross-app communication that doesn’t depend on clipboards or exposing the file system. Concentrating on how to use touch as a completely new way of interacting with a computer could lead to a dramatically improved method of working with computers; we’ve already seen that kind cross-pollination happening between iOS and OS X. I don’t see that kind of innovation coming from Android, though, since it seems to be still doing little more than iterating on stuff that’s as old as X Window.

And one of the cliches that’s hilariously not true is the one about Android being all about functionality and practicality with Apple being all about flash and gimmickry. Because I’m now the owner of a tablet that has no less than eight different ways to unlock it (most using a rippling water effect), and which keeps warning me that it can’t see my eyes, because it has a “feature” (optional, of course!) that won’t let it go to sleep if it detects my face looking at it. Unlike the iPad, which, you know, turns off when I close the case.

And Finally, the Verdict

I’m way too invested in iOS at this point to ever switch over completely, so that was never an issue. And I think I’ve gotten most of the making-fun-of-Android out of my system, so I’m not going to be starting any campaigns against it. (I’d even like to try writing an app for it, at some point).

The questions for me were whether the Galaxy Note 8 could replace my iPad mini as the “everyday workhorse” tablet, and whether it’d help me practice drawing more often by having a ubiquitous digital notebook. The answers, so far: almost definitely not, and maybe.

If I were actually writing for one of the tech blogs, I’d be laughed out of my job if I based my entire verdict on “how the computer feels.” But for me, that’s what it comes down to with the iPad mini. It’s like Kirk Cameron’s banana: it just fits the hand perfectly (and doesn’t squirt in your face, either). It just feels more fun to use, for some indefinable value of “fun.” When Apple inevitably releases one with a higher resolution display, it’s going to be all but impossible for me to avoid getting one. I bought the first one thinking it was a ridiculously excessive extravagance, and it almost immediately became indispensable; I use it every day.

Still, I’m happy to have the Galaxy Note 8, although I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it. It’s a solid (if not exceptional) drawing tablet that didn’t require me to shell out for a Cintiq or even a Surface Pro. If it helps me get to the level where I could actually make art for a game, then it was a good investment.

As for normal people, without my weird affliction when it comes to gadgets?

  • If you don’t care that much about drawing and just want the best tablet: get an iPad mini.
  • If you want a good tablet for an unbeatable price: get the Nexus 7.
  • If you’ve got the money, and you’re looking for a laptop replacement or the best drawing experience you can currently get on a tablet: get the Surface Pro. (I haven’t used it myself, but I’ve never seen a review of one that could find fault with the digitizer on it).
  • If you want a mid-sized tablet and think you’ll ever want to use a stylus with it: get the Galaxy Note 8. Preferably on sale.

2 thoughts on “Sometimes When We Stylus”

  1. Note series doesn’t really have palm rejection – it prioritizes digitizer over touch so if you first touch screen with stylus (or move it close enough) all subsequent touches will be ignored. Now this is usually not enough since when drawing peoples tends to rest their hand first which lead to unwanted touches.
    That’s why ArtFlow (disclosure: I’m lead developer) implements two separate features: pen only mode and palm rejection. Palm rejection uses touch point size and works really well on Note series (it has to be activated manually because some of devices return really erratic data from touch sensor leading to unexpected behaviour)

  2. Thanks for the info; that explains what’s happening better than the settings descriptions do. I was aware that the Note prioritized a “near touch” by the stylus before rejecting any touch input, but had gotten the impression (from Autodesk’s dialogs) that turning on “Pen Mode” ignored touches completely.

    I’ve also added the link to your site, which I’d neglected to include earlier, and fixed the capitalization. For me, Sketchbook simply has the advantage of several years’ worth of familiarity.

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