9 reasons the stylus sucks

Four recent events proved to me why the Tablet PC’s pen-like stylus is a rubbish idea.

Last month my old Newton MessagePad 130 was returned to me. I played with it for a while. My son played with it for a while. Actually, he just got mad at it for a while. We both thanks Steve Jobs for killing this platform. The Newton has many flaws, but chief among them is its dependency on a stylus.

Last month I also bought a small stylus-ish thing for my iPhone, the pogo. It cost me $30 at a London Drugs in Vancouver. After playing with it for a while I realized: the iPhone doesn’t need a stylus. If it’s so cold outside you don’t want to take your gloves off to use your iPhone, then you shouldn’t be using your iPhone (the device is only officially supported down to 0˚C anyway).

Finally, Bill Gates complained that the iPad sucks because it doesn’t have a stylus. Yeah. Because the Windows-based Tablet PC that depends on a stylus has done so well. Pretty much whatever Gates says in regards to the tablet/iPad platform can be tacitly disregarded. He’s clearly out to lunch.

Anyway, it all got me thinking about why the digital stylus is, for general use, the dumbest idea since the seedless watermelon. And I’ve put together 9 reasons describing the stylus’ failings.

But  first, my credentials. Here are all of the devices I’ve owned and used extensively that require a stylus to operate.

  1. Apple Newton MessagePad 130 (1995)
  2. Apple Newton MessagePad 2100 (1997)
  3. Palm Pilot 5000 (1997)
  4. Palm III (1999)
  5. Palm V (2001)
  6. Palm Treo 650 (2005)
  7. Lenovo ThinkPad x60 Tablet (2007)
  8. Wacom Graphire Bluetooth (2008)
  9. Wacom Bamboo (2009)

Clearly I’m a glutton for punishment because I’ve been expressly unhappy with the stylus mode of interface with all of these devices. So without further ado, here’s why the stylus sucks.

1. It gets lost.

This is probably the worst aspect of the stylus. How many pens have you lost in your life? Hundreds. But at an average cost of maybe 50¢ a piece, that’s not a big deal. However, when you’re handling a $40 stylus, the game changes. Even though you become borderline-paranoid of losing this pen-like doohickie, your habits don’t change. You still lose it. Typically you have to order replacements online and it normally takes at least a week, if nor more to receive a replacement. Which means your funky Tablet PC is, at best, a normal PC in the interim (if it’s a convertible unit); at worst, it’s useless, if it’s a slate model.

2. It’s incompatible.

And what happens when you lose it? It’s not like you can go to Staples and buy another one. Even if you have a friend with a tablet PC, there’s no guarantee you can borrow their stylus (assuming they’re willing to spare it), because a stylus for one tablet PC doesn’t necessarily work on another. There’s no standard hardware compatibility amongst the screens of tablet PCs.

3. It’s required.

I sort of make this point above, but it’s worth repeating: a tablet PC requires a stylus. With some exceptions, in a pinch, you can’t use your finger. You can’t use a pen lid. You can’t use a little nib of plastic that’s laying around. Like I said, you can’t even use the stylus from a different model of tablet PC. For a tablet PC to operate to its fullest potential, you must have that stylus.

4. It has a button.

What pen or other writing implement that you’re aware of has a button? That’s right: none. And, while the button on a stylus offers utility, it’s a utility you trip over. As you’re sketching or writing, you accidentally press the stylus button and something happens on screen that you don’t want to happen at that moment. True, you can disable the button’s functionality, but that doesn’t get rid of the button. And who wants to use a pen with a button on it?

5. It’s not instant.

The idea of using a stick of plastic to make marks on a sheet of glass is dumb enough. But what makes it worse is that tablet engineers tend to make the experience even worse than it should be. For example, when moving the nib of the stylus across the screen, the on-screen mark lags. It’s only a fraction of a second. But it’s like using a pen that, at first, writes in invisible ink. So you spend a lot of time doubting that your gesture has been registered by the device at all.

6. It floats.

What’s more, the aspect of the technology that actually receives and responds to the touch of the stylus nib typically rests above the display screen. So the mark you make appears about a millimetre below where you make it. It’s like you’re writing in the air just above the page.

7. It feels wrong.

Despite the fact that a lot of tablet PC purveyors claim a “paper-like” sensation, at the end of the day you’re still dragging a piece of plastic across a sheet of glass and that can never feel right. And it doesn’t. It feels weird.

8. Your elbow floats.

Think of a notepad you typically write on. Now think of a computer. What’s different? The notepad is thin, light, and flexible. The PC, on the other hand, is thick, heavy, and solid. So when you’re writing or sketching on a tablet PC, you’re typically required to hold your arm in an uncomfortable position. The hardware doesn’t shift easily on the tabletop or on your lap. Even handheld units feel too thick, too hard, too awkward, forcing the hand, wrist, and arm using the stylus into innumerable uncomfortable positions that generally leave your elbow floating, or sort of sticking out awkwardly.

9. It’s a broken metaphor.

The primary reason that the stylus sucks, though, is a combination of all of the above reasons. Basically, the stylus and tablet PC are a technical metaphor for pen and paper. A metaphor carries certain expectations. In execution, unfortunately, the stylus and tablet PC are nothing even remotely like pen and paper. And a user can’t help but be disappointed when the execution fails to live up to the promise, especially when it disappoints on so many levels.

5 thoughts on “9 reasons the stylus sucks

  1. A lot of the comments, you make such as requiring a special pen, buttons and hovering, are more applicable to the Tablet PC implementation of touchscreens.

    As you know, the Newton doesn’t require a special pen. I just use Bic Pencils with the lead retracted. Works fine. For quick lookups without the inconvenience of using the stylus, my fingernail does the job. With the Newton I get the best of both worlds touch and stylus interaction.

    Granted the experience of writing with a stylus on plastic isn’t the same as pen on paper but it’s at least 50% the way there and way more natural than using a keyboard. I often write on my MP2100 documents of several hundred words often on the couch in the evenings without much fatigue.

    In portrait mode, it’s easy enough to rest my wrist on the bottom bezel and write anywhere on the bottom half of the screen. Not too unnatural. I guess everyone’s mileage will vary when it comes to handwriting which is a very personal experience.

    You might be interested in reading this article which goes some way to explaining why the Tablet PCs were hobbled before they ever released to us consumers: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/04/opinion/04brass.html

    Just imagine what might have been if the Tablet PC division had actually got the cooperation it needed from the rest of the organization!? Apple wins because Microsoft was skewered by the enemy within, itself.

    Capacitive displays prevent any old piece of soft plastic to be used as a stylus. This means losing your stylus becomes a real issue. Tablet designers need to return to the resistive display, implement multitouch on that technology and voila we’ve got the best of both worlds.

    We don’t have to live in a world where multitouch and pen input are mutually exclusive. It’s possible to have our cake and eat it too.

    • Thanks for commenting, genghis. It’s always great to hear a view from the other side of the fence, and you make some great points. No doubt, a small subset of computer users have made every effort to support the stylus mode of user interface, but, as you describe, it’s often a series of workarounds and learning curves that gets you to a point of success with a stylus; very few users are willing to invest the time required to arrive at that point. Regarding the NY Times article you cite, I don’t think Office was the only reason that the tablet PC failed. Yeah, a more favourable implementation of Office would have been nice and maybe sold a few more units, but the the tablet failed because it was a faulty concept, plain and simple. It was just too close to something we already have (pen and paper, the PC) with very little value proposition to improve either.

      One other reason a stylus-driven input will always fail is because people expect their handwriting to be input as perfect text. No system to date is capable of this and therefore any commercial product that offers stylus text entry poses as a perpetual source of frustration for its users (and I’ve been there many, many times). Were stylus-driven text entry ever to arrive at 99% accuracy for everyone right out of the box, then there’d be some potential (and no, users are not willing to invest the time to “train” a device in the idiosyncrasies of their personal scrawl).

  2. I couldn’t agree more with everything. I’ve used my share of stylus based devices as well: PalmPilot, Palm IIIc and a Dell Axim PocketPC computer. The best thing about the Axim was the its screen responded well to your finger. 🙂

    I used the Axim for reading just about every day for two or three years until I replaced it with a finger controlled iPod Touch and it just feels much better to be able to directly use your finger.

  3. I am using tablet right now and it super sUcks. the pocket pc was far better at inputting handwriting. It is like Microsoft forgot everything they learned. I don’t want to more my hand all over the screen oN my computes I want something easy like the pQcket PC has with its soft .input panel single letter mode.
    also I agree how the\ feel of the experience is very painful in comperason to paper. Not to mention the windows input panel holus amid of its ovum-…. Wait . .. . has a mind of its own.

  4. I think that artist may appreciate the use of a stylus. If your from cubeland, the best bet is to stick with Bill Gates and Co.

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