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.
- Apple Newton MessagePad 130 (1995)
- Apple Newton MessagePad 2100 (1997)
- Palm Pilot 5000 (1997)
- Palm III (1999)
- Palm V (2001)
- Palm Treo 650 (2005)
- Lenovo ThinkPad x60 Tablet (2007)
- Wacom Graphire Bluetooth (2008)
- 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.