Can Samsung get unstuck from Galaxy Note 5 design flaw?

The smartphone's stylus gets jammed when you insert it backwards into the storage slot, which can break it permanently. It's a problem some research analysts say harkens back to Apple's iPhone design uproar.

Paula Vasan Former Associate Editor
Paula is an associate editor at CNET News, based in the New York City bureau.
Paula Vasan
4 min read

A backwards S-Pen can permanently damage the device. Sarah Tew

Samsung should learn from Apple if it wants to avoid a full-blown controversy from erupting.

Word of a design flaw in the Samsung's Galaxy Note 5 smartphone cropped up on Tuesday, as the blog Android Police discovered you could permanently damage the device if you insert its S-Pen stylus into its storage slot backwards.

Samsung's response to The Verge, which wrote about the stylus problem: "We highly recommend our Galaxy Note 5 users follow the instructions in the user guide to ensure they do not experience such an unexpected scenario caused by reinserting the S pen in the other way around."

Samsung wasn't immediately available for comment.

A single comment instructing customers to read the manual may not be sufficient to quell a potential Internet-fueled backlash. And Samsung can ill-afford any negative press. The company is trying to stay ahead of increasing competition by low-end Chinese vendors with affordable Android devices and stay in the game with Apple in the premium segment. The issue, meanwhile, also mirrors an incident Apple faced known as "antennagate."

For those of you who don't remember antennagate, Apple's own controversy erupted shortly after the company released the iPhone 4 in June 2010. Consumers started noticing a problem with reception when they gripped the phone around the lower left-hand corner of the device, causing the number of bars to drop and degrading the signal.

After three weeks of being on the market, then-CEO Steve Jobs (who vehemently despised styluses) acknowledged the problem -- dubbed "antennagate" -- by telling consumers the best way to fix the issue was to hold the phone differently. His other piece of advice: Buy a $29 rubber bumper to put around the phone so you don't cover up the antenna.

Consumers and bloggers were not satisfied. Eventually, Apple offered to let people return the phone for a full refund and eventually handed out free cases to millions of customers at an estimated cost of about $200 million.

"We're not perfect, phones aren't perfect. But we want to make all our users happy," Jobs said at the time.

Despite the initial problems with the iPhone 4, Apple sold millions of units of the device. By the time Apple offered the free cases in July 2010, more than 3 million customers had bought the iPhone 4, and millions more purchased the device afterward.

How will Samsung respond?

Whether Samsung's stylus controversy is a minor mishap or an oversight with dire consequences remains unclear. But at least one analyst believes the issue may be worse than Apple's antennagate.

"The antennagate problem was a problem with reception, but you didn't actually damage a $700-plus phone," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar WorldPanel.

The onus now is on Samsung to respond to the situation and fix it. And as of now, she said, they're failing.

No one reads manuals these days, Milanesi said. A better response would be using social media to help educate users by posting instructional videos about how to use the stylus. "They need to take ownership of the situation and redesign the pen if possible," she said.

Others note that the design flaw is detracting from one of the key features that sets the smartphone apart from competitors. "Most users won't ever put the stylus in backwards and so will never have a problem," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research. "But it is unfortunate that the problem revolves around the most distinctive feature of the Note, and if something does go wrong with the stylus that basically turns the Note into just another big phone."

The correct way to dock the direction-sensitive S-Pen into the phone is to slide the pointed end in first. But, let's say you accidentally slide the blunt end in first, the S-Pen will get stuck in the device. It is possible to wiggle the pen free from the spring mechanism (which holds the stylus in place), but that will cause the S-Pen detection feature to stop working.

This wasn't an issue on last year's model. On the Note 4, there's some obvious resistance when the pen goes in the incorrect way, unlike the Note 5, and pushing it doesn't break the phone, according to Dawson.

The Galaxy Note 5 has won critical praise since its launch. The new Galaxy Note 5 earned top marks for the quality of its display, one of the top factors for smartphone buyers when choosing a phone, according to an August report from DisplayMate. The quality of the screen is critical as it determines the readability of the text, the appearance of photos and graphics and the ability to look good even in bright sunlight and other difficult conditions.

But if users can't even click on the photos or anywhere on the screen because of a broken stylus, some say that benefit might be moot.

"Read the manual? That's not what I want to hear," Milanesi said.