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Samsung Galaxy Note stylus could have been a toothpick

Before the Samsung Galaxy Note had its S-Pen holster, designers and engineers had other ideas about the stylus' shape and size. CNET sat down with a Samsung innovation VP for a peek into the past.

Jessica Dolcourt Editorial Director, Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt's career with CNET began in 2006, and spans reviews, reporting, analysis and commentary for desktop software; mobile software, including the very first Android and iPhone apps and operating systems; and mobile hardware, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of practical advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Jessica Dolcourt
6 min read
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Take note, the stylus on Samsung's phablet didn't always look this way. Josh Miller/CNET

Fact: the original Samsung Galaxy Note almost didn't carry its small S-Pen within a bored-out holster. Early designs envisioned a stylus as large as a ballpoint pen, and attachments like a magnet, or even nothing at all.

This particular nugget of smartphone lore has come courtesy of Tae Moon Roh, Samsung's executive vice president for product strategy and innovation R&D, while we spoke at the company's sprawling campus in October just 18 miles south of Seoul.

A 17-year Samsung veteran who holds a PhD in electricity and electronic engineering, Roh had a lot to say about about the importance of trends and trade-offs in Samsung's mobile portfolio. His recollection of the Note's early, totally different design was a definite highlight of our Q&A conversation. Note that the excerpt below was delivered through an interpreter and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Which trends are the most relevant in mobile technology right now?

Roh: The smartphone display will be clear, sharper, with a high resolution. In the case of cameras, the same principle is applied, as those cameras in the future should work just like the human eye. For example, they should provide good imaging even in low lighting, and should be able to delete the shadowing effect.

Tae Moon Roh, Samsung's EVP for Product Strategy and innovation R&D. Samsung

Different from human eye vision, camera sensors have to choose between dark or bright when both sides coexist in one picture or in one frame, because they cannot cover the whole dynamic range in one angle. So that means that when they are focusing on the dark side, the bright side might be blurred, and vice versa.

We are proud to say that the Galaxy S5 uses a companion IC (integrated chipset) for the cameras to use higher dynamic range. That is what we call "Shadow Free Function." And the Note 4 has an even more upgraded version of that.

Samsung has taken risks when it comes to smartphone design. For example, theGalaxy Beam and Samsung Galaxy S Lightray 4G , plus the Galaxy Round and the Galaxy Golden flip phone. However, not every innovation worked.

Roh: Samsung mobile, as a global player, is very diligent in terms of evaluating and meeting the demands of our users currently and in the future. That's why we look at not only the mature technologies, but also emerging technologies. As you said, we had made lot of trials in new technologies and we will continue to work in that direction.

Will any elements from those past phones make a comeback?

Roh: Looking back, some of the trials were a little bit too early, though they might work better today. There were some unsuccessful trials in the market but we don't think that they were meaningless. Through those initial trials, we've learned a lot and the technologies remain with us for the next innovations.

When we announced the first Note, it was not welcomed highly in the market at the initial stage, but eventually people recognized the benefits of a larger screen and the S-Pen productivity. Today, the Galaxy Note is one of the most successful series of Samsung's Galaxy products.

Of those features that didn't quite break into the mainstream, is there one device that you want to see revived? Maybe that phone with the long antenna...

Roh: The antenna is a clear example of going against the demands of the consumers. [Laughs.] I do not think we will be reviving it at all.

Specifically, out of all the innovations in the R&D world that you have overseen and helped nurture, which do you think is the most impactful?

Roh: Before the Note series, the functions of smartphones themselves were limited or confined to texting. The usability was quite low. However, with the Note series, we now have more functions than ever before, like handwriting and multimedia assistance. I believe that we have now changed our cultures and generated new demands.

What was the first Note prototype like?

Roh: It looked more like a journal, wider. We're familiar with wider-size paper [in Korea, compared to the US]. However, we went through a lot of discussions internally. We wanted to catch both features of portability and usability.

Four generations of the Samsung Galaxy Note. James Martin/CNET

I remember there was a heated discussion regarding the first version. It was about the pen. Should the pen be embedded inside the device or should it be separate? If you were on our team in 2011, what's your opinion? (Indicating me)

Actually, the opinions were divided half and half because there were always the pros and cons. If [the stylus] is embedded, it's convenient, but it also takes up more space and limits portability. There were also technical limitations as well. As you know now, we decided to embed it, but in order to accommodate the pen limitations, we needed to reduce the pen size and find the optimal location [inside the device].

Can you now imagine the Note series without the pen embedded? The pen size was like this in the beginning (holds up a large pen). There was no way of putting it inside.

Watch this: Samsung Galaxy Note 4 has one thing rivals don't

Because of the size, we had a lot of controversies at the time. Was it going to be inside or outside? We also had another controversy of where to put it in, lengthwise or crosswise.

Did you ever think of attaching it some other way, like with a leash?

Roh: All things have been mentioned. Magnetic was one idea. Also another idea was to attach the pen in the cover, and not in the device. Another idea was to have a miniature-size pen, so it could be an auxiliary accessory, like a toothpick.

There are certainly trade-offs with the size of the pen.

Roh: As of now, we have overcome all the trade-offs, but at that time, we took one year to figure out how to reduce them. We have to miniaturize some elements and the hardware inside to make room. You have to have one sheet [of the display] embedded to recognize the handwriting, which takes up space, so we had to factor that in.

Larger than a toothpick, smaller than a Bic. Josh Miller/CNET

So what's next for the Note?

Roh: I'll make what you want.

I'll send you a list.

Roh: All I can tell you today is that we are making a lot of preparations for our future and that includes our internal discussions. You can take my word that when it comes out, it will suit your needs.

We discussed your greatest smartphone R&D accomplishment. What was the largest challenge or even failure?

Roh: The biggest challenge in terms of mobile R&D is having to make a decision considering the trade-offs. One of the decisions is to make a high-performance device or if we have to pursue a low-power consumption device. We also have to decide if we want a robust product, or a compact or slim product.

Another example of overcoming the trade-off difficulty is choosing the highest RF (radio frequency) performance versus the fancy design. If you imagine a scenario from planning and making a smartphone, the process starts with selecting the top 10 features that we want to include. But each one has pros and cons. We have to optimize the 10 key features.

If all things were really possible, what would be the one innovation you'd love to see in a phone, tablet, or wearable?

Roh: In planning and developing smartphones, the key should be on humans, people. It should be human-oriented. The process was that whatever innovation comes along, it should be able to support people. I cannot give you the details now, but for next year we're prepared for more functions and innovations to come along. You may have sensed some of them in the Note 4. These innovations will be strengthened and solidified for next year as well.