Stylus starter kit: Apps for the Galaxy Note II and Note 10.1

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So you’ve picked up a shiny new Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet (perhaps after reading our comprehensive review), and are itching to put the pressure-sensitive S Pen to good use. Or maybe you’re a Galaxy Note user, or are eyeing the Galaxy Note II, and want to make the most of Samsung’s stylus. Well, I’ve got good news, and bad news: Samsung’s stylus will generally prove useful wherever a bit of precision might come in handy, but there aren’t very many apps that are actually designed with the pen in mind.

Unsurprisingly enough, apps geared towards those of us with a creative mind shine, and you’ll find plenty of apps for idle sketching and touching up photos. There are options for getting things done too, whether you’re taking notes in a meeting or reading documents on the go. There are a few gems—for work and play—lurking across Google’s Play Store and Samsung’s own app market; let’s take a look at a few of them.

iAnnotate PDF

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The cleverly titled iAnnotate PDF does what it says on the tin: It loads PDFs saved onto your device, and lets you highlight text, scribble in the margins, and leave text comments. Simplicity is a strong point, and the app slides through even the heftiest files with ease. Truth be told I can’t imagine using the app without a stylus; fingers are just too clunky for actions like highlighting lines of text.

The stylus lends a substantial amount of precision, but getting around the app can prove to be a bit clunky. Even the simplest apps recognize pinch and panning functions, but iAnnotate PDF will turn every gesture or stroke into markings on the page unless you disable all editing tools. Reading and note-taking became fits of starts and stops, as I scribbled a few notes, shut the pen tool off, scrolled a few lines on the page, then re-enabled the pen to scribble some more. That might seem like a small oversight, but it becomes grating if you’re an especially prolific note-taker.

The highlighting tool works as expected, coloring any text you select. It’s a bit clunky—the S Pen offers a bit of extra precision—but I’d occasionally slip and highlight entire paragraphs with a flick. It’s easy enough to undo, but a highlighter that was freeform and not based on text-selection would’ve been a bit more useful.

I’ve admittedly been spoiled by iOS’s phenomenal GoodReader, which tackles all of the issues I’ve mentioned here with aplomb, despite the lack of native stylus support on iOS devices. iAnnotate PDF began life as an iOS app, and its Apple-incarnation is considerably better equipped, offering connectivity with cloud services like iCloud and Dropbox. The Android version is currently free, with more updates to bring it up to par with its iOS sibling to come soon.

Kno Textbooks

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Remember the Kno? The gargantuan, dual-screen device was designed to be a panacea for the physically-overburdened student, replacing bulky textbooks with digital e-books. While the device never took off, Kno has re-emerged in app form with Textbooks for the iPad and Galaxy Note 10.1. The premise is the same: You’ll be able to rent or purchase textbooks (in ebook form) or load up PDFs to read and annotate.

There are some clever decisions here that significantly improve the note-taking experience. Documents can be grouped by classes and terms, keeping things organized based on your course-load. The app works well with a finger, but the pen-based edit tools are even better with the S Pen; they’re freeform, functioning much like their real world counterparts. Actions like underlining text can feel a bit kludgy to start but it’s ultimately refreshing, lowering the barrier to entry by emulating the feel of scribbling in physical margins. This works extremely well for highlighting and erasing, in contrast to iAnnotate PDF’s reliance on text selection or deleting entire swaths of notes to fix a typo. If you’d rather not reach for a stylus, you can select a chunk of text and highlight it manually.

There are some caveats, however: Notes written with the stylus only appear when you’re in edit mode; this makes a page easier to read, but was a bit annoying when I was scanning through PDFs and wondering where all of my scribbles went. While I wouldn’t call Textbooks sluggish, there’s a noticeable bit of lag while swiping through pages in PDFs or on the textbook samples the app provides. And then there’s pricing: the app is free, but the textbooks are, to my mind, ludicrously expensive. College textbooks have always been pricey, but when you spend over a hundred dollars on a chunky textbook, it’s a physical object that’s yours forever (or until you sell it for a fraction of what it cost you). The list price of the app’s ebooks are on par with their physical counterparts, though Kno’s offerings are typically 6-month rentals that cut the price in half. A $35 eTextbook that expires in 6-months could prove to be a hard sell.

Photoshop Touch

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We reviewed Adobe’s Photoshop Touch for Android app last year, and were generally impressed with how well it tackled image editing on a tablet. The primary sticking point was an altogether unsurprising one: our fingers just aren’t quite dexterous enough for serious editing work. To that end Adobe also baked in stylus support, including support for pressure sensitivity. When coupled with the S Pen—and properly configured—it made for a more fleshed out editing experience.

Photoshop Touch’s brushes will let you decide if applying pressure to the stylus will control brush size, opacity, or both. You’ll need to configure each brush individually, which can be a bit tedious if you’d like to just jump into editing things. I’m absolutely hopeless at any sort of artistic endeavor, but the S Pen lends a convincing level of precision to edits, touchups, and simple sketches. Samsung claims the tablet offers 1024 levels of sensitivity, and while my hands probably aren’t steady enough to eke out that much precision, there was an appreciable difference between strokes as I adjusted the amount of pressure I placed on the stylus. Hovering the stylus over the “canvas” gives you an approximation of where your cursor is, which proved useful for making smaller adjustments. This is no Wacom tablet, but the experience was snappy enough to make for a satisfying experience.

Photoshop Touch will set you back $10 and isn't compatible with the Samsung Galaxy Note or Note II, but there are plenty of other photo editing options that will work across devices.

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