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I recently acquired a Galaxy Note 5. This is a brilliant phone if you can manage with its size and once you get to know all its features. The Note series of phones and tablets come with a pressure sensitive stylus, S-Pen. I gave the Google App Store a thorough search for some of the best apps that work with the S-Pen and utilise its features. I take a look at some of the keepers.

S-Note

I'll discuss S-Note first because it comes pre-installed on the Note and is completely free. It also fully showcases some of the S-Pen and note taking features that we will be looking for in other apps. The app comes with basic features installed but you can install additional features using the menu More > More features and downloading the Extension pack and other features. The app and all additional features are offered free.

Whats Good:

S-Notes full text search feature allows you to search text in handwritten notes.

  • The app allows you to take notes as well as make sketches.
  • The app supports pressure sensitivity on the stylus, pressing down harder draws a thicker line.
  • The stroke algorithm is fluid and can be controlled somewhat by changing pens. Handwriting feels easy with relatively low pressure.
  • The app supports full text search even for handwritten notes.
  • You can draw basic shapes using the Shape recognition mode from the extension pack.
  • Select to transform or copy drawings and images.
  • You can choose different pen nibs to change stroke shape, fluidity, line thickness and colours.
  • You can save your pen settings as favourite pens.
  • You can add typed text, pictures and voice recordings to your notes.
  • You can organise all your individual notes and sketches into notebooks and tag pages.
  • You can change page backgrounds and choose ruled, grid, dairy or another from available backgrounds.
  • Notes can be synced up to Samsung or Evernote account.
  • You can record sketches, this allows you to video how you draw.

Whats Missing:

  • Only the hi-lighter pen supports opacity. For basic shading this may be okay but for advanced sketching, shading and controlling pen hardness, look elsewhere.
  • No support for layers while sketching.
  • The file format is proprietary and can only be opened by the free S-Note PC software from Samsung. There is no Mac OSX support.
  • Does not support sub-sections within notebooks.

Overall S-Note is very feature rich. The full text search feature is unique and works well. It allows you to search text in handwritten notes. There are plenty of pens and colours for basic sketching and note taking. Pressure sensitivity allows good handwriting if used carefully. The lack of sub-sections in notebooks can be limiting in the ways you can organise your notes. Overall the app feels geared more towards note taking than sketching, but it performs well in both departments.

INKredible

INKredible is the best handwriting app in the play store. It is extremely useful for rapid jotting down and tiny handwriting. What makes this app really special is that it detects written letters and improves their shape, which means you can write very quickly and yet remain legible. Basic features of the app are free additional features can be purchased in-app for a small fee.

Whats Good:

INKredible uses Vector-graphics inking technology with a sophisticated manipulation of Bezier curves. Zoom in, it will look good at any resolution.

  • The app allows you to take notes writing at very high speed. The stroke algorithm adjusts fluidity to match your writing style.
  • The file format is HTML and SVG and can only be opened by any web-browser on any platform.
  • You can choose different pen nibs to change stroke shape, line thickness, colours and opacity (in-app purchase).
  • Select to transform or copy writing and images.
  • You can draw basic shapes enabling the Shape detection mode in App Settings.
  • You can add pictures to your notes, but not typed text or voice recordings.
  • You can organise your individual notes into notebooks (in-app purchase).
  • You can change page backgrounds and choose ruled, grid, dairy or another from an extensive set of backgrounds (in-app purchase).
  • The app can detect when the S-Pen is detached and automatically switches to pen mode.

Whats Missing:

  • The app does not support full text search on notes.
  • Does not support sub-sections or tags within notebooks.
  • Notes have to be manually backed up, there is no Sync support.
  • You cannot save your pen settings as favourite pens.
  • The app does not support pressure sensitivity on the stylus.
  • No support for layers while sketching or writing.
  • No support for adding voice recordings or typed text to notes.
  • You cannot record sketches.

Despite its limitations, compared to all other writing apps there is something immensely satisfying jotting notes inside INKredible. The app does not utilise the pressure-sensitive aspects of the S-Pen, rather moving the pen slowly draws a thicker line, but the algorithm behind the strokes makes writing feel natural, quick and beautiful. My main gripe is the lack of support for organising notes inside of notebooks and the inability to search text in notebooks. The app is still young and new features are being added at a good pace. While all colours and pens support opacity (Opacity controls are hidden away in the Colour selection popup), the app is not great for sketching due to lack of pressure sensitive input and inability to switch between pen settings quickly.

One Note (Mobile)

One Note is Microsofts offering and in many ways competes with S-Note in its note taking features. It is good for note taking but not sketching.

Whats Good:

One Note effortlessly syncs your notes across all your devices.

  • The app allows you to take notes, both handwritten and typed.
  • The default stroke algorithm is good, it works well when the phone is placed on a solid surface as opposed to hand-held.
  • The app supports pressure sensitivity on the stylus, pressing down harder draws a thicker line.
  • The app supports full text search even for handwritten notes.
  • You can choose line thickness and colours, but pen nib shape is fixed.
  • You can add typed text, pictures and voice recordings to your notes.
  • You can organise all your individual notes and sketches into notebooks with sub-sections.
  • You can change page backgrounds and choose between ruled or grid backgrounds.
  • Notes are synced to One Drive Microsoft account.

Whats Missing:

  • There is no ability to add shapes.
  • The mobile app is very limited in its ability to transform or copy text and images.
  • You cannot change the pen nib, stroke shape or fluidity.
  • There is no support for layers.
  • The file format is proprietary but can be opened by One Note (free) on the PC or MAC.
  • You cannot record sketches.

One Note will appeal to those who love to organise. It allows multiple notebooks and coloured sub-sections within each notebook that then contain pages. Its great for keeping to-do lists. It is the only other app, besides S-Note, that allows full text search even within handwritten notes. The mobile app feels a little limited as compared to the PC or Mac version from Microsoft, but basic note taking features are all present. The other big plus is that you can have your notes synced on all your devices as One Note is available free for all platforms including iOS and Mac OSX. The main issue is that despite pressure sensitivity in handwriting mode you have to write slowly and deliberately to make it legible.

Autodesk Sketchbook X (Express)

If you are looking for a free good quality sketching app try Sketchbook X from Autodesk. It is designed with the artist in mind and has lots of pens and supports a good selection of nib options, opacity and layers. The express version does not offer up the full suit of features but its free and you can do some very good quality sketching with it. It cannot be used for handwritten notes and is geared solely towards sketching.

Whats Good:

Sketchbooks interface is clean and neatly folds away leaving you with the entire screen for sketching, free from distractions.

  • The app allows you to make sketches and is designed with the artist in mind.
  • All pens supports opacity, this makes it ideal for shading as drawing over a previous line makes the line darker.
  • The stroke algorithm fluidity and pen shape can be controlled by changing the type of pen or adjusting the nib options.
  • You can choose different pen nibs, line thickness and colours. There are plenty of pens to customise and their individual settings will be remembered.
  • Supports layers while sketching. You can turn off/on individual layers and also lock layers.
  • You can draw basic shapes using the tool-bar. It also has a symmetry mode that allows drawing to be mirrored horizontally or vertically.
  • You can transform or copy drawings and images using the tool-bar.
  • You can add pictures and typed text to your notes. Voice recordings cannot be added.
  • The file format is TIFF, which is widely supported by many image editing programs including Photoshop and GIMP. You can also export sketches to JPEG or PNG.

Whats Missing:

  • The express app does not use the pressure sensitivity on the stylus.
  • No ability to organise your sketches into notebooks or tag or search sketches.
  • No support for syncing sketches across devices.
  • You cannot change page backgrounds, colours or choose canvas size.
  • You cannot record your sketching.

Sketchbook X gives you a great taste of what is possible with the S-Pen when used for sketching. Its free but limited in choice of pen-options, colour palettes and canvas size. You have a lot of control on strokes and fluidity. You can quickly switch between pens and the user experience is great.

Autodesk Sketchbook with Pro Tools

Sketchbook from Autodesk is also a free install and one of the apps recommended by Samsung PEN.UP community. However without in-app purchase it is extremely limited and I recommend trying out Sketchbook X first to get a feel for things. Then for a modest in-app purchase of Pro Tools from within Sketchbook most of the limitations of Sketchbook X can be addressed.

Whats Good:

  • The app allows you to make sketches and is designed with the artist in mind.
  • All pens supports opacity and use pressure sensitivity on the stylus. You can set each pen such that pressing down harder draws a more opaque (darker) line, or draws a thicker line, or both. This makes it ideal for shading and can behave just like a real pencil or brush would on paper. Note that there is a dedicated Pen Mode, enable this in the settings to avoid leaving smudges using your fingers or palm.
  • The stroke algorithm fluidity and pen shape can be controlled by changing the type of pen or adjusting the nib options. There are lots of options on each pen. You can choose different pen nibs, line thickness, strokes, jitter and colours and much more.
  • There are plenty of pens to customise and their individual settings will be remembered. You can group your pens into a favourite pens palette.
  • Supports layers while sketching. You can turn off/on individual layers and also lock layers.
  • You can draw basic shapes using the tool-bar. It also has a symmetry mode that allows drawing to be mirrored horizontally or vertically. You can also use setup and use guides and rulers.
  • You can transform or copy drawings and images using the tool-bar.
  • You can choose custom canvas sizes.
  • You can add pictures and typed text to your notes. Voice recordings cannot be added.
  • The file format is TIFF, which is widely supported by many image editing programs including Photoshop and GIMP. You can also export sketches to JPEG or PNG.
  • You can record your sketching.

Whats Missing:

  • No ability to organise your sketches into notebooks or tag or search sketches.
  • No support for syncing sketches or across devices, you can upload to Deviant Art though.

Sketchbook gives you a full featured sketching app and takes away many of the limitations of Sketchbook X. Besides the colour wheel you can access Copic colour palettes. You can quickly switch between pens and just like Sketchbook X the user experience is great and does not get in your way.

Summary

Depending on what you are looking to do with the S-Pen the above apps should be able to meet your needs. I was unable to find one app that can do it all, though the Samsung S-Note offering is a good all rounder. Most apps allow importing and exporting notes and sketches as images, which means you can easily sketch in one app and transfer the drawing to another app and take notes. I'll summarise one standout feature of each app I have discussed in this article.

  • S-Note: A good all rounder for note taking and basic sketching.
  • INKredible: Beautiful fluid handwriting with rapid note scribbling.
  • One Note: Organise and sync your notes across all your devices.
  • Sketchbook X: Advanced sketching tools for free.
  • Sketchbook with Pro Tools: Sketching, colouring and shading for the artist.

There are of course many more S-Pen apps and I will keep trying others and update this article if I find more keepers. Be sure to share or your favourites with me in the comments section.