Galaxy Note 5 and 'inserting it wrong'

Earlier today on MacBreak Weekly, the long-running podcast hosted by Leo Laporte, Leo was joking about the stories involving Samsung Galaxy Note 5 S-Pens getting stuck backwards in their slots when—you guessed it!—his S-Pen got stuck backwards in the slot. You can see it happen in the video below at around the 49:40 mark.

Leo found the story suspicious so decided to see for himself. He thought he'd feel some tightness or other physical feedback and be able to remove it before it got stuck. Unfortunately, that's why it's getting stuck—there's nothing to indicate anything is wrong until it's too late. My colleague, and the editor-in-chief of Android Central, Phil Nickinson wrote about it again today. Teeth marks and all.

People are saying "you're inserting it wrong" in reference to an infamous email from the late Steve Jobs. In the email Jobs quipped "just avoid holding it that way" in response to iPhone 4 reception issues.

With the iPhone 4, if you bridged the antenna gap on the outside of the phone, it would reduce signal reception by a couple of bars. So, if you were in an area with bad reception, you could lose reception entirely.

"Antennagate", as it became known, required both bad signal and antenna bridging, so going to an area with better signal or moving your finger could alleviate the problem. So could putting on a case.

Apple ended up giving away bumper cases to every iPhone 4 customer to address the issue, and updated the antenna in the Verizon iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4s to prevent it entirely.

The Galaxy Note 5 S-Pen problem and the iPhone 4 antenna problem are similar in that both could be reproduced. They're dissimilar in that touching the antenna gap once didn't stick, break, or otherwise render the antenna permanently unusable. Which, unfortunately, is what appears to be happening with the S-Pen.

Some have also tried to draw a parallel to the largely media-manufactured "bendgate" controversy that followed the launch of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Bendgate required people to start a video recorder and then apply incredible amounts of force in order to bend an iPhone. Earlier versions of the iPhone too, as anyone with a repair business would tell you if you bothered to ask. Or any metal phone, really, including those made by Samsung.

There were so few real-world cases of bent iPhones that Apple didn't have to take any extraordinary actions to deal with them. So, bent phones are similar in that they do permanently affect a phone. They're dissimilar in that it appears to take no excessive or brute force to stick a stylus. If you simply picked a metal phone up off the table by the "wrong" edge and it bent under its own weight, that would better equate to what's happening here.

Apple has, however, just this week issued an iPhone 6 camera replacement program for a small percentage of devices suffering from a bad camera component. As unfortunate as it is for everyone involved, problems like that happen and companies respond to them.

The issue with the Galaxy Note 5 isn't the first for Samsung. Last year's Galaxy Note 4 had a screen gap so big it could double as business card holder. It won't be their last either. Nor will the camera replacement be Apple's.

Conversely, some are going after Samsung using Steve Jobs' "if you see a stylus, they blew it!" quip from the days of the original iPhone as if to say Apple knew better and was somehow prescient about pens getting stuck in phones. Nothing of the sort.

Jobs was referring to resistive touch screen technology that really needed a stylus to be functional in most situations. That's what we all used in the dark days before the coming of the iPhone and the capacitive revolution.

Apple Stores have been selling capacitive stylus pens for years and anyone who's ever worked in illustration—hi!—will tell you how great pen input is. The Galaxy Note, if nothing else, is an amazingly portable Wacom-style tablet and it's terrific that it exists.

What's not terrific is that the S-Pen gets stuck, and that it's something that could have been avoided with better design. As implemented, it fails secure by locking down. It doesn't fail safe by letting out.

Imagine, with an Apple Watch band, if you slid it upside down into the groove, it became stuck and couldn't be removed without damaging the parts. That would be a terrible experience.

Instead, if you try and insert an Apple Watch band upside down, the lug slides all the way through without the catch firing, preventing it from getting stuck and also letting you know you're inserting it wrong.

That's what good design does—it protects customers from themselves. Even and especially when they make mistakes. It's called poka-yoke and in the case of the pen, it's something that's been solved since the Newton.

So, yeah, if you're even thinking about blaming customers for this, or telling them to RTFM, please stop. Just like Gorilla Glass is used to minimize the chances of screen scratches from keys in the same pocket, poka-yoke needs to be used to minimize the chances of a pen getting stuck.

Customers may be making a mistake by sticking the pen in the wrong way, but Samsung made one first but not designing the mechanism in a way that minimized or prevented it from happening.

I've already piled on Samsung's lack of design consideration enough for one year, so I'll leave it at that.

Except to say this: Apple is rumored to be readying an Pen for use with the rumored iPad Pro. It sounds like it might be more of an optional accessory than something built into the device. Either way, I hope the S-Pen issue causes Apple's hardware design team to be even more thoughtful and considerate about the error-proofing of their products.

And I wish Samsung, and those affected, the very best of luck in getting this resolved quickly and to everyone's benefit and satisfaction.

Update: It was (rightly) pointed out that "you're holding it wrong" is the headline used by Engadget when reporting on Steve Jobs' email, not the actual quote. The actual quote was "Just avoid holding it that way". We've updated to correct that. Thanks Kenny!

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.