Thursday, February 26, 2015

Samsung S-Pen Internals

The S Pen, introduced with the Galaxy Note, is faster and more accurate than conventional stylus pens. It is an input tool that provides a similar feel to an actual pen by detecting the pressure applied on the screen with great accuracy (wait, what....) [Source]

I was lucky to get my hands on a spare S Pen which turned out to be not so lucky for the pen. This post will explore the S Pen internals, crack it open, hook it up to a scope etc.

Cracking the Pen
The S Pen is a very robust design and it's internal circuitry cannot be easily accessed. You will have to use a saw or a dremel to carefully cut it open. I used a dremel to mercilessly slaughter the S Pen. The best position to start sawing would be at a distance of about 80 mm from the tip of the pen. Then slowly working your way up towards the tip till you reach a printed circuit board capped with a small plastic holder as shown in the images below. The pcb assembly slides outwards away from the tip. You will have to remove the plastic button in order to remove the pcb effortlessly.

The S Pen disassembled. Top PCB and bottom side

A close up of the components on the pcb is shown below. Starting from the tip we have the coil assembly consisting of a 0.22 mm dia (approx.) wire wound on a soft iron core which is not cylindrical. The tip is connected to a spring at the base of the assembly which appears to be some kind of switch or a variable capacitor. I believe this assembly consisting of the spring deals with the pressure sensing, either by bringing the coil close to the display surface by compressing the spring or by using the contacts at the base of the assembly as a variable parallel plate capacitor. We then have the push button that is usually used for the air command interface followed by two sensitivity adjustment potentiometers and a bunch of capacitors connected in parallel to the coil thereby forming an LC resonant circuit. The little solder blobs below each capacitor are jumper connections. Therefore as shown below, from left to right the first capacitor and the last capacitor are not connected in parallel with the coil. If you are wondering where is the circuit's coming soon....

Close up of the PCB

Operating Principle

Samsung partnered with Wacom to develop the S Pen. The pen works on the principle of Electro-Magnetic Resonance (EMR). Devices utilizing EMR Technology do not require any cable or built-in battery-based power supply at all. This is because the cellphone incorporates a sensor board beneath the OLED display that detects the pen's movement. Weak energy is induced in the pen's resonant circuit by a magnetic field generated by the sensor board surface. The pen's resonant circuit then makes use of this energy to return a magnetic signal to the sensor board surface. By repeating this movement, the board detects information on the pen's coordinate position and angle, as well as on its general operating condition including speed and writing pressure, etc. A sensor unit is equipped at the side of the sensor board to switch the magnetic field on and off and to receive signals at high speed and detect various kinds of information. In principle, all Wacom's tablet devices are composed of this kind of sensor unit and electronic pen. In addition, the sensor unit itself consists of a sensor board and a control board.

The sensor board is an array of tiny loop antennas arranged in overlapping X and Y directions. The control board switches a high frequency signal into each of the loop antenna coils. This causes them to generate a magnetic field. When the pen passes through this magnetic field, it picks up and stores energy in it's resonant circuit. The control board then instantaneously switches to the receiver and roughly determines the pen's location by scanning all the loop coils. After that, the control board scans multiple loop coils in the vicinity of the pen, and uses the information to calculate the pen's coordinate value precisely. The control board has its own custom DSP circuit performing all the high speed calculations.

For example, let's take the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. The internal view of the Note is shown below. Notice the golden panel. That is the sensor board - the digitizer that interacts with the S Pen [Source]

Hooking it Up

In order to see what is going on inside the S Pen circuitry i connected some wires to the coil pads on the pcb and hooked it up to my oscilloscope. The device operates at a certain carrier frequency as shown below. The signal is power optimized and the data transaction is in some frames that i observed in a repetitive pattern. The same pattern seems to shape-shift when the S Pen is oriented to the display at different angles.Refer to the text below each image for more information. The scope waveform was very jumpy and the values mentioned are close approximate readings off the scope.

Each frame is approximately 15 ms. The above pattern repeats over and over.

Here is the same 15 ms frame but it appears different because the pen was oriented at an angle of around 30 degrees (back end towards the home key) with the surface of the display

Here is the same 15 ms frame but now oriented at an angle of around 120 degrees (back end away from home key) with the surface of the display

Let's turn that time base down

The carrier frequency appears to be approximately 560 KHz

The FFT of the signal gives a strong peak around 560 KHz

Wonder what happens when you push the small button on the S Pen ? The 560 KHz peak shifts to 530 KHz. I guess this frequency shift gets detected as a button press by the sensor board. Pressing the switch must be connecting additional capacitance in the LC parallel circuit thereby changing its resonant frequency. Barely noticeable in the image, but if you click on the image and switch to the image viewer you can alternate between image numbers 8 and 9 using the arrow keys to observe the shift.

This is the frequency response of the LC parallel resonant circuit of the S Pen which was obtained by sweeping a sine wave from 100 KHz to 1 MHz at the coil terminals, with the coil connected to the PCB. The dip is at around 565 KHz.

In a nutshell, the phone containing the "digitizer" or sensor board generates a magnetic field that induces a current in the coil that is connected to the parallel LC tank circuit, the sensor board then switches into receiving mode, letting the resonant energy drain through the S Pen coil thereby detecting it's position, pressure and angle. 

Let's  go back to the first paragraph of this post referenced from another post stating "detecting the pressure applied on the screen". Well, nope. The statement is framed incorrectly leading anyone to believe there are pressure sensors on the screen for the S Pen. But as we found out, it is not so...

The S Pen therefore accomplishes a lot with simple circuitry and basic principles of electromagnetism. Michael Faraday will be proud :P

These observations are based on the S Pen i own using the Digilent Analog Discovery. If you perform the same set of experiments and get to know something new and weird or decode the frame structure if any, comment below. Found a mistake in the text ? comment below...

For information on LC resonant circuits check out the video below:


Unknown said...

Nice work. Have you looked into the eraser at all? Or does the s-pen not come with one?

I'm investigating possible repairs because the eraser in my surface pro 2 pen broke and I have since disassembled the top half of the pen to investigate.

The eraser seems to have a very similar layout to the bottom half of the pen, but without a button or any active components.

Jex said...

Eraser only operates at higher frequency

Anonymous said...

This is so insightful. You didn't share the circuit diagram? :-)