Very few third-party apps are designed with styluses in mind, but some of them work better with a stylus anyway. “Draw Something,” a drawing game, is a good example. It’s designed for use with fingers, but the stylus makes it much easier to draw intelligible pictures, because it’s easier to see what you’re drawing. By contrast, a finger is so big and blunt that it obscures the picture. The app would work even better if it sensed the pen pressure.

At the current level of software support, the stylus is just slightly better than a gimmick.

But even when there are more apps for it, the stylus is going to have limited appeal. It’s a must-have for only a small group of people, who like to doodle or need to do so for their jobs. For the rest of us, it will be a fun thing we use once in a while. It can and should tip a purchase decision now and then, but not for everyone.

You can contrast that with the signature feature of the latest iPad: the ultra-high resolution screen. That’s not a must-have feature for everyone either, but it’s immediately useful to everyone.

The Galaxy Note does chip at the iPad’s defenses with other features the Apple tablet lacks. One is a slot for microSD memory cards, which means you can expand the memory of the Galaxy Note inexpensively. That’s very welcome.

The other feature is an infrared light, which can be used in place of a remote at the home entertainment center. This is a feature Sony pioneered in its Android tablets. It’s welcome, too—some people spend hundreds of dollars on universal remotes, which the Galaxy Note effectively replaces with this feature. However, the included software didn’t work well with my TV and stereo, so this will take some tinkering to get right.

See also:

Seven iPad alternatives for schools

News Corp. to launch tablet-based education pilot

Microsoft’s ‘Surface’ tablet aims for productivity

Compared with other tablets that run Google’s Android software, you’re not really giving anything up by getting a Galaxy Note. It runs Ice Cream Sandwich, the next-to-latest version of Android, and can be upgraded to Jelly Bean, the latest. It has a fast processor and a big screen. At $499, it costs $100 more than the pen-less Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, which has the same size screen but a slower processor.

The Asus Transformer series of tablets takes another tack: They’re built to work with an accessory keyboard, which also contains an extra battery and more connection ports. That’s another way a competitor tries to take advantage of a blind spot for Apple and the iPad, for which physical keyboards seem like an afterthought.

Together, Asus and Samsung’s strategies could add up to a very attractive tablet indeed. For now, and for most people, the iPad is still the better buy. The main reason is that there’s much more, and better, third-party software available for it.

But the Galaxy Note shows that the pressure is building on the iPad, and Apple will have to work if it wants to maintain its lead.