Sunday, June 16, 2024

The S Pen works with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but that doesn’t make it a Note


Your Galaxy S21 Ultra works with an S Pen stylus, just like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Well, not exactly like the current Note series phones because it doesn’t have Bluetooth, so it’s more like the Galaxy Note 8 or before, as it will only perform basic stylus features. However, because the S Pen doesn’t come with the phone, is it worth spending the extra to get one, and at what point should you just buy a Note 20 Ultra instead?

I used Samsung’s Silicone Cover and S Pen set with the S21 Ultra to find out.

S21 Ultra S Pen

The main thing you need to know about S Pen support on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is it doesn’t offer any of the Bluetooth functions that make the Note 20 Ultra’s S Pen so useful. This means it doesn’t work as a remote shutter for the camera, or to control games. Otherwise, it’s technically the same as it operates using a Wacom digitizer under the phone’s screen, has 9ms latency, and 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The larger size — one of the only advantages of the S Pen not being housed inside the phone — makes it easier and more comfortable to hold than the Note 20 Ultra’s S Pen, so it feels more like writing with a full-size pen or pencil. What can you do? Outside of Bluetooth-only features, the S21 Ultra has the same software as the Note 20 Ultra — including Screen Off Memo, Samsung Notes, and floating actions. Outside of writing and drawing on the screen, it can still translate text, works throughout the operating system to scroll through and select options, and activates unusual features like Glance.

Glance is added as a shortcut, and it quickly switches from one app to another, as an alternative to split-screen multitasking. You just hover the S Pen over a small window in the corner of the screen, and it pops up into full-screen mode, then minimizes again when the S Pen moves away. It’s not only helpful, but it also demonstrates the speed and accuracy of the stylus on the S21 Ultra.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

What if you want Bluetooth features? If you want the full suite of S Pen features enabled by Bluetooth right now, then you should buy a Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. If you’re happy to wait, Samsung will release an S Pen Pro later this year, which will apparently bring Bluetooth S Pen features to the S21 Ultra. Speaking to a Samsung product trainer about the S Pen Pro, I was told there will be further announcements on the S Pen Pro in the future, including what we can expect in terms of additional features.

But for now, this is all we’ve got.

Samsung’s Silicone Cover, and the S Pen

If you really want a stylus for your Galaxy S21 Ultra, how do you get one? Samsung’s Silicone Cover case is the answer, as it comes with an S Pen and it has a space to store it in too. On the positive side, it neatly solves the problem of where to keep the stylus, it’s easy to remove and stow the S Pen away, and also makes sure the expensive phone is well protected in case of any unfortunate accidents. The silicone is grippy and gives you more confidence when holding the oversized phone.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It doesn’t do the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s naked good looks any favors though, masking not only the Phantom Black color of my phone but also the standout camera module design too. However, the main problem is the size. The S Pen is mounted inside a space on the lefthand side of the case, and it adds another half-centimeter or so to the already huge Galaxy S21 Ultra. It makes the big phone even more cumbersome.

It’s also particularly awkward for right-handed users because there’s no way to remove the S Pen while holding the phone in your left hand. That leads to an awkward hand switch to pull out the pen, then a switch back to write. Samsung was stuck with this decision because of the buttons on the other side, but it’s still annoying.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Then there’s the weight. At 227 grams the Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the heaviest phones you can buy, and with the Silicone Cover and S Pen fitted, it becomes 274 grams. For comparison, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra weighs 208 grams. Finally, don’t you dare put the wrapped-up phone in your pocket or bag, unless you’re happy with all the lint in that space attaching itself to the case.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The S Pen itself is larger than the one which comes with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, but smaller than the stylus you get with the Galaxy Tab S7 tablet. The brief look at the S Pen Pro we got during the S21 launch event indicates it may be a similar size to the tablet’s stylus, which may make storing it more challenging.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The S Pen works really well though. Operation is as fluid and natural as we’ve come to expect from Samsung. It doesn’t get confused by your palm resting on the screen, the S Pen’s side button quickly switches to the eraser when taking notes, and the Samsung Notes app has a comprehensive suite of tools. I’m not an artist, but I’ve no reason to think the S21 Ultra and its S Pen would be anything but a great companion too.

Worth it?

The Silicone Cover and S Pen costs $70, or 60 British pounds, adding a hefty chunk of money to an already expensive smartphone. The S Pen stylus experience it provides is excellent, but only as far as it goes. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra remains the S Pen star due to its greater functionality and built-in storage. While the S Pen with the Galaxy S21 Ultra works very well, I’m not sure the downsides — size, weight, minimal functionality, and additional cost — make it worthwhile, unless you’re totally dedicated to taking notes or drawing on a daily basis.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

If you are that person, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra would probably be the better buy. The S Pen is a core part of the Note experience, while it feels like an awkward, unnecessary extra on the S21 Ultra. The 128GB version of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra can be found for $1,100 and although the camera may not be quite as good as the S21 Ultra’s, it’s still an excellent performer.

Yes, S Pen support has come to the S Series for the first time and it works very well, but don’t think that instantly makes the S21 Ultra a true Galaxy Note rival. There’s still only one device stylus devotees should choose.

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