Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra S-Pen Is a Useful Stylus With an Inconvenient Case

Illustration for article titled Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra S-Pen Is a Useful Stylus With an Inconvenient Case
Photo: Sam Rutherford

For a long time, if you wanted a phone with a legit stylus—and I don’t mean one of those weak-sauce sticks with a squishy nub on top—your only real choice was a Galaxy Note. However, after adding stylus support to a number of its tablets and laptops, this year Samsung decided to free the stylus on its phones, too, by creating an S-Pen for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. And while the S21 Ultra’s $40 add-on accessory doesn’t make for quite the same cohesive package you get with a Note, it comes in handy for less hardcore stylus enthusiasts.

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One of the best things about the S21 Ultra’s S-Pen is that there’s virtually no setup. Just grab it out of the box, hold it near the phone’s screen, and you’re ready to go—all the software you need is already baked in. And because the S21 Ultra’s S-Pen is also a passive stylus, there’s no need to worry about keeping it charged.

Just like on a Note, hovering the S21 Ultra’s stylus above the right edge of the display makes a floating button appear, which gives you access to almost all of Samsung’s standard S-Pen functions, including traditional note-taking, Smart Select (for clipping pics of videos), Screen Write, Live Messages, AR Doodle, and Translate. There’s also a handy settings shortcut that allows you to customize S-Pen features like enabling Screen Off Memo (which allows you to takes notes without unlocking the phone), show a pointer while hovering, and more.

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However, because the stylus doesn’t have an active Bluetooth connection like you get with a Galaxy Note’s S-Pen, you can’t use the S21 Ultra’s stylus as a remote shutter to take pictures or wave it around to use Samsung’s Air Actions.

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That said, the S21 Ultra’s S-Pen does have a few of its own advantages. Not only does it comes with two extra stylus nibs that you can swap in for a slightly different feel, the stylus itself is also slightly longer and thicker than a standard Galaxy Note stylus. This might not sound like much, but even for someone like me who doesn’t have big hands, it’s significantly more comfortable to hold, while still offering a handy button for things like erasing. The super skinny dimensions of a Note’s S-Pen often made it feel like I was going to break it, while the S21 Ultra’s stylus feels more like a normal writing utensil.

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The downside to this S-Pen version is that because it’s an accessory, there’s nowhere to store it when not in use, unless you opt for Samsung’s $70 bundle which includes the S-Pen and a silicone case for the S21 Ultra. On its own, Samsung’s silicone case is perfectly functional and does everything you need a case to do: It covers all the corners, protects the rear camera house, and has a slot for the S-Pen.

Unfortunately, for me and the other 90% of people in the world who are right-handed, the slot for the S-Pen is on the left, which means you have to do a slightly awkward shuffle or reach around to get the stylus into the proper hand for drawing or note-taking. I admit, it’s not a huge deal, but it is somewhat clunky, and compared to a Galaxy Note, it’s simply not as elegant. But that’s the compromise you have to make for an optional accessory.

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Still, even as someone who doesn’t consider themselves a stylus fanatic, complementing the S21 Ultra with an S-Pen transforms the experience. Thanks to Live Messages, I definitely found myself texting more, even if it’s only to doodles on memes from friends. I use Smart Select to make GIFs of thicc seals when I see them, just because it’s so easy. And while I don’t take a ton of traditional notes, I find being able to annotate PDFs is super handy. So even if you don’t use it all the time, it’s just nice having the option to use a stylus when the situation arises.

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Illustration for article titled Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra S-Pen Is a Useful Stylus With an Inconvenient Case
Photo: Sam Rutherford

I really appreciate that Samsung isn’t confining the stylus to the Galaxy Note line anymore. Styluses on phones aren’t for everyone, but they shouldn’t be limited strictly to $1,000 flagships and that one Moto handset. And while the S21 Ultra definitely ain’t cheap, here’s hoping Samsung will continue to expand stylus support to the rest of the Galaxy S line and more in the future.

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Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

DISCUSSION

ImALeafOnTheWind
ImALeafOnTheWind

the slot for the S-Pen is on the left, which means you have to do a slightly awkward shuffle or reach around to get the stylus into the proper hand for drawing or note-taking.”

Of course, this is Android, so we can solve this. I just installed an force-orientation app to see if it works, and you CAN force the phone to behave in upside-down mode - which lets you pull the stylus out from the right-side.

What? Haha - EVEN THE FINGERPRINT READER WORKS UPSIDE DOWN!!! You just need to know that the target is now higher to unlock the phone. Also, power button being in the wrong place is not a problem for me because I use a screen-off shortcut from my Pie Control app to turn off - it’s just the volume keys are now down to increase and up to decrease.

You do get some pleasant side-effects doing this:
1. The camera hole is now at the bottom and not encroaching on the top status bar (actually prefer this, since few important content or controls are usually at the very bottom). You can flip your phone back to normal orientation to use the cameras.
2. The charger port is now at the top of the phone and not down and in the way when you’re using it while charging and risking getting bent.

It just takes getting used to when using it this way, as I keep putting my stylus back into the case upside down, lol.