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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Does it need the S-Pen?

samsung galaxy s21 ultra black spen c5tl
© Samsung

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With the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the South Korean manufacturer has, for the very first time, integrated the vaunted S-Pen on a smartphone outside of its Galaxy Note range. Samsung did not include the S-Pen with their review unit to the NextPit office, and it is not very hard to see why.

I began the review of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra over the weekend. This is the only model in Samsung's latest flagship range that is compatible with the latest generation S-Pen. Both the Samsung Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ are not compatible with it. What is also notable is that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will is compatible with the previous generation S-Pen that is used on the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 or Galaxy Tab.

This backwards compatibility is a welcome move, since Samsung strangely omitted sending us the new S-Pen that I would have liked to include in our review. I hope you are not to disappointed, and please don't close this tab! The new S-Pen, apart from its size, offers absolutely nothing more or new compared to the Galaxy Note 20's stylus, which we happen to still have in our possession.

By that virtue alone, this enables me to provide you with a quick tour of the supported features in the next-generation S-Pen on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. In a nutshell, I would say that this reflects a serious lack of effort on Samsung's part.

An optional €40 S-Pen to help save the planet?

The all-new S-Pen happens to be compatible only with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and comes with a stunning €39.90 price tag. If you want to up the ante, there is always the €79.90 package that features a basic silicone storage case. Should you be feeling rather generous, then the final frontier would be the €99.90 package, where it sports a Clear View case complete with a transparent opening that lets you view the current time and any incoming notifications.

Although Samsung "offers" you a case + S-Pen package should you place a pre-order for the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the stylus continues to be a wholly optional accessory that will need to be purchased separately in most cases. It is therefore not a selling point, and neither does it play the role of being a key function in the overall user experience, as it would normally be the case where the Galaxy Note series is concerned.

samsung galaxy s21 s pen prices
Apple isn't the only one that sells optional accessories at inflated prices / © Samsung

In Samsung's eyes, the new S-Pen is therefore just as dispensable as the charger, considering how neither is supplied as a standard accessory with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. The smartphone doesn't even come with a dedicated stylus slot, which would then require the use of specialised cases to be an indispensable part of the ownership experience if you want to jump aboard the stylus bandwagon.

You should be well aware of my opinion concerning the latest trend of selling optional charger packs in the name of preserving the environment by now. As absurd and misleading I find this marketing technique to be, that simply reeks of greenwashing, some of the arguments made in its favour might make some sense in absolute terms.

For instance, most users do happen to own an existing charger of sorts lying around at home somewhere. This in some way does justify the fact that a manufacturer no longer has to include a new charger with each new smartphone sold. By extension, if we were to apply this same line of logic to the S-Pen, why doesn't Samsung allow all the features of the old S-Pen that many of its customers already have across the board with the entire Galaxy S21 range?

Moreover, the use of the S-Pen on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is itself remains rather restricted, as Samsung does not offer Bluetooth support on its latest stylus. Yes, you'll have to wait for the S-Pen Pro in order to gain any benefit from Air Gestures.

It feels like a half-hearted attempt to save the planet, or am I just the only one who feels that way? So why did Samsung restrict the functionality of the S-Pen in order to force the purchase of an upcoming model that offers nothing groundbreaking compared to its predecessors? This is not the smartest business move, period.

All the features of the 2020 S-Pen sans Bluetooth

For this particular article, I made use of the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra's S-Pen on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. They are identical in all aspects apart from the form factor, where the latest generation S-Pen boasts of a larger form factor.

Practically, in terms of functionality, the user ends up with the exact same range of basic features in addition to the side multi-function button.

samsung galaxy s21 ultra s pen settings
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra's S-Pen does not come with Bluetooth support / © NextPit

You can capture partial or full screenshots, highlight text or display previews of web pages by hovering over hyperlinks.

You can also create notes quickly by tapping the home and lock screen while pressing the S-Pen button. OCR, or optical character recognition, still works rather well. In fact, it is still an impressive feat to be able to transform your handwritten notes into PDF documents in the blink of an eye and sending them over via email.

A translate function and a miniaturization function allows one to switch to a multi-window mode for multitasking purposes also happen to be part of the package. Features such as AR Doodle or Live Message enable you to create scribbles or drawings in an augmented reality space so that you can add that personalised touch to your photos and videos.

samsung galaxy s21 ultra s pen features
The S-Pen of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra offers the same basic functions as the S-Pen of the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 / © NextPit

As you can probably tell by now, these happen to be mere basic functions, an amalgamation of the minimal capabilities that brings nothing new to the table when taking the older generation S-Pen into consideration. To make matters worse, it does not even include other functions that were found in its predecessor.

For instance, you will not have access to Air Gestures at all, including the gesture commands that enabled one to scroll through slides or even activate the selfie camera simply by shaking your S-Pen in front of the smartphone's display. Other functions that enabled you to utilize the S-Pen button as a camera shutter button, or to zoom in and out, have also been removed.

It comes as a surprise to me that the S-Pen for the Samsung Galaxy S21 does not support functions via Bluetooth. In fact, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra bind itself these functions, even on the old S-Pen I used for this article. It looks to be a deliberate choice on Samsung's part to indirectly nudge users to pick up its upcoming S-Pen Pro which will offer exclusive Bluetooth functionality.

I'm not saying that this is an unforgivable loss, but it does hamper the user experience in a very negative manner. It is ironic that Samsung wants to be an eco-warrior by minimizing their carbon footprint and 'helping' customers make more informed purchase decisions, and yet by this new S-Pen for the Galaxy S21 Ultra alone is a prime example of inadvertently 'forcing' the consumer to purchase an accessory at a grossly inflated price point just to take full advantage of it.

If Samsung has plans down the road to have the Samsung Galaxy S range replace the Samsung Galaxy Note, then the Galaxy S21 Ultra and its S-Pen companion is a poor example of what the future looks like. Try harder, Samsung!

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Antoine Engels

Antoine Engels
Senior Editor

Black belt in specs sheet analysis. OnePlus fanboy in (slow) remission. Average estimated reading time of my articles: 48 minutes. Tech deals fact-checker in my spare time. Hates talking about himself in the 3rd person. Dreams he was a gaming journalist in another life. Doesn't get the concept of irony. Head of editorial for NextPit France.

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