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Adding the S Pen to the Galaxy S21 only complicates Samsung’s lineup

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is almost here, with Samsung having scheduled an Unpacked event for January 14. The main event, of course, is expected to be the Galaxy S21, with the new top-tier model being the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra will offer the best-of-the-best specs, a super high-end camera, and more. But there’s one rumored feature that might help it blur the line between the Galaxy S series and the Galaxy Note series. According to many rumors, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will support the S Pen.

This is a … strange move from Samsung.

A sub-par experience

The first reason that it’s strange Samsung is bringing S Pen support to the Galaxy S21 Ultra is that it doesn’t really sound like a great experience. The Galaxy Note series in general is arguably built around the S Pen. There’s a slot for it right in the phone, making it easily accessible, and always on hand. When Samsung can count on the user always having the S Pen with the phone, it can tailor that experience.

We’re expecting the Galaxy S21 Ultra to support the S Pen, but not come with it or even have a slot for it. How will that actually work? Well, it sounds clumsy.

Galaxy Note 9 yellow s pen slot
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

If you have to buy the S Pen separately, a small fraction of people will do so. The best part about the Note line is that every phone comes with the exact same stylus, so people give it a shot and often find a way to integrate it into their lifestyle. If you have to pay separately to get it, the adoption rate will surely be poor.

But even if you buy it, you then have to find a way to carry it around.

There is a rumored Galaxy S21 Ultra case that includes a space for the S Pen, but even this is limiting. It means that if you want a good experience with the S Pen on the S21 Ultra, you can only buy certain cases — Samsung would love that, of course, as it’ll have a range of expensive first-party options. Otherwise, you have to deal with having to carry the phone and the S Pen around separately, which just isn’t going to work. The phone’s software can’t offer S Pen-only experiences if it doesn’t know that you’ll always have an S Pen.

No love for Note

There is, of course, a future in which this move could make sense — a world in which there is no Note series, or the Note series is converted into some line of foldable phones. This isn’t as out-there as you might think. A number of rumors over the past few months have indicated that Samsung is preparing to kill the Note series as we know it, although that may not be for another year or so, after a new Galaxy Note 21 is released.

Of course, a move like this would seriously limit availability of the S Pen. The Galaxy Note series isn’t cheap, but with three models available, all of which offer S Pen support, there is some choice. If Samsung kills the Note, and only adds S Pen support to the “Ultra” Galaxy S going forward, it means that to get stylus support in a Samsung phone, you’ll have to shell out north of $1,400, if Samsung sticks with the same pricing of as the Galaxy S20 series.

samsung note 8 s pen

More likely is a kind of “convergence” of the two lines, where all Galaxy S devices support the S Pen but don’t necessarily come with it or offer a slot for it. Then, the Ultra model picks up an S Pen slot on the top end. Again, this makes for a radically less appealing customer experience, but at least it would allow users who want the S Pen to use it without having to shell out so much cash. Although it can be argued that Samsung’s current strategy with the less-expensive base Galaxy Note 20 addressed that problem.

The future of the Samsung stylus

If the last few years have proven anything, it’s the fact that people still like the stylus. The Apple Pencil is a serious hit, and some rumors even indicate future iPhone models will support it. The Note series may not sell anywhere near as much as the S series, but for the set of customers that do buy the Note, the S Pen is incredibly important. They care more about the “Note” brand than the “Samsung” brand.

It’s entirely possible that adding the S Pen to the Galaxy S is just a one-off shot to introduce more people to the power of the stylus, and that the Note series is here to stay. Hopefully, Samsung will keep the user experience front-of-mind as it blurs the line between its two most popular phones.

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