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With the Galaxy S21, Samsung is one step from admitting nobody wants the S Pen

Good news! The new Galaxy S21 Ultra supports the S Pen stylus, and that means many more people will be able to enjoy everything it has to offer. Technically this is the case, but in reality, using the S Pen with the S21 Ultra won’t be the seamless experience it is on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. For a start, you’ll have to buy an S Pen, and then find somewhere to keep it when you’re not using it too, as it doesn’t come with the phone and nor is there a neat little storage slot for it. The “solution?” A bulky case.

Samsung hasn’t really committed itself to the S Pen on the S21 Ultra, and because of this ambivalence, it appears to be only a short step away from admitting no-one really cares about the S Pen anymore. If this is the case, it may lead to a massive shift in Samsung’s smartphone product range.

Stuck in a corner with the S Pen

Samsung’s stuck when it comes to the S Pen. The stylus has always been the feature that made the Galaxy Note phone a Note, separating it from the S Series and every other big-screen, high-performance device out there too. It’s intrinsically linked with the Galaxy Note, and if it was taken away then the phone loses its reason to exist at all.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

But here we are with the S21 Ultra and it supports the S Pen. Up is now down. Has support been added because the S Pen is so wildly popular Samsung needs to give more people the chance to use it? Well, possibly, but the treatment suggests it’s probably not. The way it has introduced the S Pen to the S21 Ultra is low-key, not especially user-friendly, and doesn’t indicate it expects it to become a major selling point.

The way Samsung introduced the S Pen to the S21 Ultra doesn’t instill us with confidence.

Samsung obviously can’t turn the S21 Ultra into a Note, so S Pen support was always going to come across as an afterthought. Not only is the S Pen not included in the box, but there’s also nowhere to store the stylus in the body. To enjoy the S Pen on the S21 Ultra, you’ll have to spend money. A replacement Note 20 S Pen along with the new and very clunky S21 Ultra folio case with an S Pen storage slot built-in, so you don’t lose it, is an additional investment of $70.

It’s very hard to imagine why anyone who considered the S Pen an essential would buy an S21 Ultra, an S Pen, and an ugly case over just buying the excellent Galaxy Note 20 Ultra in the first place. Why bother then? What I fear is Samsung has discovered only a few care about the S Pen, so it just needs to offer the S Pen somewhere in the range, but not build a whole smartphone around it anymore.

Samsung’s best efforts

If Samsung’s research has shown the S Pen is no longer the draw (sorry) it once was, then it’s not for lack of trying to make it more desirable. When Samsung introduced the Galaxy Note 10 it took steps to make sure the S Pen was more useful to more people, when really before it only made sense for note-takers and artists.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen case
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Due to the Bluetooth connection, it became a gaming wand, a gesture controller, and a remote shutter release for the camera. It’s very good at all three. However, is this reality enough to support an entire phone? If Samsung’s not seeing the S Pen come out of its sheath as often as it once did, the case for keeping the Note around gets considerably weaker. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has elevated itself beyond the S21 and S21 Plus in terms of screen tech and design, and with S Pen support for those that want it, it’s now perfectly positioned to usurp the Note as the scribblers fixed screen mobile of choice.

There are persistent rumors Samsung will end the Note series in the near future, although it’s unclear whether the Note 20 was the final entry, or if the last in the line will arrive this year. Either way, the Note’s possible death potentially opens the door for folding phones to take its place at the top of Samsung’s range. If so, the treatment of the S Pen on the Galaxy S21 Ultra may give us a hint as to how it’ll arrive with a future foldable — as an accessory only for those who really want one.

The beginning of the end?

Is it all doom and gloom for the S Pen and the Note? The half-hearted addition of the stylus on the S21 Ultra isn’t a good sign. Demoting the S Pen to accessory status for the S21 Ultra gives Samsung a way out if it shuts down the Note, avoiding too much anger from the dedicated few who still want the stylus, while still succeeding in streamlining its range.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen case
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The move puts the company one step away from admitting (probably silently) no-one really wants the S Pen anymore. Stage one has been completed by turning it into an optional accessory on its latest flagship phone, which in itself has also become distanced from the rest of its family by providing a far higher specification than usual, and stage two will be to send the Note out to pasture.

At first glance, wider S Pen support seems like a good thing, but look beneath the surface and in this case, it may actually signify disinterest, and this doesn’t bode well for the Galaxy Note’s future. Nothing at all is official yet, but at least the way Samsung has handled introducing the S Pen to the S21 Ultra helps mentally prepare us for a radical shift in its line-up of models in the future.

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Andy Boxall
Senior Mobile Writer
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
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