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

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 $59 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.

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.

S-Pen for the Galaxy S21 Ultra

WHAT IS IT?

A stylus accessory for the Galaxy S21 Ultra

PRICE

$59

LIKE

Multiple included tips, no setup, no need to recharge, still pretty accurate

DON'T LIKE

Missing a few features, nowhere to store the stylus unless you get the case, case can be clunky for righties.

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 customise 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.

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.

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Click through for more closeups of the S21 Ultra's S-Pen and case.

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

Photo: Sam Rutherford, In-House Art

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 $90 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.

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.

Photo: Sam Rutherford 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.