Samsung adds S Pen to Galaxy S21 Ultra - but prepare to be confused

Samsung has brought the S Pen to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but you'd be forgiven for being confused as to just how stylus and smartphone work together. Familiar from the Galaxy Note series, the S Pen isn't being bundled with the new S21 Ultra, and nor indeed is it the same stylus we're familiar with. In fact, if you're coming from a recent Note, there may be some features you miss.

First, a little Samsung S Pen history

Samsung launched the S Pen all the way back in 2011 alongside the original Galaxy Note. Initially, it was effectively a basic Wacom-powered active stylus, supporting handwriting recognition, sketching, and annotation. It didn't require charging – Wacom's technology getting power from the digitizer baked into the display – and slotted neatly into a silo on the phone.

In the intervening years, the S Pen has become more capable, and more complex. Pressure sensitivity and tilt recognition have increased, and with the Galaxy Note 9 the stylus gained Bluetooth and a rechargeable battery to power it. That meant it could double as a remote, both for triggering the camera and – by recognizing when it was being waved like a magic wand, which Samsung called Air gestures – controlling apps.

For the Galaxy S21 Ultra, a simpler S Pen to start

Unlike with the Note, Samsung won't be bundling the S Pen with the Galaxy S21 Ultra: those who want to use it will have to add it separately. The phone will work with the stylus from an existing Note or Galaxy Tab S7, but only for handwriting. Both those S Pens, and the standalone S Pen that Samsung will offer alongside the Galaxy S21 Ultra, will only support handwriting and sketching initially.

The standalone S Pen will be $39.99, Samsung says. It'll also offer it as a bundle with a case, that has a slot to carry the pen: the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn't have a silo for it. That will be $69.99.

Later on, the S21 Ultra S Pen experience gets an upgrade

Down the line, Samsung says, it does plan to expand what you can do with the S Pen on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It'll be offering an S Pen Pro "in the coming months," the company has confirmed, which will differ from the regular S Pen by virtue of the inclusion of Bluetooth LE (BLE).

Pricing is unconfirmed for the S Pen Pro, but we do know it'll support Air gestures on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Confusingly, however, existing S Pens with BLE – such as those from your current Note 20 Ultra – won't be compatible with the BLE S Pen functionality on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Where does this leave the Galaxy Note series?

When rumors of S Pen support for the Galaxy S21 first bubbled up, there was speculation that it meant the end for the Note series. After all, the two families of phones have come closer and closer together in specifications over the past few years, with the differences gradually eroding to basically stylus support. Samsung opting to retire one line and consolidate seemed like common-sense.

With the implementation of the S Pen in the Galaxy S21 Ultra, however, that conclusion seems a little less clear-cut. It's undoubtedly a less comprehensive, more untidy experience than Note fans are used to. From the absence of an in-phone silo, to the missing Air gesture and BLE support, to the fact that the S Pen is sold separately, it's an altogether more piecemeal solution.

Samsung, meanwhile, won't be drawn on the future of the Galaxy Note. "We've made the bold decision to expand the S Pen experience to Galaxy S21 Ultra, and plan to expand the S Pen experience across additional device categories in the future," TM Roh, President and Head of Mobile Communications Business, Samsung Electronics, said of the S Pen expansion. "We remain committed to providing the best mobile experience to our consumers and will continue to actively listen and consider consumer feedback in our product innovations."

One possibility is that Samsung will wait and see what take-up of the S Pen with the new S21 Ultra is, before it decides the Note's fate. Another is that the Note itself will evolve, potentially embracing foldable displays. After all, the only thing really absent from the Galaxy Z Fold 2 right now is a stylus to take full advantage of its mini-tablet form factor. To see exactly what happens there, though, we'll have to wait until later in 2021.