The Galaxy S22 Ultra makes the small stuff feel important

I know I should be trying to decide if the new Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra is a Note-ified S or an S-ified Note, but I can't get past the updated texture on the S Pen. Sweating the small stuff – like the tactile soft-touch finish on Samsung's slender stylus – might at first seem like navel-gazing, but it's the details that stand out in one of 2022's biggest phones.

Expectations are always high for a new Galaxy S series of smartphones, but this year even greater weight lands on the metaphorical shoulders of the S22 series. With the backdrop of Chinese heavyweights like Oppo and Vivo snapping at Samsung's heels in a number of markets, Apple's ever-present iPhone still commanding record sales, and the challenges of an ongoing pandemic and supply chain crisis, the Galaxy S22 family couldn't afford to just phone it in.

At the same time, the Galaxy S22 Ultra has even more struggles than that. With Samsung's effective confirmation that the Galaxy Note has been retired as a standalone line, in favor of sprinkling Note-esque functionality through the rest of its phone, tablet, and computing ranges, the biggest of the S22 trio now has to fill two flagship spots rather than just one. And, although a fresh foldable is expected to arrive to replace the Galaxy Z Fold 3 later in 2022, and which will almost certainly have S Pen talents too, there's still a plenty-big cohort of shoppers planning to buy a more traditional glass slab than a folding one.

With two very different aesthetics in the range this time around, it's tough to shake the feeling that the Galaxy S22 Ultra and its smaller – and cheaper – Galaxy S22+ and S22 siblings were designed in relative isolation. Or, for that matter, that Samsung called upon the talents of its Note team to give the Ultra a solid standing start. Take it out of Samsung's skinny box for the first time, and there's no escaping that this feels more Note, less Galaxy S.

You could get lost in the weeds of what makes them different and what aligns them, but the overarching feeling is really one of cohesiveness. Good design, after all, isn't just how a new device looks on the screen in press shots, on the shelf in a carrier store, or even on the desk next to you. It's also about how design benefits functionality, and that brings me back to the new coating on the S Pen.

Samsung's stylus has been through a number of iterations over the years. From the original's two-tone flush-fitting pen, to the spring-activated pop-out design that followed, with embedded Bluetooth and more buttons along the way, we've seen a number of shapes and sizes. The Galaxy S22 Ultra, though, keeps things simple but switches to a highly pleasing soft-touch barrel.

If you thought phone zealots were obsessional, and that watch fans could get carried away, pen enthusiasts may surprise you with how seriously they take the humble writing implement. That's arguably justifiable, though, given how tactile an experience handwriting can be. Whether you're scratching out in block letters, or swooping through cursive, the feel not only of nib on surface but of how the barrel of your writing implement feels in your hand is key.

The 2022 S Pen is still skinny, maybe too so to avoid hand cramping over longer-term use, but its finish has that you-want-to-touch-it appeal. It's a marked contrast to the rest of the Galaxy S22 Ultra's glassy body, two slabs of slightly-curved Gorilla Glass Victus+ sandwiching an Armor Aluminum metal frame, which I suspect will quickly become a slippery victim to drops and falls. The diminutive pen is a small thing in contrast, but it's easy to grip and feels much more like an actual ink pen as a result.

Samsung's software enhancements help there, too. You'd think the flow of digital ink would be an easy thing to model, but with each Note generation we've seen the results massaged and improved. This time around, the big boast is an upgraded algorithm that – by better predicting where you're going to write or sketch next – improves overall responsiveness. The result is virtual ink that really does feel like it's emerging from the slender tip of the S Pen, something you will either care deeply about or have little to no opinion on.

That's because what's interesting, in a broader sense, about the Galaxy S22 Ultra is how it really does feel like Samsung's "kitchen sink" phone now. That was always the preserve of the Galaxy Note series, where Samsung was upfront about trying out its latest and greatest functionality and hardware. The prosumer audience that upgraded to each successive Note, Samsung argued, wanted the very newest device. Even if that meant a bigger phone to accommodate it all.

Compared to the sleek Galaxy S22+, then, the Galaxy S22 Ultra feels a lot more divisive in its form-factor. With a graceful evolution of last year's Contour Camera aesthetic, the S22+ (and the cheapest S22) seem at arm's length from the Ultra and its blunter edges and equally-blunt positioning. The argument that most shoppers should probably opt for the S22+ is an even easier one this time around, compared to trying to distinguish between the most sensible buy from the S21 series last year.

Simplification and focus, though, feel correct for Samsung right now. Two years ago it was throwing three Galaxy S series devices, and two Note variants, at the wall, and hoping potential buyers would be able to figure out which made most sense. Assuming there's no new Note on the horizon, this year the choice tapers down to just three, and there's even clearer space between the two more expensive models.

Details like that matter, just like having a silo into which the S Pen can always slot matters, and that Samsung's decision to extend OS updates to four generations of Android matters too. Things which aren't as exciting or as attention-grabbing as a flourish of new cameras or the latest Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset – or Samsung's new BTS ad campaigns – but which arguably have a bigger impact in your overall time with a phone. The Galaxy S22 Ultra is a huge deal for Samsung, but it's the little things which may help decide if it's a huge success