This $70 S Pen/case combo won’t turn your S21 Ultra into a Galaxy Note

It seems more likely than ever that the Galaxy Note line as we know it is on its way out, and that’s sure to be bad news for fans of the S Pen. Or will it? With the launch of this year’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung is apparently trying to give its fan-favorite pen a life beyond the Note – but you’ll have to find one yourself.

If you’ve got an old Galaxy Note lying around, they’re golden – just take out the S-pen and sketch. If you don’t, you can buy a brand new one from Samsung for $ 40 or pay an additional $ 30 for a silicone case / S Pen bundle. This last option seems like the most complete option as it gives the Samsung pen a living space, but after living with it for a week … let’s say it was a mixed bag.

Mind you, that’s not the S Pen itself. In fact, I really like this thing – it’s one of the most convenient S-Pens I’ve ever used. This convenience is thanks to the size of the S Pen. With a length of just over five centimeters, its weight and feel have more to do with a classic ballpoint pen than with the tiny pen that is integrated into the Samsung Galaxy Note smartphones.

Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen Case Photos | 7 photos

Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen Case Photos | 7 photos

This $ 40 S-pen has all of the features you need to play well with the Wacom invisible digitizer in the S21 Ultra’s massive display. That means you can write with it, of course, but you can also hold the S-Pen over the screen and tap its button for a range of handy options and shortcuts. It feels a lot like the old days S Pen experience, which is fine if you’re the type of guy who mostly jots down quick reminders and shopping lists. (For other fun features like air gesture support and camera control, you’ll have to wait for the more expensive S Pen Pro, which will be available later this year.)

The S Pen is fast too, which frankly was a bit of a surprise. While working on our S21 Ultra test, I found that the line latency – that is, the delay between starting a line and showing it on the screen – wasn’t quite as slight as it was on devices like the Note 20 Ultra. I wrote that after testing the S21 Ultra with a Lamy S Pen after a launch event, Samsung gave it away, but the problem seems to have gone with this first-party pen. Our test device did not receive any software updates after it was released, so I can easily determine this discrepancy with the S-pen I am using.

Chris Velazco / Engadget

If all you have to do is write with the S Pen, you’re in good shape here. Still, I hesitate to recommend it to artists. For the past few years, Galaxy Notes has been able to detect the angle at which the S Pen was held to create appropriately angled strokes. That still happens with the S21 Ultra with this slightly less intelligent version of the S Pen, and as far as I can tell, the effect works just as well here as with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. There are probably some fringe cases here that I am not fully considering, but the experience still feels pretty tight.

As I said, the S Pen itself is not the problem here. It’s the case that desires me. For one, it suffers from all the problems that other silicone cases have – it quickly picks up lint and dust and sticks to the inside of your bag. That seems to be even more inevitable here because the S21 Ultra gets damn big when in this case. It was already a bit bigger and heavier than last year’s S20 Ultra, but this case makes it even more unwieldy. I understand this was inevitable – after all, the case must always include a physically larger S-pen. People who are used to the Galaxy Note’s grippy frame may find this bundle unwieldy.

Samsung Galaxy S21 + in action

Chris Velazco / Engadget

It’s also worth noting that due to all of the buttons on the right side of the S21 Ultra, the S Pen slides into a slot on the left side of the case. This is great news for lefties, but not so much for everyone else. I haven’t been able to practice pulling the pen out with my left hand, so using this pen and case combination always requires an awkward little juggling. Fortunately, the S Pen is easy to pull out and put back in when you’re done.

Despite the weight of the case, it feels surprisingly bad in a few places. Most notably, the panel feels very faint right around the cutout for the charging port. I could definitely see it snag on something and snap when pulled out of a pocket. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there are no other S21 Ultra cases that can comfortably accommodate the S Pen as well. Hence, folks looking to convert their new flagships into replacement Galaxy Notes just have to find their way around.

In fairness, I’m not sure what Samsung could have done to make this package more user-friendly – aside from choosing better materials. The size of the S Pen calls for an oversized case, and as I said, this is the only game in town right now for anyone who wants to use an S Pen with an S21 Ultra without losing it. However, let’s be clear: As pleasant as the S Pen may be, this pen and case combo is nowhere near as thoughtful or elegant as a real Galaxy Note and probably wouldn’t convince Samsung’s die-hard. For this reason alone, I hope Samsung doesn’t shut down its line of power-user phablets entirely – with luck, this ship may not have sailed yet.

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