I've loved the Galaxy Note series since its inception, but I haven't personally owned a Galaxy Note phone since the Note 9. At the time, I thought it was the most perfect phone imaginable, complete with the best S Pen experience Samsung ever delivered. But, just a year or so later, I realized I didn't use the S Pen as much as I used to and opted to swap the Note 9 out for a Pixel 4 XL.
Fast-forward a few years and I had a new reason to care about the S Pen again: the Galaxy Z Fold 3.
While the S Pen wasn't nestled inside the foldable body of the Z Fold 3, I didn't mind so much because, to me, the trade-off was worth it. This S Pen was big and comfortable to hold. It was solid and felt like a proper pen in all the right ways. It didn't cramp my hand after a few minutes.
I had forgotten how big a difference there was between S Pens until I laid my hands on the Galaxy S22 Ultra. The first non-Note-named Galaxy Note-sequel looks and feels nearly identical to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, including the tiny — and somewhat frail-feeling — S Pen docked inside.
And it made me wonder why so many of us Note lovers have been asking for this again. I think the Note would just be better off shipping with a larger S Pen and a proper case to fit it in.
The S stands for scant
The name for the S Pen was born out of an era where everything Samsung made seemed to start with an S. S Pen, S Note, S Voice, even the name of Samsung's phones themselves. The Galaxy Note was the exception, even if everything else carried the moniker.
All of those products have evolved over time and most have even changed names. But not the S Pen.
The original S Pen was little more than a Wacom tablet stylus shrunk to fit inside a phablet. As the phones grew in size, the S Pen was enlarged slightly and tweaked up until the Galaxy Note 5. Since then, very little about the S Pen's form factor or ergonomics has changed.
If nothing, the S Pen that ships with the Galaxy S22 Ultra represents the biggest physical change in years. That matte finish makes it much more pleasant to hold since it's not a slimy plastic mess.
The problem is that it's still very small, and anyone with larger hands can likely attest to their hand cramping at least once while using the thing.
That's ironic for a phone series that ushered in the era of giant screens which are all easier to use with large hands.
Meanwhile, Samsung started shipping a larger, more comfortable S Pen with its tablets. There was never anywhere to actually dock the S Pen on any of these tablets — unless you bought a case with a pouch — but that wasn't all that big of a deal.
After all, this is a tablet that usually just stays at home. You're not likely to carry your tablet out and about the way you would a phone.
Even then, though, both S Pen sizes lack button tactility which has irked me for years. Samsung used to have ribs on the button, which made it much easier to find while writing.
With modern S Pens, finding that button is a regular chore without first looking at the pen and it's regularly a problem while writing — especially with the smaller S Pen.
See, the smaller S Pen is flat on two sides, while the larger S Pen's flat side is only on the side with the button. That, again, makes the larger S Pen easier to use even if it could still be improved a bit.
Attack of the phones
If you mistook the circuit boards above for some strange Star Wars blaster art or even an AT-AT built from the scraps of an old device, you'd be forgiven. The above image, courtesy of iFixit, is a collection of circuit boards from the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, and they look like that because of the engineering gymnastics that have to be done in order to fit all the components inside a (relatively) tiny smartphone body.
The problem is compounded when engineers have to figure out how to somehow fit an S Pen inside of a phone that's already cram-packed with components. That's all while creating a design that can fit a large battery in and still keep the device from overheating during heavy use.
Taking the S Pen out of the body frees it up to have a larger battery or better thermal design. Both of which have already come into question on the Galaxy S22 Ultra.
The key is that Samsung still has to ship the S Pen with a phone that supports it, along with a case of some kind that can both fit the pen and charge it at the same time. All of these devices have reverse wireless charging, so a case with this functionality doesn't need to be revolutionary. It just needs to be practical.
Many of the best Galaxy Z Fold 3 cases have ingenious designs that allow users to carry their S Pen along with them and still have it attached to the phone in a comfortable, practical way.
To me, going this route of having a larger, more comfortable S Pen and shipping the device with a case — the latter of which would solve the wobble problem modern devices with giant camera humps have — is a better alternative for Samsung in the long run.
It's better for the phone's thermal design, allows for larger batteries to be in these massive phones, and solves several problems all in one fell swoop. And since it's a larger, more comfortable pen, there's little doubt that it'll see more use every day. A win, win, win, if you ask me.
Cream of the crop
Still great, even if the pen is tiny
The Galaxy S22 Ultra is the most cutting-edge phone in Samsung's catalog, packing in fantastic cameras, and brilliant display, and the S Pen right inside the body.
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