Samsung launched a slew of new devices this week, and the most exciting is the S23 Ultra smartphone – as you can read in our full Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review. Of course, the company told us all about it, including its new cameras, new Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy platform, and its new… um, cameras? Doesn’t this phone have a pen? Yes, but Samsung hardly mentioned it, and I wonder if anybody still needs the S Pen on this phone.
I can’t stress how weird it is that Samsung didn’t bother to spend even a minute of Galaxy Unpacked on the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s S Pen. It spent more time talking about the S Pen capabilities on the new Galaxy Book 3 Pro 360, and that was only a passing mention.
I wanted to see dancing S Pens. I wanted to see animated Galaxy S23 Ultra phones, in every color, in a flower arrangement flying through a white space with the S Pens orbiting around them. Tell me you can’t imagine exactly the promotional video I’m talking about. I deserve my dancing S Pen video, and I didn’t get it.
I didn’t get anything. I didn’t get any talk about improved latency, or the way the screen feels even more like paper. I didn’t get to know how many levels of pressure sensitivity the phone can handle, or whether it can detect if the pen is tilted. Is there even an eraser?!
What can the S Pen do? What CAN'T it do?!
Does the S Pen work as a camera shutter button? Can it hover over the screen and pop-up previews of my photos and email messages? Can I wave it in a gesture motion to cast fiery spells? Okay, that last one I just made up, but all of those other things, the S Pen has been able to do at some point.
On the Galaxy Note and then the Galaxy S22 Ultra, the S Pen was a reliable way for Samsung to roll out meaningless updates year after year. Phone companies are always scrambling to add new features and justify the purchase of this year’s model over last year’s old news. For Samsung, the S Pen was always ripe for weird new concepts.
My personal favorite feature is the S Pen’s camera shutter capability. The biggest problem with smartphone photography is hand shake. It’s hard to stay steady and also tap a tiny circle on the screen. It’s easier to squeeze a shutter button, or press a remote pen button far from the camera lens.
In truth, the feature I use the most on the S Pen is the click. I just click it. When I’m bored, sometimes I pop out the pen and just click at the top while I’m doing stuff. Remember being in school and having a clicky pen that you could mindlessly click through class? The Galaxy S23 Ultra brings that back, but Samsung never mentioned it.
A pen isn't impressive when you already have a phone
Samsung has tried to sell the S Pen as useful for artists, but most of us are terrible at drawing and unlikely to get better. Until Samsung adds some serious AI help to make my dog look like a dog and not a cow, I’m not doodling on my phone. That doesn’t mean I haven’t found the S Pen incredibly useful, and even a deciding factor in which phone I’d recommend.
I was working at Blizzard Entertainment’s BlizzCon 2021 convention while also trying to buy a house. It wasn’t my first house purchase, so I wasn’t scared and I had most of my documentation lined up and ready. I was able to complete all of the paperwork for the sale remotely, and I signed every box on my Galaxy Note phone.
I could have signed with my finger, but these are mortgage documents. I could have them for 20 years. I didn’t want them to look like they were signed by Malfurion Stormrage, Blizzcon aside. I wanted them to look professional, or at least normal. I probably wouldn’t have been able to close on that house if I didn’t have such a convenient way to handle all of the paperwork.
But that’s it, that’s my best S Pen anecdote, and it isn’t very good. If that doesn’t sell you on a pen in your phone, nothing will. It’s just signing mortgage documents, but it felt convenient at the time. That’s the problem; the best use cases for the S Pen are mundane, adding simple convenience.
Dropping the pen would be taking the 'L'
Why does Samsung still bother to include the pen in the Ultra phone? It’s quite an engineering feat, that water resistant silo and pen. It probably costs a ton of money to design and manufacture every generation.
If it were gone, we’d have more room for battery, or cooling, or did I say more battery? How many Galaxy S23 Ultra buyers would prefer a larger battery to having an S Pen that they mostly forget about? I’d guess it’s a vast majority.
Samsung can’t drop the S Pen because doing so would mean admitting defeat. The Galaxy Note line was defeated, but Samsung still mentions it when it talks about the Ultra brand. It didn’t die, it just evolved into Ultra.
The Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra has a pen, but it’s a tablet, and that makes more sense. It isn’t siloed like the S Pen on the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Nor is the S Pen that will presumably work with the Galaxy Book 3 Pro models that support it.
Samsung needs to read the room, because nobody in the room missed the S Pen when it didn’t show up at Unpacked. Nobody asked about it. It was a passing concern.
Instead of a pen, what we've been requesting for years
The battery on the Galaxy S23 Ultra is the same size as the previous Galaxy S22 Ultra. The new Samsung Galaxy S23 and the Galaxy S23 Plus both got a battery boost, but the new Ultra stayed the same size.
If Samsung had dropped the S Pen but boosted the battery by 10%, I’d be cheering for that decision and excited to use a phone that probably lasts well over a full day of heavy usage. It would have one of the biggest batteries among the best smartphones you can buy.
The new camera is so important that it took up most of the Unpacked event. To record that high resolution video, on that bright, fast display, users will need plenty of battery. In the next generation, I hope Samsung drops the S Pen, which nobody requested, and gives users a bigger battery, the one thing we ask for every single year.
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Phil Berne is a preeminent voice in consumer electronics reviews, having reviewed his first device (the Sony D-EJ01 Discman) more than 20 years ago for eTown.com. He has been writing about phones and mobile technology, since before the iPhone, for a variety of sites including PCMag, infoSync, PhoneScoop, and Slashgear. He holds an M.A. in Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University.
Phil was the internal reviewer for Samsung Mobile, writing opinions and review predictions about top secret new devices months before launch. He left in 2017. He worked at an Apple Store near Boston, MA, at the height of iPod popularity. He has been a High School English teacher at Title I schools, and is a certified Lifeguard. His passion is smartphones and wearables, and he is sure that the next big thing will be phones we wear on our faces.