Samsung S Pen Pro Review: One stylus to rule the Galaxies
The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 takes the already excellent Fold 2 and adds a bunch of refinement and polish, including sturdier materials, water-proofing, and stylus input support. The first two upgrades are immediately noticeable the minute you begin using the Galaxy Z Fold 3. But to use a stylus — better known as the “S Pen” — requires a separate purchase.
Samsung released two styluses alongside the Galaxy Z Fold 3 — the S Pen Fold Edition and S Pen Pro. The Fold Edition is a “dumb” stylus, meaning it offers no other features outside of just stylus input, and it only works with the Galaxy Z Fold 3. The S Pen Pro, meanwhile, works with the Galaxy Z Fold 3 plus every existing Samsung product that has stylus support. In other words, the S Pen Pro is the universal Samsung S Pen.
How does the S Pen Pro perform with the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and the Galaxy S21 Ultra?
List of devices from Samsung that are compatible with the S Pen Pro. Click to expand
Here’s a list of compatible devices:
- Galaxy Z Fold 3
- Galaxy S21 Ultra
- Galaxy Note series
- Galaxy Tab S7 FE
- Galaxy Tab S7/7+
- Galaxy Tab S6 Lite
- Galaxy Tab S6
- Galaxy Tab S4
- Galaxy Tab S3
- Galaxy Tab Active Pro
- Galaxy Tab Active 3
- Galaxy Tab Active 2
- Galaxy Tab Active
- Galaxy Tab A 8.0 2019 with S Pen
- Galaxy Tab A 10.1 2016 with S Pen
- Galaxy Tab A 9.7 with S Pen
- Galaxy Tab A 8.0 2015 with S Pen
- Galaxy Note Pro – 12.2
- Galaxy Note 8.0
- Galaxy Note 10.1 2012/2014
- Galaxy Book Pro 360
- Galaxy Book Flex 2
- Galaxy Book Flex S Pen
- Galaxy Book Flex 5G
- Galaxy Book Flex α S Pen
- Galaxy Book 10.6
- Galaxy Book 12.0
- Chromebook Plus V2
- Chromebook Pro
- Notebook 7 spin
- Notebook S51 Pen
- Notebook 9 Pen
- Notebook 9 Pro
S Pen Pro: Design
The S Pen Pro is noticeably thicker than previous S Pens — not just the petite S Pens that came with previous Note phones, but the S Pen Pro is thicker than the S Pens also designed for the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Galaxy Tab S7. Still, at 14g, it’s light enough to wield without issues. It’s definitely easier to hold and use than the tiny, ultra-thin S Pens that came with Galaxy Note phones.
The stylus is made of plastic, but with a soft matte coating that gives it a bit of grip. It’s mostly rounded with one flat side to prevent it from rolling off a table. Alongside the flat sides are two moving parts — a toggle switch for switching between “Z Fold” or “S Pen” modes (more on this later) and a single button with two clickable parts for Bluetooth controls. At the bottom end is the rubber tip that’s retractable (if pressed down too hard) to prevent damaging the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s foldable screen.
At the top end of the S Pen Pro is a removable tip that unveils a USB-C port for charging. This is what sets this stylus apart from other S Pens — it has its own battery and memory, so it supports Samsung’s “Air Actions” Bluetooth gestures on every device that supports it (like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Galaxy Tab S7, etc), and it can even copy and paste content from one device to another. Charging the S Pen Pro to full takes 50 minutes, after which the stylus lasts for around 16 days. Note that the S Pen Pro does not come with a USB cable, so ensure that you also pick up a USB C cable if you don’t have one around already.
Included in the retail package is a faux leather sleeve and three extra rubber tips. The sleeve feels nice and provides protection against the soft rubber tip, but the reason it’s needed is that the S Pen Pro has a flaw — it can’t be magnetically attached or placed in any existing Samsung device. The Galaxy Z Fold 3, for example, has no room to house the S Pen Pro; and the S Pen slots in previous Galaxy Note phones are obviously far too small for this stylus.
Registering input on the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy S21 Ultra
So how does the S Pen Pro perform on the Galaxy Z Fold 3? Much better than any of us could have imagined a couple of years ago, when foldable phone screens were considered highly fragile and could be scratched by a fingernail. The new “Stretchable PET” (Polyethylene terephthalate) film material that Samsung applied over the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s screen feels less plasticky and closer to glass than any foldable before it, and as such, the tip of the S Pen Pro glides along smoothly. Latency is low enough to be a non-issue, and after almost a week of testing, my Fold 3’s screen is still pristine and without a scratch.
However, the experience still falls short of using an S Pen on, say, the Galaxy Tab S7. My gripe is mainly with the crease. Not only can I feel the slight disruption in a horizontal pen stroke anytime the tip runs across the indented groove, but also inputs won’t register correctly sometimes around this groove. This is due to the fact that Samsung had to work around the folding bits of the screen.
As reported by The Verge, the Wacom digitizer underneath the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s display panel is in fact two separate parts and does not cover the actual crease. Instead, Samsung uses software smarts to guess and predict what the S Pen Pro (or S Pen Fold Edition) is doing when running across that gap. This explains the occasional hiccup every now and then when I try to sketch across the crease.
The folding nature of the screen adds another wrinkle to the traditional S Pen experience. Due to the unique nature of the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s screen, Samsung could not use the same digitizer it had used across all of its previous non-folding devices. This explains why the S Pen Pro has that aforementioned toggle switch. For use with the Galaxy Z Fold 3, the S Pen Pro needs to be in “Z Fold” mode. For any other Samsung device that supports the S Pen, the stylus has to switch over to “S Pen” mode.
The fact I need to flip a switch every time I bring the S Pen from a Galaxy Z Fold 3 screen to a Galaxy S21 Ultra screen feels a bit clunky. I can’t help but think that, if Apple had made the S Pen Pro, it would have either found a way to switch modes automatically, or perhaps the action to switch would feel more intuitive, like perhaps a double-tap of the stylus’ lower tip.
But anyway, using the S Pen Pro with the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a seamless experience that feels much like the S Pen experience on previous Galaxy Note phones. The previously mentioned problem of running across uneven parts of the screen is obviously not an issue on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Software features for the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy S21 Ultra
Since the S Pen Pro isn’t linked exclusively to one device the way, say, the Galaxy Note 20’s S Pen is to be used for that specific Note 20, there is a setup process. When I first booted up the S Pen Pro, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 showed an on-screen prompt for me to connect. This is a one-time process, but if I take the S Pen Pro over to another device and bring it back to the Fold 3, I often have to hit the Bluetooth pairing button once to trigger a pair. The same action is needed if I’m using the S Pen Pro with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The various Air Actions and Bluetooth remote control gestures, which were first introduced in the Galaxy Note 9, are all here. In the photo album, for example, I can press the Bluetooth button of the S Pen Pro and swipe the stylus left or right to cycle through the albums. In the camera app, I can cycle through the shooting modes and switch between cameras remotely with the S Pen.
These remote camera controls, along with the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s ability to serve as its own tripod due to “Flex Mode” with the rear camera make the Galaxy Z Fold 3 a very easy device to set up group photos during gatherings with friends or family.
The Galaxy Note’s S Pen-specific UX is here on both the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy S21 Ultra. Hover the S Pen Pro over a video thumbnail in the photo gallery and the video pops up and plays automatically. Grabbing screenshots with unique shapes is as easy as the flick of a wrist.
Samsung’s written-words-to-text algorithm works quite well. Even with my messy handwriting, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy S21 Ultra could convert my writing into text at, I’d estimate, an 85% accuracy rate. However, I have almost no use for this feature as I’m a much faster typist than I am actually writing words with a pencil. But it’s here for those who still think the pen is mightier.
One feature that has lost some of its usability is “Screen-off Memo.” On Galaxy Note phones, if I pull out the S Pen while the phone is locked, the black screen immediately turns into a digital notepad, and whatever notes I jot on it gets saved to Samsung’s Notes app, and can even be pinned to the always-on display. It’s super useful when I need to quickly remind myself to, say, pick up laundry in an hour, or remember to buy eggs on the way back home.
But on the Galaxy Z Fold 3, the S Pen only works on the inside large display and not on the outside cover display. This means you have to open up the Galaxy Z Fold 3 to access Screen-off Memo, and since unfolding the phone is a two-handed action, it makes the entire process not as quick and easily accessible.
The S Pen Pro is a great option if you are immersed in Samsung’s ecosystem
As the Galaxy Z Fold 3 has no place to house the S Pen Pro, I find myself often leaving it at home, as it’s not worth the hassle to carry a separate item when I’m out for the day. And if I’m back home and want to sketch or jot notes, I have larger-screened tablets that offer a better canvas. In other words, I don’t have much use for the S Pen Pro with the Z Fold 3. However, that’s not to say I find the new S Pen support to be a gimmick. I applaud Samsung for adding this feature to the Galaxy Z Fold 3, as it only adds more versatility and use cases for an expensive device.
The S Pen Pro is a worthy purchase in particular for those immersed in Samsung’s ecosystem, as the ability to use one stylus across the Galaxy Book Pro, Galaxy Z Fold 3, and presumably future Samsung smartphones like the next top-of-the-line Galaxy S22 device, is genuinely useful. I wish I could use the Apple Pencil across an iPad, iPhone, and MacBook.
If you don’t own a Samsung tablet or laptop, and plan on just using a stylus for the Galaxy Z Fold 3, then I think the smaller and cheaper S Pen Fold Edition is a better option — unless you really need the bluetooth remote controls.