For the first time in many years, August will come and go without the introduction of a new Galaxy Note smartphone from Samsung. Instead, with their lower prices and improved durability, the company is giving its latest foldables — the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3 — a firm push into the mainstream phone market. With the Z Flip selling for a penny under $1,000, it’s certain to stand out from the iPhone and Samsung’s own Galaxy S21 devices that cost a similar amount (or more).
But for repeat buyers of Notes past and present, it does feel like there’s something missing. We’re talking about the brand that established Samsung as the leading manufacturer of huge phones. Yet the company has completely skipped producing a new Note this year and has tried to explain it away with a simple “not this time around.” For now, the lineup isn’t gone; last year’s Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra will remain for sale in 2021. The latter remains a legitimately excellent phone today, so even with Samsung hitting pause for a year, at least there’s that.
Samsung’s stance on the Note’s future is vague enough that it leaves room for an eventual return if foldables don’t become the next big thing. But I’d argue that at least one traditional Galaxy phone with a stylus should remain in the company’s plans regardless. It’s too soon to move on from everything that Samsung was doing so right, and tacking S Pen support onto its other flagship phones doesn’t quite live up to the Note’s legacy. And there are several reasons for the company to give it another go.
People seem to like stylus phones
The Note is no doubt the de facto stylus smartphone, but other companies have also found success. Motorola has said the Moto G Stylus quickly became the most popular device in the G-series after its release, and that was enough for the company to produce a 5G-capable sequel this year. And before LG’s complete exit from the smartphone market, its Stylo phones were some of its more popular mobile devices.
You can’t overstate the importance of a built-in silo for storing the stylus away when it’s not being used. On the Note, the S Pen is there when you need it — for drawing, signing a PDF, or whatever else — and then it’s gone and completely unobtrusive when you don’t. No add-ons or special phone cases required. Those latter solutions only add friction that can take away from the whole appeal. Using a phone case is perfectly fine, and most people do, but trying to incorporate a stylus slot there is far from ideal if you’ve got normal-sized hands.
The Note deserves a better swan song than the Note 20
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra was true to the line’s usual recipe of stellar build quality, high-end specs, and a giant screen. But the regular Note 20 was a poorly executed misfire. Samsung’s strategy of pursuing a slightly lower price point made sense, but there were enough compromises with last year’s regular Note that it was difficult to recommend.
Most glaring of all was that it had a 60Hz display, when even cheaper Samsung phones like the Galaxy S20 FE had evolved to smoother refresh rates. The cameras were worse, it had a plastic back, and all of these tradeoffs were made to reach a still-expensive price of $999.99. In the eyes of many Note fans, it was a frustrating mismatch, and they rejected the Note 20 for it. Marques Brownlee went so far as to call it the “Nope 20.”
This was particularly disappointing after Samsung got it right the year prior with the Note 10, which wasn’t saddled with the same number of disappointing concessions. That device felt like it was meant to be a mini version of the larger, flagship Note 10 Plus. But the Note 20 came off more as an example of what happens when a company cuts too many corners.
A case is an imperfect solution
Samsung hyped the addition of S Pen support when it announced the Galaxy Ultra S21 earlier this year. And the experience of using the stylus seems to be on par with a Note. But then you’ve got to put it somewhere, and that’s where there’s no substitute for an actual Note. Without a designated slot on the phone itself, Samsung’s solution was to make a case that could keep the S21 Ultra and S Pen together.
However, it came with a downside: worse ergonomics. As Dieter wrote in his S21 Ultra review, the phone can feel more manageable in your hands than an iPhone 12 Pro Max because it’s taller and narrower. That easier-to-hold advantage is diminished somewhat by Samsung’s silicone case for the S Pen. Since there’s a permanent holding spot for the stylus on the case’s left side, the device is noticeably larger.
For the Z Fold 3, Samsung came up with a case design that places a holster at the hinge. I think this will work out better, since the Fold is more narrow than most smartphones (including the S21 Ultra) when closed — so it won’t feel as unwieldy even with the added space.
But unless third-party case makers come up with their own options, you’ll be limited to that one specific Samsung case if you want to carry the S Pen with minimal risk of it being lost.
Selling the S Pen separately makes it feel like an afterthought
Even though it went to the trouble of creating a “Fold Edition” S Pen with a retracting spring tip, Samsung won’t be bundling that with its latest flagship foldable. Rather, you’ve got to buy it (or the pricier S Pen Pro) separately. The Fold Edition comes bundled with its specially designed case for $79, while the S Pen Pro is sold standalone for $99.
An S Pen still comes included with many of Samsung’s latest tablets and laptops. But making it an added purchase on top of the $1,800 Z Fold 3 will probably lead some people to pass on it entirely. If the Fold is meant to usher in a new era of smartphone productivity, why not toss the Fold Edition stylus and case in the box? Maybe that’d ease the sting of not getting a phone charger, at least.
Another Samsung stylus phone could be great if done right
I hope that last year’s models won’t be the end of the line for the Galaxy Note. Samsung still hasn’t come up with an alternative that matches the coherence and convenience of a phone designed with the stylus in mind from the very beginning. But where should the company go from here?
I could see Samsung choosing the “special edition” route (think Apple’s iPhone SE, but high end) and releasing a new, top-spec Note every few years for the diehard fans that will pay top dollar for their giant slab of glass and S Pen.
But an even better development would be if the stylus trickled down to at least one of Samsung’s popular A-series phones and brought more people into the experience — for much less money. That’d be a clear sign that Samsung is committed to the S Pen, even if the Galaxy Note itself remains on hiatus. The benefits of a stylus shouldn’t be reserved for the $1,000-and-up tier. You’d want a high refresh display since that does genuinely improve the responsiveness of drawing and note-taking. The Galaxy A52 already checks off that box, so we know it’s possible even if the company wants to keep costs down.
Part of the problem with the Note 20 was Samsung’s messaging: it tried to pass off midrange hardware as something more premium. The pushback and so-so reviews shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But Samsung wouldn’t need to over-sell a Galaxy A-series phone with a stylus: it could be a hit all on its own merits.