Credit: Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Opinion post by
Jon Fingas

When you think about stylus-equipped phones, Samsung’s Galaxy Note series and the S Pen are likely the first things that come to mind. And there’s no doubt that the Note is reasonably popular. The Note 2o Ultra was one of the top five strongest-selling phones in the US and South Korea as of October 2020, according to Counterpoint Research.

But there’s a problem: try thinking of a modern, pen-friendly phone that isn’t made by Samsung. While there are certainly a few, such as the Moto G Stylus and (if you buy a pen separately) the Huawei Mate series, Samsung and the S Pen tower above all of these in both sales and name recognition. There’s no meaningful competition. Even our list of Galaxy Note 20 alternatives is focused on big-screen flagships that have no stylus option.

Why is that, though? Samsung’s technological advantages with the S Pen certainly help, but the very nature of the smartphone market is a factor as well. Simply put, Samsung reigns supreme over a small patch of land, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

There isn’t much of a market for stylus phones

samsung galaxy note 20 review hero

Credit: Oliver Cragg / Android Authority

You may love Samsung’s S Pen dearly, but it’s a bitter truth that there isn’t much of an audience for stylus-equipped phones. In that Counterpoint study, the top-selling handsets were all pen-free models. Even Samsung’s bestsellers were either budget models or conventional flagships, such as the Galaxy A51 and S20 Plus. And remember, not everyone who buys a Galaxy Note uses the pen — some may simply buy it to have the most powerful phone Samsung makes at the time it’s released.

That’s not surprising. Many people need smartphones, but only a fraction of those people want to scribble notes or draw impromptu sketches. Styluses like Samsung’s S Pen are luxuries even among high-end phone buyers, and that could easily remain true in an era where handwriting is less common than ever.

See also: The best Android phones

That, in turn, affects rivals’ willingness to enter (or re-enter) the category. They’d be releasing phones that, even in the most wildly optimistic scenarios, would only sell to a small portion of the market. That’s a tough ask for any company, let alone LG and other struggling brands that may bleed cash at the slightest hint of trouble.

Even the market leader seems to be cautious. Samsung’s decision to add S Pen support to the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a tacit acknowledgment that styluses are nice-to-have features rather than necessities. While it might not represent the death knell for the Galaxy Note line (not as we write this, at least), it certainly suggests that Samsung isn’t counting on an included S Pen as a sales driver.

Samsung’s S Pen is simply more powerful

samsung galaxy note 20 review s pen notes

Credit: Oliver Cragg / Android Authority

We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the obvious: Samsung’s S Pen is the most robust mobile stylus on the market.

Yes, you can use the pens for devices like the Moto G Stylus to quickly jot down notes or annotate a screenshot, but those competitors usually stop where Samsung begins. You can use the S Pen to peek at information, translate languages, and (with the right model) remote control a presentation. Samsung’s gadget can be helpful even if you have no interest in drawing or note-taking.

Read more: Samsung S Pen — the ultimate guide

That’s an important consideration if you’re cross-shopping phones, of course, but it also has major implications for the competition. Samsung has roughly a decade of experience refining the Galaxy Note. Any would-be challenger is likely to have much less know-how, and might even start from scratch. Why release a phone that competes directly with the Note when Samsung could be miles ahead?

This isn’t to say that other companies are guaranteed to flounder with their pen-packing phones, but it’s telling that the choices are typically lower-end products like the LG Q Stylus Plus. They’re effectively dancing around Samsung and the S Pen, scooping up customers who can’t justify the Galaxy Note’s premium prices and are willing to sacrifice a few features.

Much of the competition has already backed off

Moto G Stylus 2021 stylus popped out

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

Other phone makers have tried to knock the S Pen off its throne before. Samsung already won the war for high-end stylus supremacy, and its competitors don’t appear willing to start a new fight.

LG is the quintessential example. It countered the Galaxy Note with the Optimus Vu. While this was a powerful phone for the time, its odd aspect ratio, latecomer status, and other quirks kept it from garnering the same buzz as the Note. LG tried multiple versions of the Optimus Vu to no avail — you can’t blame it for shying away from direct competition after Samsung delivered such a bruising with the S Pen.

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Even phones with optional pens haven’t fared so well. Sony’s Xperia Z Ultra could use seemingly anything as a stylus, but that didn’t move the needle. Huawei hasn’t exactly had runaway success with its M-Pen, either. And no, Apple’s Pencil doesn’t really count. While the iPad is a better device because of its stylus support, it’s strictly an optional add-on and isn’t available for the iPhone.

Any viable contender would have to roughly match or beat the S Pen on capability while learning from past mistakes.

Could some company eventually offer stiff competition to Samsung’s S Pen? Quite possibly. But any viable contender would have to roughly match or beat the S Pen on capability while learning from past mistakes. That’s a tall order for any company, and there’s no one on the horizon that seems able (or willing) to take on that daunting task.


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