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Samsung S Pen: The ultimate guide

Samsung's iconic S Pen is one of the most recognizable smartphone accessories in the world. Here's what it can do.
May 6, 2022
Galaxy S22 Ultra with S Pen
Joe Hindy / Android Authority

The Samsung Galaxy Note phones are among the most popular and powerful Android devices every year. We are in the 12th generation with the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra — remember, Samsung skipped the Galaxy Note 6 and went straight from the Note 10 to the Note 20. From the S22 Ultra onward, we expect the Note lineup to be the S Ultra variant of Samsung’s yearly release cycle.

In any case, the S-Pen is no ordinary stylus. Each generation has added functionality as well. For the most part, features get backported to older devices as long as they still receive One UI updates. However, you’ll need the latest phone to get all the latest features.

About the S Pen

Galaxy S22 Ultra with S Pen
Joe Hindy / Android Authority

Let’s start out with some quick specs about the S-Pen itself. Virtually all of this information applies to every S-Pen from the Galaxy Note 9 all the way up to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. We expect Samsung to iterate and improve over time, especially now that the S-Pen comes with Samsung Galaxy Fold 3.

  • The modern S Pen connects to the phone with Bluetooth starting in 2018. Of course, it still lives within the body of the device unlike most of its competitors.
  • It gets power from a super-capacitor battery instead of the classic lithium-ion batteries of the Microsoft Surface Pen or the Apple Pencil. Samsung claims a full charge takes only 40 seconds.
  • A full charge allows for up to 30 minutes of usage time or 200 button clicks. Users get a notification when the battery is at 20% to remind them to charge. This may change from phone to phone.
  • It uses a wireless charging method while resting within the body of the device to charge. It works differently from Qi Wireless Charging so you can’t charge the S Pen with one of those.
  • Samsung estimates it uses roughly 0.5mAh per full charge if never used or 100mAh per charge if highly used. In other words, S Pen shouldn’t affect your battery life at all, even if super-capacitors slowly lose charge over time. For reference, 0.5mAh is 1/9,000th of the 4,500mAh battery in the Note 20 Ultra.
  • The S Pen still works without a charge. You just lose the remote capabilities until you recharge the S Pen again.
  • The tip of the S Pen is 0.7mm thick. It also registers up to 4,096 pressure levels as of the Galaxy S22 Ultra. This is on par with the Microsoft Surface Pen 2 and most Wacom tablet styli.
  • You can buy S Pen replacements from Amazon or directly from Samsung. Prices vary from phone to phone.
  • The S Pen operable distance with Bluetooth is 30 feet give or take.
  • A little-known feature of the S Pen is its multiple tips. Newer Galaxy Note devices comes with a little puller tool you can use to remove the S Pen’s tip, which you can then flip. The default is a soft rubber tip, but you can flip that for a hard plastic tip. The puller tool should be in the box.

Basic features

Direct Writing Input 1
Joe Hindy / Android Authority

The S Pen comes with a variety of basic features. These work basically all the time, and you can toggle them on and off in the settings menu.

Air View – Air View allows you to glean quick information by hovering the stylus close to bits of information. It works best in Samsung’s calendar and gallery apps. We haven’t seen it work well with third-party apps, like Google Calendar or Google Drive.

Direct Writing Input – This lets you fill out text fields on your phone with actual writing. You can enable this in two ways. The Samsung Keyboard has the Pen Detection option in the Handwriting section of its settings menu to recognize when the S Pen is out and will automatically open the writing pad when blank text fields are selected. You can also enable the S Pen to text function to write directly in search boxes.

Screen Off Memo – A classic Note feature. You can take notes on your device without unlocking the screen. Simply remove the S Pen while the screen is off and follow the on-screen prompts to use the feature. You can save these notes to Samsung’s note app, record multiple notes, erase what you wrote, and even change the thickness of the digital ink.

PENUP – This is a social network of sorts for Samsung Note owners. You can create drawings, color in existing drawings, and share your artwork across the collective. It comes stock on the device, but you can uninstall it if you don’t want it. It is also available in the Google Play Store if you change your mind.

Change S Pen ink color – Back in the day, there were some instances (like the Screen Off Memo) where you could only select between white and the color of your actual S Pen. However, these days, you can almost always select your S Pen ink color so this is a non-issue these days.

Visible Pointer – You can set the device to show a pointer graphic when the S Pen is close enough to the screen. This is an old feature and on by default.

Air Command features

Air Command S22 Ultra
Joe Hindy / Android Authority

Air Command – This is the native interface for using all of the various functions. It appears by default by removing the S Pen from the device while the screen is on. Earlier versions of the Note used a rotary style graphic. However, Samsung lets you choose between compact or near full-screen styles in the settings.

Notes – It’s a Galaxy Note device, so of course, you can take notes. There are two Air Command functions for note-taking. The first creates a new note and the second opens the Samsung Notes app to view previous notes. Notes sync across devices via your Samsung account in case you buy a new Note device later. You can also add the View all notes Air Command to view every note you’ve made.

Screen Write – Screen Write takes a screenshot of the entire screen. It immediately opens an interface where you can write on the screenshot. From there, you can save it, share it, or stylize it in other ways. On newer Note devices, you can also opt to have the screenshot function take scrolling screenshots if needed.

Smart Select – Smart Select is our favorite way of taking a screenshot. You can use the S Pen to draw a shape anywhere on the screen and the phone will screenshot just that portion of the screen. This is so much better than taking super tall screenshots and cropping it down when you just need a little extra information. There is also an option to capture animation within a defined area. Smart Select turns it into a GIF for easy sharing. Seriously, Smart Select is awesome.

Translate – A useful, but somewhat niche function. You hover the S Pen over a word in a foreign language and Translate, well, translates it. It uses Google Translate, and we appreciate Samsung using something tried and true. You can also listen to the word with the small sound icon next to the translation.

S Pen Battery on Air Command
Joe Hindy / Android Authority

Magnify – This is another useful, but niche feature. Hover over basically anything and Magnify can make it bigger and easier to read. This is a decent accessibility feature. You can magnify things by 150%, 200%, 250%, and 300%. There is also a toggle to slightly change how the area is magnified, but we couldn’t tell much of a difference. The magnification window is also a decent size.

Glance – Glance is an excellent tool for multitasking. It basically makes any app work in picture-in-picture mode. Open an app, engage Glance, and the app becomes a small thumbnail. Hover over the thumbnail to view the app again in full-page mode. Simply move the little box with the S Pen to put it back in Glance mode. Drag the box to the top center of the screen to trash it and leave Glance mode.

Live Message – Live Message is a fun little feature that debuted a couple of years ago. Write out a missive or draw a simple picture and your Note device will turn it into a GIF. The GIF is shareable basically anywhere and works wherever GIFs work. This has no productivity value whatsoever, but it is fun. This also works with Samsung’s AR Emoji feature and you can write on images you have on your Note device already as well.

Bixby Vision – This one is a bit polarizing. Bixby Vision is meant to identify things on your phone screen and show you information about it, like shopping links. It’s extremely hit or miss and frankly, does not work all that well. Its best use is for extracting text from an image with OCR or scanning a QR code. The rest of its functions simply aren’t ready for prime time yet.

AR Doodle – AR Doodle is a feature on newer Note and Galaxy S devices. It opens your camera and lets you doodle on stuff. It recognizes surfaces and your environment so you can actually move the camera away from your doodle and start again somewhere else and then move back to the original. It’s fun to mess around with and shows how fun AR can be sometimes.

Write on calendar – This is a shortcut to open your Samsung Calendar and use S-Pen there. It really doesn’t do anything different from opening Samsung Calendar from the app drawer and we only recommend using it if you’re a fan of Samsung Calendar.

Add your own – Air Command lets you add your own apps to the rotary wheel of S Pen goodness. We recommend adding apps you use the stylus with a lot. For our testing, we even added the game Draw Something since we use the stylus a lot with that game.

Access S Pen settings – Once Air Command opens, you can click the cogwheel in the top left or bottom left corner (depending on your Note model) to access all of S Pen’s various settings. It’s the quickest way to get to those settings.

Hardware features

S Pen Battery in Settings
Joe Hindy / Android Authority

There are some extra little hardware features. This section used to be rather boring, actually. However, the addition of a battery, Bluetooth, and remote capabilities added a lot more stuff to this category with the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. Those features continue to this day.

Warn when S-Pen is left behind – This is the one hardware feature from older versions of the S Pen. When it is removed from the device and separated from it, the Galaxy Note will constantly remind you it is missing until you put it back. It’s a good way to avoid losing it — it’s an expensive accessory, after all.

Keep S-Pen Connected – This is enabled by default. When enabled, it constantly keeps your S-Pen connected to the phone. This uses extra battery power and was once referred to as Battery saver mode in previous devices. You can disable it if you want to save some battery, but your S-Pen may need manual reconnecting to your phone more often.

Allow multiple S Pens – This option lets you connect a second S-Pen while you have one holstered inside of the device. It uses extra battery, but it does let you have multiple Pens connected at once. If you have this enabled, you cannot disable the Keep S-Pen Connected option.

Sound and Vibration – You can set the Galaxy Note to make an audible sound and vibrate slightly when you remove the S Pen from its holster. Both of these settings are set to on by default.

Unlock with S Pen – You can set your device to unlock with the S Pen instead of a PIN, passcode, fingerprint scanner, and so on. It’s a neat trick, but we don’t recommend it. It’s not a good idea to keep the key with the lock, so to speak.

Air Actions – This was originally called Remote capabilities in previous devices, but now we know it as Air Actions. It lets you perform actions inside of apps with your S-Pen. There is a dedicated menu for it in the S-Pen settings where you can configure it on a per-app basis. It’s also where you find S-Pen gesture commands as well.

Anywhere actions – Anywhere actions is a subheader in the Air Actions settings menu. It lets you configure basic S-Pen gestures to control your phone. You have back, home, recent, smart select, and screen write by default, but you can customize each gesture by clicking on it.

Hold down pen to open – You can also set the S Pen to open an app with a long press of the remote button. Unlike the actual remote function, you can open any app you want with this setting, but only one at a time. The stock Samsung camera app is the default.

General app actions – The S Pen has master controls for cameras and music playback. Samsung doesn’t even require developers to include support. Your phone simply knows if you’re using a media or camera app. You can turn these mater controls off, but you can’t edit or customize them.

The S Pen has stayed relevant for over half a decade. People love it as much now as they ever have. However, the Note series still died and now we have it on the Galaxy S series of devices. They can call it what they want, it’s still a Note to fans of the S-Pen. It can do a bunch of neat stuff and we can’t wait to see what Samsung has in store for this neat little stylus.

If we missed any great features, tell us about them in the comments.