Active Pen Technology Explained: Wacom vs N-trig

by Reads (59,639)

Wacom and N-trig are biggest names in active pen technology. If you’re using a stylus to take notes, draw, or doodle on a Windows or Android device, chances are you’re using one or the other.

So what’s the difference between N-trig and Wacom? Read on to find out.

A Quick Look at Wacom

Wacom has been entrenched in the active pen digitizer space for a long time, establishing it with products based on Electro Magnetic Resonance technology going back to the 80s. Wacom started selling LCD displays with EMR digitizers incorporated inside in the mid-90s.

Wacom Cintiq with active pen technologyThe core of this technology is a battery-less pen, which utilizes a magnetic coil housed near the tip. This bounces back magnetic field emissions from a digitizer board buried under the LCD and lighting assemblies.

Wacom started with the PL line of Pen Displays, including the PL300 and PL400, later in the decade. With the PL500 in 2000, they started producing Pen Displays with the size (15 inches), resolution (1024 x 768), and color depth (24-bit, 16.7 million) acceptable for serious graphics professionals. Wacom rebranded its PL displays in the Cintiq line in 2001, firmly entrenching itself as the market leader.

With the rebranding of PL550 into the Cintiq line in 2001, a name still in use today, Wacom established themselves as the leader in Pen Displays.

The First Tablets

Right around the same time Wacom was rebranding, Microsoft introduced the tablet PC platform, perhaps as the next step into mobile computing. Pen input was key, and the original tablet PC specification required ‘active’ (or powered, either via EMR, or by batteries) pen with a minimum 100Hz polling rate (meaning the pen reports its position to the computer at least 100 times per second).

Toshiba PortegeThe very first tablet PCs hit the market by 2003, including the Toshiba Portege 3500 and ViewSonic V1100, both with Wacom EMR technology in tow. Although other tablet PCs, like the Compaq tc1000, sported different digitizer technologies, Wacom dominated the early tablet PC digitizer and active pen technology scene.

The tablet PC platform struggled to make an impact in the early going. Microsoft and its hardware partners focused primarily on vertical markets, but the relatively demanding hardware requirements meant devices struggled to eek out only a few hours of battery life. The tablet PCs were also expensive, which didn’t help market adoption. Bottom line: early tablet PCs were too far ahead of their time.

The iPad

That all changed in 2010. Apple revealed the iPad, which Steve Jobs boasted as the most successful consumer product ever launched a year later. It popularized capacitive multi-touch with consumers, showing importance of a good finger based touch interaction. Microsoft largely ignored this with the original tablet PC platform, opting for pen input instead.

N-trig’s Different Approach to Active Pen Technology

As Microsoft pondered the touch-friendly future, transitioning from Windows 7 to Windows 8, a small, Israel-based, company making active pen digitizers around capacitive multi-touch panels began making major waves. Around 2011, N-trig technology started popping up in Android tablets from Lenovo and HTC, bringing active pen technology to mobile devices through its DuoSense technology. DuoSense had a unique approach to active pen technology in that it used the capacitive touch panel for both the pen and regular touch input. This was a significant differentiator from Wacom’s EMR technology, which required two separate digitizers for finger and active pen input.

Same N-trig tech, new Surface Pen.The advantage for device makers was obvious. A single digitizer made for thinner and lighter devices, as well as cheaper cost. Even though many power users considered Wacom overall pen performance superior, N-trig steadily improved things and scored hardware wins. Sony, which had a previous relationship with Wacom in making VAIO branded pen display products, including the VAIO LX900 AIO, choose N-trig for its later VAIO mobile pen devices, including the VAIO Duo 11.

N-trig later introduced a much improved active pen and touch combo, the DuoSense 2. With DuoSense 2, N-trig performance finally rivaled Wacom, and in ended up scoring arguably biggest hardware win.

The Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 helped reinvigorate the traditional tablet PC market, and both utilized Wacom EMR digitizers. For the much-heralded Surface Pro 3, Microsoft switched to N-trig, sticking with it for the Surface Pro 4, Surface Book, and upcoming Surface Studio. In fact, Microsoft ended up buying N-trig outright in early 2015.

For its part, Wacom had been working on its own capacitive touch and pen combo to rival DuoSense 2, in the form of the Wacom Active Electro Static (or Wacom Active ES) platform. But Wacom AES was still too far from being production ready for the Surface Pro 3.

And that all brings us to the present day.



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  1. conradb212

    It’s ancient history now, but it’s good to remember that the first tablets were actually around in the early 1990s. The original ThinkPad in 1992 was a tablet, and it competed with tablets from Fujitsu, NCR, Samsung, GRiD, Toshiba and many more. Almost all of those used the Wacom pen even back then. So when Microsoft introduced its “Tablet PC” initiative in 2002 and built it around the Wacom pen, tablets had already been around for over a decade.

    Part of what sank that first tablet initiative was that, lacking the now ubiquitous capacitive multi-touch, those old tablets totally relied on the (then quite expensive) pen and the notion that handwriting recognition could replace the keyboard. Microsoft actually remembered that problem and switched the emphasis from pure tablets to tablet convertibles before the Tablet PC was even officially announced.

  2. PeteTapang

    N-trig is still inferior compared to Wacom’s active pen. With Wacom you don’t get the dreaded jitters, or have to buy batteries.