Don’t call it a comeback. The stylus has been here for years, long before the original Samsung Galaxy Note phablet launched with a Wacom-powered stick. In fact, Windows tablet fans have long extolled the virtues of digitizers and pens for serious note taking and sketching, as well as the precision pointing required for a comfortable Windows desktop experience, and both HTC and Lenovo experimented with pen tech with early Android tablets.
Yes, user interfaces are more touch friendly (see the Windows 8 tiled UI) than ever, but shorthand notes can’t effectively be swiped in, and no amount of finger tapping will make complex equations magically appear on the screen.
This is why N-trig sees a bright future for the pen, and like Wacom, is pushing its wares on both PC and mobile devices. N-trig’s latest stick is dubbed the DuoSense Pen 2, and it’s targeted at Ultrabook convertibles, tablets, and smartphones. There are three in the line, a 9.5mm diameter stylus, which TabletPCReview tested, as well 8mm and 5.5mm variants, presumably for mobile devices.
TPCR tested the DuoSense Pen 2 on an aging HTC Flyer tablet, which also shipped with an original DuoSense for comparison purposes.
To be clear, it’s tough to review N-trig tech, particularly against its rival, Wacom. Users are basically stuck with whatever pen tech the OEM decides to include. For those looking at the Asus Taichi or Sony Vaio Duo 11/13, it’s N-trig. Wacom pens won’t work on N-trig devices, and vice versa. Also, performance is based not only on the pen, but also the display, chipsets, controllers, and driver support. Digital artists especially have complained that N-trig pens don’t play well with Adobe Photoshop (pressure sensitivity mainly), and those complaints continued with the Sony Vaio Duo 11 released late last year.
TPCR reached out to N-trig for a response to these complaints, and here is what a representitive wrote back:
My understanding is that the key players that use Wintab are now moving rapidly to the Windows APIs for the pressure information. This eliminates the sync issues with using a mouse driver for location and Wintab for pressure. Fall should see some changes in this area, but you would need to speak to Adobe directly to find out if they plan to support the MS Inking API with updates to existing software. This is the overall direction that most companies are going. Wintab might be coming to the twilight of its life.
We have provided a Win7 Wintab. It is on our web site for download. Check out the Dell, Fujitsu, etc. systems that shipped with Win7 and it will be present. But Win8 launched systems do not have Wintab present. We have a Wintab for Win8 in beta. It?s an internal release that we shared with some select SW partners for review. Win8 is a very different driver structure and requires new development. This also requires the SW vender to get involved to test and review. It is a multi-company activity. I understand that Win8 is problematic for everyone. Win7 development seemed to go smoother.
In other words, the ball is in Adobe’s court for Windows 8, though N-trig has provided the appropriate drivers for Windows 7.
At a glance, the 9.5mm DuoSense Pen 2 looks just like its predecessor, complete with removable tip and two buttons. The Pen 2 body is slightly longer however, with a smaller tip head, it’s also thinner and weighs 2 grams less, 14g to 16g. Its buttons also seem a bit crisper when pressed, but only slightly. Both are powered by one AAAA battery (the smaller Pen 2s will be quick chargeable and won’t require a separate battery).
In use, the Pen 2 offers a more stable experience. The tip is noticeably tighter on all axis, giving the user more control. This is especially noticeable on the pressure sensitivity extremes (this particular Pen 2 supports up to 256 points), with steady inking with both the lightest and heaviest strokes. Both were harder to maintain with the original DuoSense.
Both Pens support removable tips, and different tips provide different levels of friction. No tip can deliver the same feeling as pen on paper, or pencil on paper, but it can come close, and even the nitpickiest inkers can likely find a suitable option.
The HTC Flyer came preloaded with a handful of apps to test various pen scenarios, including:
- MyScript Note Mobile for taking notes, handwriting to text
- MyScript Equation for math and equation digitization
- MyScript Shape for shape recognition and digitization
- Sketchbook Pro for drawing
- PicSay Pro for picture annotation
- ezPDF Viewer for PDF annotation
The Samsung Galaxy Note has similar features in its SNote app, and Google Play is loaded with other pen-friendly alternatives. The preloaded N-trig apps will vary depending on the device maker, however.
DuoSense Pen 2 was pleasantly accurate in testing all the apps, and particularly impressive with handwriting to text note-taking, accurately digitizing what can best be called chicken scratch nearly flawlessly. But then again, so was the original DuoSense.
To properly gauge the N-trig DuoSense Pen 2 accuracy, we would have to test it on a device sporting the latest Duosense G4 chipset, like the Vaio Duo 11 or 13, or Asus Taichi, and not the older tech featured on the HTC Flyer. To that end, N-trig touts its new DuoSense setup as enabling “more accurate and sophisticated palm rejection through definable touch input priotization and recognition of touch input areas.” Also, its “zero pressure touch” features “sub-pixel touch accuracy” for “the industry’s fastest response time” and “most consistent feel and performance for drag & drop, scroll flicks, and select,” all “without degrading stylus input.”
Ok, well, the combo of touch and DuoSense Pen 2 on the HTC Flyer performed well enough not to be noticeable (is easy to ignore things when they work as they should), and there were no issues with palm rejection. Though, the HTC Flyer is a relatively small 7-inch tablet, so it’s easy to avoid resting one’s palm on the display.
The only real complaints TPCR can hurl at this particular Pen 2, based on using it with the Flyer, is that the stylus is uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time. There is no texture, nor ergonomics to make it more grip friendly. It is also a bit more stout than the average Bic pen, and not as long, 4 inches to about 5 and 1/16. The mobile and tablet sizes are likely smaller. And of course, it’s powered by an AAAA battery, which most don’t have rolling around in a junk drawer.
Weighing both the good and bad, and the Pen 2 is good enough as tested on a mobile device, just as the Galaxy Note S Pens are good enough. Expect N-trig pens to appear on future mobile tablets and phablets (maybe a Sony product?), and if our experience with this Pen 2 is any indication, TPCR expects those sticks to work just as well. On the PC side, inkers will find plenty to like about the accuracy, though it remains to be seen if N-trig and Adobe will play nice.