Surface Pro 3: Pen Primer

Surface Pro 3: Pen Primer

A backgrounder on the new Surface Pen

If there's one thing about Surface Pro 3 that's proven controversial, it's Microsoft's use of a pen that is ostensibly less sensitive than the unit it provided with Surface Pro 2. But the new Surface Pen is in fact superior, overall, and it appears that the decision was the write, um, right one.

I've been putting off discussing the pen because, frankly, I'm no expert in pen technology. But then, few people are. Fortunately, this is one area where Microsoft has quickly and accurately explained its thinking.

With Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2, Microsoft bundled a Surface Pro Pen that was "pressure-sensitive and precise" and used palm-blocking technology so you could draw, take notes, mark up documents and more, all in a natural fashion. I wrote about this accessory in Going Pro: Surface Pen in early 2013, noting that it supports 1024 pressure levels and features a Tablet PC-style "eraser" tip on the top of the pen, mimicking a real-world pen(cil). When it first shipped, the Surface Pro Pen didn't support third party applications such as Photoshop directly, because these apps require a third party API called WinTab. But Microsoft moved to fix that pretty quickly, satisfying a tiny but vocal crowd of complainers.

The Surface Pro Pen was based on Wacom technology, which is widely respected in the creative community. So when it was revealed that the new pen for Surface Pro 3—now called Surface Pen—used N-trig technology instead, the complaining began again. And when Microsoft revealed that this device supported "just" 256 levels of pressure sensitivity—down from 1024 with the previous generation—heads exploded.

As it turns out, we needn't have worried. Here's why.

256 vs. 1024 pressure levels. According to Microsoft, no human can accurately achieve 1024 different pressure levels with that pen anyway, and even 256 levels is overkill. This issue is a red herring, in other words, and in the real world, artists can tell no difference at all in the pressure sensitivity of Surface Pro 2 vs. Surface Pro 3.

Active capacitive pen. When we talk about pens and styluses, we typically discuss two types: Electromagnetic and capacitive (which is more rightly called passive capacitive), where the former is superior and the latter is no better than using your finger. Surface Pen is a third type, called an active capacitive pen, and is similar to the technology used on Microsoft's Perceptive Pixel displays. An active capacitive pen requires batteries—see below—but in trade you get much better precision ("parallax"), consistent and accurate pressure sensitivity, more buttons, and excellent palm detection, among other improvements.

No latency. When he introduced Surface Pro 3 last week, Microsoft's Panos Panay said the new pen minimizes the lag effect one can get between an intended action (writing, moving the pen, pressing down a bit harder, or whatever) and its actual application. With the new N-trig technology, Surface Pen achieves (next to) no latency for the most accurate writing and drawing performance yet. Put simply, "the pen tip stays closer to the ink."

More comfortable. Thanks to its slightly thicker barrel and anodized aluminum construction, the Surface Pen is easier and more natural to hold and use than its predecessor.

Surface Pro Pen (top), Surface Pen (bottom)

More buttons. The old Surface Pro Pen as a single button on the barrel (which does double duty as a magnet to hold the pen to the side of the tablet), while the eraser top can also be used as a second button. But Surface Pen has three buttons: One on the top and then two mode buttons (Erase, Select) on the barrel.

Better erase. While some have complained that you can't use the top button as an eraser, doing so is in fact an old-school way of doing things, and is less efficient than just using the barrel-based button. Now, you don't need to keep flipping the pen in circles to switch between erasing and drawing/writing.

Surface Pro Pen (top), Surface Pen (bottom)

Incompatible. The Surface Pro Pen will not work with Surface Pro 3 and the Surface Pen will not work with Surface Pro/Pro 2. The pens and digitizers used on the respective systems are incompatible.

One-click OneNote access. Now, you can press the top button to jump right to OneNote, even when the machine is asleep.

Two-click access to the "acid layer." If you double-press the top button, you get an acetate layer overlay for clipping out portions of the screen into OneNote.

Thinner digitizer. This type of pen utilizes a thinner on-device screen digitizer than the electromagnetic Surface Pro Pen, resulting in a thinner and lighter device than would otherwise be possible.

WinTab drivers. Remember how we had to wait for WinTab drivers with Surface Pro 2? We don't have to wait this time. In fact, the drivers have already been updated once in the past week alone. You can download these drivers now from the N-trig web site. (You do not need these drivers for any Modern apps. This is only for desktop applications.)

If there is any major negative to the new Surface Pen, it's the price: It costs $49.99 at the Microsoft Store. That's more expensive than the $29.99 Surface Pro Pen, but remember that one comes with Surface Pro 3 for free. And it is a lot more sophisticated. Part of the reason, of course, is those batteries: Surface Pen needs three of them, a single AAAA and two watch-style batteries.

Also, while Surface Pro 3 still doesn't have a permanent bay for the pen, the new Type Cover does come with a pretty nifty holder. And you can of course attach the pen magnetically to the power connector on the side of Surface Pro 3, assuming the power supply isn't connected.

With that background info out of the way, I'll be documenting how Surface Pen works in the real world in a future feature focus and, of course, in my eventual review.

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