Introducing N-trig’s DuoSense Pen2 Stylus

With the dawn of capacitive touch displays and the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, etc., some might think the day of the stylus is past. N-trig has been around since 1999 working on stylus hardware, and they disagree. Just what can you do with a stylus that you can't do with capacitive touch? We met with N-trig at CES 2013 to see what they were up to, but they weren’t quite ready for us to post anything at the time. Fast forward five months and not only can we talk about their new pen, but we actually have a test platform in the HTC Flyer to play with. We’ll get to the new DuoSense Pen2 in a moment, but let’s start with some quick background information on N-trig first.

N-trig has been doing pen inputs for laptops/tablets/PCs since 1999, originally starting with desktops but now moving into the premium tablet space. Examples of current high profile devices with N-trig hardware include the Sony VAIO Duo 11/13, ASUS Taichi, Fujitsu Q702, and we would expect to see additional options in the near future. Some of the key applications they ship with include OneNote, Sketchbook Express, and a variety of other applications (depending on the notebook/tablet OEM). Recently, N-trig has rolled out their new line of pens and controllers, the DuoSense Pen2 and the Gen 4 (G4) sensor/controller. We didn’t get a chance to fully test a solution with a G4 controller, unfortunately, but the Pen2 is backwards compatible with existing N-trig platforms so if you’re in need of a new stylus you can look into upgrading.

Many of the changes with the DuoSense Pen2 are quite subtle; at first glance you might not be able to tell the difference between the two models, but on closer inspection the refinements become apparent. The DuoSense Pen2 comes with a finer tip and it has modified internals with different bearings and tolerances (e.g. there’s less lateral movement and less axial movement). There are also two new tips for the Pen2 that provide different levels of friction to more closely emulate the experience of pen on paper (either ballpoint pen or roller-ball), and additional pen tips are in the works due for production this summer. The new pen features improved pressure sensing, it’s quieter, and when combined with the new G4 controller and you get improved speed and accuracy as well. The G4 platform also improves palm rejection and less pressure is required to start inking, again with the goal of mimicking the ballpoint pen experience.

There’s also a new rechargeable pen available that uses a super capacitor to allow for rapid recharging. This allows for the creation of thinner, smaller pens that will work better with handhelds and tablets (5.5mm and 8mm diameter pens). The amount of power needed for the pen is extremely low (microwatts), so the super capacitor can get charged up in a matter of seconds and then continue to work for hours. We did get a chance to look at the new super capacitor pen at CES, but other than being thinner and lighter the feel of the tip is the same as the DuoSense Pen2.

Moving on to the controller/sensor side of the platform, one of the big advantages of what N-trig offers compared to competing solutions is that they have a single chip solution that does both capacitive multi-touch and active digitizer on a single device. This doesn’t inherently lead to a better result for end users, but it reduces the component cost and footprint for the device manufacturers, and that’s often the deciding factor in what gets implemented. Using a single chip also reduces the amount of power used, another benefit for mobile devices.

The latest sensor handles both 10-point capacitive touch as well as the active stylus, with a single controller processing both inputs as well, and it works with display sizes ranging from 4.5” to 11”. If you want a larger display, you’ll need to add a second chip to get support for up to 15.6” displays. Perhaps more importantly, using a single chip opens the door for stylus support on smaller devices—so far, the HTC Flyer is as small as N-trig has gone in devices, but we will likely see smartphones with N-trig stylus support going forward.

Below is a gallery of slides from N-trig’s presentation on their technology, with some additional details and images of some of their pens and the internal hardware.

Hands-On with the N-trig DuoSense Pen2
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  • Jorj_X_McKie - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    > I find little difference in the actual digital inking experience from N-Trig to Wacom

    Agreed. I get very satisfying control and line variation in both Artrage and SBP6. The 256 vs 1024 vs 2048 levels of pressure argument is a non-issue and distraction. There *might* be very slight difference at the lowest levels of pressure if the software is calibrated that finely, and you have very fine motor skills (which most good artists do).

    Fin Edu, The rest of your post looked so much like one of my countless rants on the topic that I had to look carefully to see if I had written it myself! LOL!
  • Jorj_X_McKie - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    Now that Sony is releasing a very expensive new machine, the time is right to pester them with questions like 'why can't I use Photoshop with the Duo 11 and 13?'. Look what happened when Microsoft released the Surface Pro without Wintab support... .a chorus of 'WTF?' led to a rather quick collaboration with Wacom and 3 months later Pro uses have their drivers, and just as importantly, they work really well. Sony & N-Trig will ignore this lesson in customer support at their own peril.
  • cbf - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    Yes, this is rather inexcusable. One has to wonder what's going on at N-trig. It's not that complicated an API.

    I've briefly looked at what it would take to do a Wintab wrapper on top of the Microsoft Inking API, and I believe I could do this in two months. If I were confident that N-trig or Sony would pay me for this, I probably would do it.
  • TerdFerguson - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    This review is of poor quality. If a company sends you an old platform that doesn't work well for review, then blast them. Stop pussyfooting around, giving them the benefit of the doubt.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    If HTC had sent the Flyer for review this late in the game, that would be different. N-trig was touting their new pen and I did my best to say something about it, but it is clearly limited by the platform choice (and perhaps drivers as well). So, I spent some time discussing the potential benefits of a stylus in general, and those benefits apply to Wacom and N-trig equally.

    Interestingly, N-trig is now talking with me about the potential to send the new Sony VAIO Duo 13 over for review, which would be great. If that happens, you can bet I'll try out more than the base set of software, including Photoshop. I don't have any awesome art skills, but I can certainly evaluate how the stylus works (or doesn't)!
  • cbf - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    Guys -- I'm not a graphic artist, but I've compared Wacam and N-trig side by side. To me it's all about what a light touch produces, and my results were that N-trig produces nothing and Wacom produces a nice think line. This was mostly in Windows 8 Fresh Paint. I agree that 256 vs 1024 levels probably isn't very significant.

    I have only very briefly played with Samsung's implementation of Wacom on Android (and that was Galaxy Note phone, not tablet), but I could well believe that it's not as well calibrated as Windows.

    It would be useful if someone did a comprehensive review of various inking technologies on a variety of platforms. I wonder if there's a more graphics arts specialized website that might have done this. Otherwise, are the listening Jarred? (If you want to outsource this, let me know!)
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    A light touch on a pressure sensitive stylus shouldn't produce a thick line -- that's what a heavier touch should produce. Of course, that's dependent on application, so I suppose in some cases ignoring the pressure might be desirable? Anyway, we'll see how much interest there is in this subject. I mostly took a look at it because I think there's a solid use case for including a stylus, even if it's not something "everyone" needs. If you can add stylus support to a touchscreen for a few extra dollars, that would be totally worthwhile to me, if only for my children. So think of this post/article more from that perspective -- N-trig sent me hardware, but I'm using it as a platform to talk about the benefits of *any* stylus, not just N-trig.
  • ssiu - Sunday, June 16, 2013 - link

    "a nice think line" is probably typo for "a nice thin line" not "a nice thick line" :-)
  • cbf - Tuesday, June 18, 2013 - link

    What Ssui said -- I meant nice "thin" line.

    I agree with what you said about the utility of the stylus, although I think it's a little more than a few extra $. It would be interesting to know how much it cost OEMs to get put a dual-mode (stylus + touch) Wacom or N-trig on their screens.

    But once you put the toy on the tablet, people will want to know which one does a better job.
  • liquidcool4 - Sunday, June 16, 2013 - link

    You can usually find Gateway M285's and Fujitsu Lifebook T4220's on ebay for around $150. I have an M285 and absolutely love it for SketchBook Pro and Photoshop.

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