Hands-On with the N-trig DuoSense Pen2

As noted already, a few months ago N-trig shipped us an HTC Flyer with both the original DuoSense pen along with the new DuoSense Pen2 and let us test it for a while to get a feel for the changes. Unfortunately, the Flyer uses an older controller and so while the new pen works fine you won’t get the full range of improvements like reduced pressure to start inking, better palm rejection, or improved speed.

I’ll be brutally honest here: the HTC Flyer isn’t a good showcase for the DuoSense Pen2. The hardware is roughly two years old now, and the last Android OS update was to version 3.2.1. After using Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) for over a year, never mind the 4.1 and 4.2 Jelly Bean updates that are now coming out, Android 3.2.1 definitely shows its age. When the core OS and hardware feel sluggish, it’s hard to tell when issues are being cause by the N-trig pen/controller and when they’re caused by the aging SoC and other outdated hardware. There were also a few glitches in the software, like the screen capture/annotate tool would flip the pixels on some of the image (see gallery below for an example of this).

I’m inclined to think it’s more the latter and that an up-to-date device would be far more interesting in gauging the DuoSense Pen2 improvements. In fact, I had a chance to play with a prototype device at CES with the new G4 controller, and it definitely had better palm rejection. Interestingly, at present the simultaneous dual-input (active pen and capacitive input) is something that N-trig only supports on Android. Windows 8.1 may address this, but apparently Windows 8 doesn’t properly support simultaneously reading from the stylus and touchscreen. There are certainly some interesting possibilities there—using your hand to rotate a paper while you sketch with the stylus, for example—so we’ll have to see where the software and hardware vendors take this in the future.

As far as using the DuoSense and HTC Flyer, opinions on what works well and what doesn’t can vary from person to person. To help broaden my view of the HTC Flyer, over the course of the past two months I’ve let several other people play with the HTC Flyer to see if they had any input for me. Most of the adults in my circle of friends are less technically inclined than I am, and their opinion was typically: “Is there really a difference between the pens? Yes, the writing looks a little different, and the pen feels slightly different, but does it matter?” For some people, the answer is probably not. The Pen2 definitely makes less noise, but I wasn’t really bothered by the sound of either pen—they’re less obtrusive than typing on most keyboards at least.

My daughter on the other hand loves to draw, and she has been having a lot of fun playing with the Flyer. She doesn’t know about Android OS versions or what SoC is in the Flyer; all she wants is something that works, and as a device for her to draw on the Flyer worked well. She made quite a few doodles using the installed version of Sketchbook Pro, and when I asked her to evaluate the two pens she did prefer the new DuoSense Pen2 (without me telling her which was “new” and which was “old”). Even without doing anything special, there is a difference in the way writing looked for me. Here are a few additional shots of the Flyer and DuoSense Pen2, showing off my awesome handwriting. (Hey, there’s a reason I use a keyboard!)

If that’s what you want—a tablet to be used for art—a stylus is basically required. Steve Jobs made a statement around the time he introduced the iPad: “If you see a stylus, they blew it!” In terms of the user interface and navigating through apps and such, I definitely agree that capacitive touch is the way to go, but there are still things that you can’t really do without a stylus. Typing using onscreen keyboards works fine for some tasks, but writing notes in the margins or on top of images and text isn’t one of them (see above writing with my finger). There was also a major improvement in the artwork my daughter was able to create compared to what she usually does with a mouse or her fingertip. Perhaps a better way of phrasing Steve's statement now would be: "If a stylus is required for any screen interaction, they blew it."

I think the new G4 controller would provide a substantially better experience, and it’s a shame we couldn’t get something like that to play with, but even with the outdated controller you can see the potential. $200+ for a two-years-old tablet is a bit much right now, but one thing N-trig has said definitely rings true: touch is the way of the future. I’m not saying no one will ever use a mouse or a keyboard again, but within the next couple of years I suspect nearly all laptops will include a touchscreen, and many new desktops are likely to make the transition as well.

More importantly, if you attend a school or work at a company that’s moving to a paperless system, eBooks and PDFs and such require more technical savvy if you’re going to annotate them or take (legible) notes. A tablet with good stylus support addresses many of these issues quickly and easily, though again I’d want something more than the HTC Flyer as the improved palm rejection and other features would help, and better software would be a boon as well (Scribble for some reason kept inverting my screenshots). The stylus also provides a way to leave a real digital signature, something else that you don’t really get with capacitive input.

Again, not every person out there is going to be clamoring to get a touchscreen device with a stylus, but given time that will be a growing market, especially as the cost to implement the hardware comes down. Given the choice between a standard tablet and a tablet that costs $25 more that includes a stylus, I know I’d opt for the latter, even if I only occasionally used the stylus. It’s one of those value adding features that can be far more than just another checkbox. (Just try not to let your daughter or significant other misplace the stylus, especially if you’re trying to review the hardware. Not that that happened to me last month….)

Introducing N-trig’s DuoSense Pen2 Stylus A Pen for Your Thoughts
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  • nagi603 - Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - link

    As someone who is a "copious note taker" (from Uni notes to work and side-projects) for at least 5-6 years and a former IT magazine reviewer... Wacom was still way better for me.

    First and foremost, their pen is passive, which is a very big plus for me. No need to ever bother with supercapacitors, batteries or the quite large weight added by them. Second, precision. At least in the past, N-trig wasn't nearly as precise. I've tried it last with the Lenovo business android tablet, and it wasn't very good. On the other hand, the Galaxy Note's Wacom-based solution didin't have that many issues. (Apart from the size and the zero configurability, which, after using it on a win7 tablet was a big no-go.)
  • CrazyElf - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    Yeah same - the Wacom pens worked better for me as well.

    I knew someone who works as a professional illustrator and he seems to swear by them. The Galaxy Note are generally more limited than the Bamboo or Intuos series by Wacom - maybe a reflection of their size. Note 2 saw some pretty big S-Pen upgrades, although not quite on par of course with the full sized tablets by Wacom.
  • eallan - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    I owned a dell with an N-Trig digitizer, I'll do my best to avoid buying anything they make again. Terribly unresponsive and not impressive performance.
  • NLPsajeeth - Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - link

    There is one other contender, UC Logic. Some artists prefer them over Wacom and they are much cheaper to too. Hopefully once the G4 comes out, Frenden will get and review one like he does for other Wacom and UC Logic tablets:
  • Death666Angel - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    I bought one of those (Monoprice) and am quite pleased with the cost and performance. For mobile solutions I still prefer Wacom due to the no batteries and the ease of mind that brings.
  • cbf - Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - link

    As a Sony Vaio Duo 11 owner, I second nagi603's comments on the superiority of Wacom. I have compared N-trig on the Sony again Wacom digitizers on various machines (Surface Pro, Samsung Viva 700t, some older Lenovo X200t tablets), and Wacom is clearly superior to N-trig, in three major ways:

    1. Wacom is passive vs. Sony's active. Pen is lighter, easier to handle, doesn't have a battery to run out -- and easier to store! (The Vaio Duo 11 has no place to store it's largish pen!) And then of course there's the price difference between the $45 N-trig pen vs. Wacom's piece of plastic.

    2. Pressure sensitivity -- far better on Wacom. It's not just Wacom's 1024 levels vs. N-trig's 246. A light stroke on my N-Trig doesn't register at all, whereas the lightest of strokes (not even touching) registers on Wacom. If the Duo 2 pen improves this on for N-trig, I'll probably buy it, but I find it hard to believe they can achieve real parity with Wacom here.

    3. DRIVERS! N-trig still doesn't support the WinTAB drivers necessary to support pressure sensitivity in Adobe (and some other) applications. Adobe's not going to fix this -- N-trig has to. (And by my reading the patents that might have prevented this in the past should have expired in the last year or two.)

    If you guys want to send me a Duo 2 stylus, I'd be happy to write a review of it, that I think would be more meaningful than this one.
  • Jorj_X_McKie - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    cbf, thanks for your accurate criticism / comparison to Wacom. I welcome the changes that N-Trig is rolling out, but without Wintab, it is useless to the artistic community. Would Anandtech get N-Trig to go on the record about Photoshop / Wintab compatibility? N-Trig's tech support has promised me that they are planning on releasing new drivers in '2013' but frankly, I'm skeptical, and with good reason. It's a shame that my otherwise very fine Sony Duo 11 is crippled with a semi-functional stylus. I am currently debating on whether or not to sell it for a Surface Pro or similar upcoming Haswell + Wacom hybrid. Some communication from N-Trig would be very welcome. Also of note, N-Trig no longer has Sony pen drivers on it's website, and neither does Sony. Buy N-Trig at your own risk.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    Regarding Wintab drivers, while I realize the Sony drivers are missing (pulled?), do the older drivers from N-trig work or are there problems? Obviously, that doesn't really apply to Android tablets, but what's the status of Wintab drivers on N-trig Windows laptops? I've emailed N-trig, so we'll see what they have to say.
  • Jorj_X_McKie - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    The current drivers work fine on programs that support the Microsoft Ink API. That means, all of the MS Office & Paint, Artrage, Sketchbook Pro. That's about it. There's a world of awesome s/w that is out of reach if you have a N-Trig digitizer on your rig.
  • Roffles12 - Thursday, June 13, 2013 - link

    Well I'm glad I bumped into this article. I was really close to purchasing the new Sony Duo 13 in an attempt to go completely paperless at work. I work in Engineering and construction so I rigorously markup documents all day using Greenshot for 3D model commenting and Bluebeam Revu for RFI and design doc commenting. It's cumbersome to have to do it with a mouse and keyboard and so I'm foaming at the mouth thinking about my future 12-13" Haswell tablet that I can write on all day. Most of the folks at my office still prefer to print their docs out rather than attempt digital markups. I need passive input from Wacom to make the final transition an easy one. Unfortunately N-trig won't do. Does anyone know what Wacom equipped Haswell tablets are coming out this summer? I'm tired of waiting...

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