N-trig DuoSense Pen2: Who Needs a Stylus?by Jarred Walton on June 12, 2013 5:40 PM EST
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to tell when issues are being cause by the N-trig pen/controller and when they’re caused by the aging SoC and other outdated hardware.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….)