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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  • 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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