May 20, 2014

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Almost perfect, but is the Surface Pen (N-Trig DuoSense Pen 2) a deal-breaker?

Today, Microsoft announced their Surface Pro 3 tablet.  The tablet is thin, weighs very little, has a great aspect ratio (reminiscent of previous tablets with an aspect ratio suitable for documents in portrait mode), has a great resolution (2160x1440 in a 12 inch display), proper battery, good stand, docking station, etc.  For most of the presentation I was pleased to hear Microsoft's emphasis on aiming the tablet towards those who create content.  As the pre-order time went up I chose NOT to order one.  This tablet has two main drawbacks.

First, Microsoft's website never specifies what Core i7 you are getting--thus I don't know if I'll have more computing power when compared to other tablets/laptops.  For those interested in doing 3D work you are unlikely to do that well with integrated graphics alone, so you are better off waiting for a future version of Wacom Companion or perhaps a gaming company, like Razer, launches a powerful tablet with discrete graphics GPU (their Razer Edge Pro is way overdue a refresh).  Sony does have an Nvidia GeForce GT 735M in their Sony VAIO Flip 15.  So, perhaps we can say that the MS Surface Pro 3 is suitable for content creators such as writers, some image editing, 2D art (such as painting in Photoshop/Sketchbook/SAI/etc--although the processing is there the pen might be a concern for artists), and perhaps HD video editing, but not so much for high poly-count 3D modelling, game developers, and definitely not the hard core 3D-performance demanding gamer.

Second, and most importantly for note-takers and artists, the digitizer is based on N-Trig DuoSense Pen 2 technology.  This is certainly a deal-breaker for many people.

So why is N-Trig 2 a problem?
First, we have to admit that N-Trig 2 is better than N-Trig 1.  I have utilized N-Trig 1 on a Fujitsu LifeBook T580 tablet, and HTC Flyer.  In the case of N-Trig 2, I have used it with a Sony VAIO Flip 14.  The difference between N-Trig 1 and 2 are quite dramatic, the pen does deliver smoother line quality, is very precise, and is less noisy (N-Trig 1 was similar to a user tapping a glass surface with an ink pen's tip--which was hideous to work with).  However, I feel that Wacom systems, based on my experiences with Wacom Penabled (X230T and DTU-1031, Series 7 Slate) and Wacom Grip pen, is superior to what N-Trig 2 has to offer.  Wacom's "reaction time" is sufficient for tasks like note-taking (math and quick short strokes of the pen), and N-Trig 2 is just not capable of dealing efficiently with those rapid short-stroke pen movements.  Also, keep in mind that N-Trig 2 has 256 levels of pressure, but Wacom's latest technology, as seen in Wacom Companion and tablets such as the Intuos Pro Pen  & Touch (which I have the small version next to me) is 2048 levels of pressure.  If I demonstrate a 256 level of pressure system and a 512 level of pressure system, which I have done here, the line quality difference is quite dramatic--the difference between a 256 and a 2048 would be substantial.  I fear that N-Trig 2's pressure levels, even with the software smoothing things out, will not be enough to satisfy those who have experienced the silky smooth experience of Wacom's 2048 pressure levels.

For those curious, N-Trig pens can be recognized by:
  • There is a battery present, often a small AAAA battery.
  • Cylindrical body usually made of a metal like aluminum.
  • The single or two side-buttons are ellipse like and their top surface tends to remain close to the cylindrical body.
    • Wacom buttons usually "pop" out of the body of the pen and are more rectangular.
  • Usually comes in two diameters: 9.5 mm (DS-Pen2095), or 5.5mm (DS-Pen2055).
  • If I recall, N-Trig 1 did not use Bluetooth, but N-Trig 2 does.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 pen is a rebranded N-Trig 2 pen.  The main difference of the Surface Pen is the purple eraser on the back side.

Classic N-Trig side buttons.

The Sony VAIO Active Pen is a rebranded N-Trig 2 pen.

Sony VAIO Duo 11 Pen is a rebranded N-Trig 2 pen.

Most artist are used to and prefer to work with Wacom technology. The pen above is the Wacom Grip Pen--no battery replacement are needed, it has better nibs, and often times the pen is more comfortable to hold.

More details:

By the way, whoever wrote the title of the article "Surface Pro 3 ditches Wacom for a better N-trig pen" did a great job choosing the title.  They are likely to have used the word "better" because they are attention whores that need web-traffic.  I'm sure artists will be able to rectify whether "better" is an accurate word to describe N-Trig pen when compared to Wacom.

N-Trig DuoSense2 Active Pens


  1. Actually (artist) Penny Arcade tested new pen and he likes it other than lag in menu selection:

    "This isn’t Wacom though it’s N-trig and I have to admit whatever wizardry they are using is pretty impressive. The pen is still incredibly responsive with very little drawing lag and I still feel like I’m getting nice smooth lines."

    "...overall I was really impressed with the N-trig tech. Long story short if you were worried about the new tech, don’t be. "

    1. Thanks for sharing. I went through the rest of the review at http://www.penny-arcade.com/news/post/2014/05/23/surface-pro-3 According to the review by Gabe, it seems that the pen is not a big problem, but there are several issues with the tablet that could keep artists away from the system.

    2. Yes the haptic windows button on the right if you're right handed (but you could disable it using remapping key and maybe haptic as well) and 2nd perf is not as good as Surface 2 where cursor is lagging but actual drawing is not affected. I think that can be improved by firmware fix and adjusting power scheme which is now fixed to balanced. But we'll see.

  2. That winbeta title was probably "inspired" by http://blog.surface.com/2014/05/get-know-surface-pro-3-pen/. But you see more articles nowadays about personal preference opinions than actual tests (e.g. zdnet or gottabemobile). Looking forward to AnandTech finished review as they do pretty extensive tests (they finished partially some tests).

  3. does this mean that the surface pro 3 pen or any other N-Trig 2 pen will work with a sony vaio flip?

    1. If the Sony Vaio Flip supports N-Trig 2 then it should support the Surface Pro 3 pen. However, I'm unsure if all Vaio Flip systems use N-Trig 2... there might be some Sony systems that use N-Trig 1... and I have never tested an N-Trig 1 pen on a N-Trig 2 system, or vice-versa.

    2. Just in case anyone reads this page like I did still wondering, I can confirm that the SP3 pen worked on my Sony Fit 13A straight out of the box. However, when you press the select button on the pen, it launches the Vaio Clip app. Haven't figured out how to fix that yet.