Making pen cool again: How N-trig won over Microsoft for the Surface Pro 3

Making pen cool again: How N-trig won over Microsoft for the Surface Pro 3

Summary: The Israeli startup allowed Microsoft to remove a layer of sensor from the Pro 3, and has already been in discussions with Apple.

The Surface Pro 3, with N-trig pen technology. Image: Microsoft

If you thought styluses were last seen on devices in 1990s, think again. Israel's N-trig is one of a new breed of pen input companies, recently unseating Wacom as Microsoft's pen of choice on its new Surface Pro 3 tablets.

According to Eyal Leibovitz, VP of R&D at the Israeli digital pen maker, the company had an important advantage that helped it win over Microsoft — technology that lets OEMs integrate pen and touch together on the same digitiser. "It allowed Microsoft to eliminate a layer of sensor from its new tablet, making it lighter," he said.

While removing a sensor layer doesn't sound like it would result in a much of a weight saving, every little bit helps for Microsoft's laptop-tablet hybrid. The Surface Pro 2, more of a straight tablet, weighed in at around two pounds, compared to the Surface Pro 3's slightly slimmer 1.76 pounds.

For a tablet, that's not too impressive — but Microsoft is marketing the Pro 3 as an all-round work device that can turn into a tablet when needed, complete with keyboard and a pen for note taking.

"The idea is to enable users to make use of their device in any situation, and that's where the pen comes in," Leibovitz said. "Users can type on the keyboard if they want, or shed the keyboard and use the tablet as a note taker, writing with the included N-Trig pen."

Pen input, which was big in the halcyon days of the Palm Pilot — and was pushed into a dark, distant corner by touch input, popularised by the first iPhone — is definitely making a comeback.

Dozens of pen-and-touch enabled devices are on the market already, and more are on the way, Leibovitz said.

"A lot of devices already included a touch sensor that supports pen, even if those devices currently only support touch," he said. "For those devices we have a software solution that can activate the pen component, allowing users to enjoy both."

One reason pen took a back seat was because it has a number of technical issues that touch doesn't: palm rejection, for example, in which the device has to figure out if it is the pen or a user's palm resting on the screen.

Another issue for pen has been accuracy, both in terms of input (if a user doesn't press down hard enough the device might not pick up the text) and understandability (users with less than perfect penmanship suffered with previous pen technologies). Control — ensuring that a specific area of pixels is targeted — has also been a problem, with users of previous versions of pen technology finding it very difficult to put the letters or words where they wanted to on a screen.

Leibovitz said N-trig has addressed those problems, which is why Microsoft adopted the country's technology for the Pro 3.

"Our active pen functions like a regular pen and is very accurate — often on a sub-pixel level, to ensure a high level of control — rapid refresh to accurately capture ink subtleties, and 256 distinct levels of pressure sensitivity for more exact control. We also have patented palm rejection capabilities, interchangeable tips for different pressure levels."

One company that doesn't support pen — yet — is Apple. But that may change, Lebovitz said.

"Apple has a patent for its own pen, called, naturally iPen, but no one knows when, or if, they will come out with their own pen. Remember, this is the company that declared pen dead."

Lebovitz said that he has had several discussions with Apple about N-trig's technology – but he is not reading anything into that. "They're pretty secretive," he said – and that same secret planning may be at play right now as Apple's tablet and laptop competitors adopt N-trig's technology. "We'd be very happy to have them as customers."

Read more on the Surface Pro 3

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Tablets, Microsoft Surface

David Shamah

About David Shamah

David Shamah has been writing about Israeli technology news for over a decade, both in print and on the web, and knows the Israeli tech scene and its start-ups inside out.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • No one is using a pen for note taking

    Most people can type faster than they write these days. Why would they use an input method that neither they or the computer are as good at?

    Pens are used for drawing, precision input, and to get the handwriting calligraphy effect in illustrations. That's likely to remain true for some time to come.
    • I'd rather

      I'd rather use a pen for taking notes in meetings. Sure, I can type very quickly, but with a pen I can capture things like hastily drawn charts or draw arrows connecting ideas that were suggested many minutes apart. For me, it lets me more readily capture the free-flowing types of meetings I attend where text is only a part. I *tried* typing, but having to keep taking my hands off the keyboard to draw charts and lines meant I couldn't focus on the continued flow of the meeting.
      • Killer App

        OneNote is a killer app. It really shows off the how well the pen works. It knows the difference between the pen and touch and behaves the way you hope it will. I have gotten rid of my 3 pound portfolio of paper and have gone completely digital. Often in taking notes you need to put in small diagrams, complicated math symbols, and use font size and color for emphasis. You cannot do that easily on a keyboard.

        In the latest version of display objects in Visual Studio they have separate events for the keyboard, mouse, touch, and stylus(pen). You do not have to use all but if you want you can have your app behave differently depending on the input devise.
    • Disagree

      I would much prefer using a pen for taking notes in OneNote. It was perfect back in the Windows XP tablet days using a Toshiba Convertible. OneNote does a great job in handling handwriting, both converting it to text, and indexing raw handwriting for searches.

      If you have only used iPad, you don't know what you're missing.
    • As a developer

      I often draw diagrams, flowcharts, etc. It's also been scientifically proven that writing something down with a pen helps you think more creatively.
      • I do those two

        In balsamic, Visio, and on big whiteboards more appropriate to brainstorming.

        When I need text, I type it.
        • but you said "no one takes notes with a pen"

          I don't think it is fair to state that "no one" uses pens just because you find yourself doing things differently.
          • there is always someone in a niche

            But let's put it this way - last guy I saw with a digital pen (other than a Wacom artist) delivered a parcel.... 7 years ago.

            Let's not mistake any niche user for a trend; they're not.
          • balsamic and whiteboards may not be popular...

            ...but I wouldn't exactly call that niche. On the contrary, physical pens are still used in all walks of life, and digital pens are the perfect expression of a physical action that is natural.
      • Help thinking

        That's very very true.
    • Disagree

      I personally love using S-Note with the handwriting keyboard in meetings. I can take notes without having to pay too much attention to a keyboard (even though I touch type) and not have to drag around a keyboard either. Not to mention the clicking sound of hammering away on a keyboard...

      My favorite set-up is this on the Note 8 which would lead to a cramped keyboard at best.

      Additionally, being able to snap a quick picture of anything and embed it into the notes as I go is what makes the tablet form factor superior to dragging along my laptop (or running a demo on the laptop which makes taking notes on it difficult...)
      Robert Crocker
    • Pen for note-taking

      One of the reasons I have a computer, tablet, and smartphone is to AVOID having to use a pen and paper. My handwriting is hardly legible, even to me, and I wouldn't expect any computing device to read it, ever. Making notes with a pen on a computer screen is about as attractive to me as leaving notes on stone tablets with a hammer and chisel. NOT going there. That said, my first smartphone had a stylus, and I often used it when dealing with things that needed very accurate screen touches. I guess that make me neutral on the issue.
    • Rather Use Pen Input

      In education, there's a learning advantage to actually forming the letter with your own hand as opposed to typing keys. If you want to retain what you've been taught, having pen input is an advantage. Not saying it can't be done the other way around, just saying there's an advantage.
    • Subject

      Doing Math or taking notes in math= pen. Most other courses could be typed. Also, I remember things better when I write them rather than type them.
  • Just because lots of people

    Are making pens doesn't mean pens are making a comeback. Talk to me when lots of people are BUYING pens.
    • What's why there are 50 million crappy capacitive styluses for tablets

      .. because iPad users don't have a clue about how crappy a capacitive stylus is (like writing with a Crayola crayon), and because Microsoft has done a terrible job educating potential customers.
      • Right. Insult the customer.

        That argument is really starting to show its age.
        • Poor fan boy

          People don't make products if they can't make money. They fact there are at least a dozen different brands of stylus on the market, including the expensive Jot, means 1) there is a demand 2) money is being made. The fact that the Jot was even developed further implies there is a demand for a hi-res stylus, something impossible with current capacitive technology -- hence the use of Wacom and Ntrig technology.

          Since clearly you don't know that either... maybe you should stop talking and educate yourself.
        • How is that insulting the customer?

          What he basically said was 'people want pens and all they can get is crappy sausage pens' thanks to Apple's anti-pen attitude.
        • No it really isn't

          It was a damn pain in the ass trying to find a real stylus for the Sony Vaio Fit 13 that I purchased after Sony discontinued the line. Those capacitive stylus are useless for a modern 2in1 with their total lack of accuracy.
          The stylus IS making a comeback because of the accuracy and functionality that simply doesn't exist on the finger that comes with the stock human body. Buttons, switches, and a clickable end cap to automatically perform actions and switch modes in tablet mode is far superior to an onscreen keyboard or finger interaction. Plus with software like Swype you can match or exceed the speed of typing on a touch device.
          And yes, an uninformed consumer base is bad for any market including themselves.

          *Written with ease with my stylus and Swype