Why the Microsoft Surface Pen is the least-expected revolution in computing
The basic problem with all of these interfaces (except the mighty GRiD, with its 640 x 480 LCD panel) was that display resolution kept on making the graphic element you wanted to click on smaller and smaller over time. Even at the outset, small fingers were an advantage – by the time Windows XP was fully mature, it was already phenomenally hard to hit those pop-down arrows or hit the OK button on badly behaved apps with your finger. As if to add insult to injury, the sensors were lagging behind the pixels too. Some types of screen sensor were better with a pen; others weren’t.
I don’t propose to go off into a long series of name-checks for the different kinds of sensor and pen technology. The most important takeaway here is that even in 2015, you can’t guarantee someone else’s pen will drive your touchscreen device. Just look at the Surface 4 and its closest competitor in my pile, the Dell Venue Pro 11. You can get the Dell with a pen, and at least to me it seems more responsive to pressure, like writing with a free-flowing felt tip compared to a needle-precise Japanese fountain pen (yes, I have both, thanks for asking).
But where the Venue Pro’s pen is powered, the Surface Pen is passive – and the power source in the Dell is an AAAA battery, which seems pretty much unobtainable on the high street. And no, you can’t swap them around between the two devices. We cleared out the Alphr team’s desk tidies of discarded, older tablet pens, and not one worked on any of the more modern, high-resolution sensors we tried.
The technology driver here is Microsoft with the Surface, and the passive, magnetically attached pen has that glimmer of genius. Never mind how good the handwriting recognition is (and it is truly fantastic) – for me the eureka moment came when I forgot which pen I had in my hand and absent-mindedly clicked the “eraser” end, as if it was a retractable ballpoint. Six feet away, the Surface Pro 4 stopped what it was doing and jumped into web clip mode in OneNote.
Some of my excitement was premature. While the current Surface control panel allows you to choose the action arising from a pen-click, it’s not a completely open scriptable thing. You’re limited to various bits of OneNote, so my fantasy of getting the house lights to dim in response to clicking a pen may have to wait for some pretty recondite work in PowerShell.
Microsoft can pat itself on the back for making some truly brilliant hardware, though, and never was this more evident than when I showed off the pencil nibs from the newly updated Surface Pen to several of my more artistically inclined acquaintances. This is nigh on identical to the original Surface Pen, of course, but comes with a little (eminently losable, I thought) pod for carrying tips that behave like different hardnesses of pencil lead. These are firmly in the world of artistry, and I have to say that I think the prematureness here is on Microsoft’s side – I couldn’t find a single third-party app that made good use of the pencil nibs in the same fluent way as OneNote. Not yet, anyway.
Sometimes one comes across a bit of design in laptops or portables that is clearly the input of an irascible, eccentric contributor. IBM’s crazy ThinkPads with flip-out keyboards (the 701c) and the original Surface’s flip-out stand are two examples, and Dell’s battery-powered pen shows how it’s possible to come so close to something great, yet fall short with a single design flaw. The Surface Pen, however, is pure genius, imperfections included.