Microsoft has been pushing its pen technology in Windows and Surface for years. The new Surface Pro, announced today, includes what Microsoft describes as the “fastest pen in the world.” Microsoft’s distinguished engineer and co-inventor of Surface, Stevie Bathiche, excitedly revealed the new Surface Pen to me in a recent interview. “We did a huge step with the pen, a massive step,” claims Bathiche. “I’m so pumped about this.”
A number of years in the making, the new hardware speeds up the Surface inking experience so there’s no more perceived lag. It also brings a new tilt experience, much like Wacom tablets, that allows designers and creators to angle the pen for shading just like a pencil. “What’s so cool about the hardware ink stuff is that our touch controller, that’s custom to us, talks to our new custom silicon, the display accelerator, and sends the pen data ahead of the operating system,” explains Bathiche. “We actually write directly onto the screen from the pen. Windows now has an API that will talk to our piece of silicon and that will tell our piece of silicon what color and what font to write.”
This custom setup means Microsoft can quickly erase, about a 100-millisecond trail of ink, before the rest of the system catches up, so it improves the latency of the pen. “This is how we’re able to close that gap,” says Bathiche. “We have the fastest pen in the world.” Pressure-sensitivity levels on the new Surface Pen have increased to 4096, alongside a 12-gram activation force. The new Surface Pen is now double the speed of the previous one, and Microsoft claims it’s “twice as responsive as the Apple Pencil.”
In my own limited time with the Surface Pen I saw a big improvement. I couldn’t detect any lag, and the tilt action felt very similar to a Wacom pen. I’m not a professional illustrator, so we’ll have to see what creatives think, but Microsoft has definitely improved the pen here. Although it's slightly more refined and lacks the clip at the top, the new Surface Pen is still not fully circular, as it’s designed to magnetically snap onto the side of Surface devices. Some creatives will still dislike the shape of the actual Surface Pen as a result.
The new Surface Pen will be backwards compatible with older Surface devices, but that doesn’t mean the new tilt functionality will be available on older devices. Microsoft’s new Surface Pro ships with this new support, and Microsoft is planning to add tilt to existing Surface Studio and Surface Book devices later this year.