Surface Pro Pen Compatibility / Interoperability FAQ

Microsoft does not make it easy to understand the differences in pen/stylus support between device generations. The table below summarizes compatibility between different pen generations and Surface device models. Pressure sensitivity, latency, initial activation force, and tilt functionality are detailed using best available information. Following the chart is a list of frequently asked questions regarding Microsoft pens.

Disclaimer: This information is subject to change if/when Microsoft releases additional technical details; some assumptions about pen implementation is based on n-Trig/Microsoft patent filings.

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How to read the table:

  • 256, 1024, or 4096 indicates the number of pressure sensitivity levels available when using the pen and device model together. [256=8-bit, 1024=10-bit, 4096=12-bit.] The available pressure levels depends on a combination of the pen, digitizer hardware, and device driver software. In practice, few customers will notice differences in pressure sensitivity given limited hand dexterity and the dynamic range compression/clamping side-effects of common software applications.
  • Tilt indicates that the Surface device has an accelerometer and the Pen incorporates some device enabling the Pen/Ink system to detect the angle of the pen with respect to the screen. According to n-Trig patent filings, this device could be an accelerometer, gyro, or a secondary radio emitter positioned such that the digitizer can infer the pen orientation. This allows software to change brush strokes on-the-fly based on the tilt of the pen. Even without the tilt feature, RF triangulation can enable the digitizer system to recognize gross orientation of the pen (right-handed use vs left-handed use for example) to optimize the tracking behavior. Assuming the user rests their palm on the screen, palm-rejection can also help optimize tracking behavior.
  • 21ms, 40ms, 55ms, 75ms, or 100ms indicates the minimum digitizer->screen latency or delay between when you do something vs it being visible on screen. Real-world latency may be up to 50ms higher depending on the software being used, the refresh rate of the screen, and the timing of the pen event with respect to the refresh of the current frame. Assuming worst case at a 60Hz screen refresh rate, you can conservatively add 16.67ms (the time it takes to render one frame) to each of the quoted figures to get a more realistic latency. Device driver and software application updates can alter the latency behavior making responsiveness better or worse.
  • 9g, 10g, 21g, or 42g indicates the approximate initial activation force (IAF) in grams which is the minimum amount of pressure applied to the tip of the pen to register as a stroke on-screen. Less force is better for light strokes of the pen – but too little IAF can result in unwanted strokes. This is a crucial tuning factor for any pen/digitizer system. The ideal IAF is highly subjective depending on the artist. Wacom designs typically have an IAF of 1-10 grams while n-Trig designs are on the order of 10-50 grams. With each generation of n-Trig pens, the IAF has decreased. To compare IAF across pen manufacturers, each pen design must be mounted and tested on the same test rig at a variety of angles since the response may be different in a vertical orientation compared to a natural writing angle depending on the mechanical implementation. The Apple pencil design appears to work with ~0 IAF but tends to drain its battery quickly possibly due to pre-load on the sensor and their approach has other side effects, which depending on the artist, can be considered advantages or drawbacks.
  • n/a indicates that the pen and device combination does not work.
Pen / Device SP1 SP2 SP3
S3
SP4
SB1
Studio Laptop SP2017
SB2
Hub
Ver.1 Wacom
(SP1/SP2)
256
100ms
10g
1024
100ms
10g
n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
Ver.2 n-Trig
(SP3/S3)
n/a n/a 256
75ms
42g
256
40ms
42g
256
40ms
42g *
256
40ms
42g *
256
21ms
42g *
n/a
Ver.3 n-Trig
(SP4/SB1)
n/a n/a 256
75ms
21g
1024
40ms
21g
1024
40ms
21g
1024
40ms
21g
1024
21ms
21g
n/a
Ver.4 n-Trig
(SP2017/SB2)
n/a n/a 256
75ms
9g
1024
40ms
9g **
1024
40ms
9g **
1024
40ms
9g
4096
21ms
9g
tilt
n/a
PPI (Hub) n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a 1024
55ms
  • * Some customers have reported issues using the Ver.2 pen on newer devices with latest drivers/firmware so this combination is not recommended.
  • ** Per Microsoft, Ver.4 n-Trig tilt functionality will be enabled on some older Surface models via driver/firmware updates in 2018.

Which pens shipped with which device models?

  • Wacom Ver.1 pens shipped with the Surface Pro 1 and Surface Pro 2.
  • n-Trig Ver.2 pens shipped with the Surface Pro 3 and was an optional accessory for the Surface 3.
  • n-Trig Ver.3 pens shipped with the Surface Book, Surface Studio and Surface Pro 4 (except m3 model). It is an optional accessory for other models.
  • n-Trig Ver.4 pens are optional accessories designed for the 2017 Surface Pro but also work on other models.
  • Two Surface Hub pens based on the Perceptive Pixel (PPI) digitizer technology are shipped with each Surface Hub.

Replaceable pen tips?

  • n-Trig Ver.2 pens have a replaceable tip. OEM tips are no longer in stock at retail but you can contact Microsoft support via chat to see if they will ship OEM tips. 3rd-party replacement tips are available but the quality ranges from adequate to awful.
  • n-Trig Ver.3/Ver.4 pens use a differently shaped tip than Ver.2 pens. They come with a tip that has a similar writing feel to an HB pencil. Microsoft sells a 4-pack of tips each simulating the writing feel of 2H, H, HB, and B pencils. Depending on the region of sale, some customers have noted that as of September 2017, V2 tip kits only include 3 tips (2H, HB, B).

Batteries?

  • Wacom Ver.1 pens use electromagnetic digitizers and need no batteries
  • n-Trig Ver.2 pens are powered by a AAAA battery for the main pen functions and  two #319 (SR527SW) button cells for Bluetooth cap button functions
  • n-Trig Ver.3/Ver.4 pens are powered by a single AAAA battery for all functions
  • Surface Hub pens have non-replaceable rechargeable batteries and charge when docked on the Hub.

Buttons?

  • Wacom Ver.1 pens have 2 buttons
  • n-Trig Ver.2 pens have 2 buttons on the pen body and 1 on the cap
  • n-Trig Ver.3/Ver.4 pens have 1 button on the pen body, 1 on the cap, plus a functional “eraser”
  • Surface Hub pens have an “eraser” but no buttons

Clip?

Magnets?

  • All MS OEM pens have one or two embedded magnets that helps the pen dock to the Surface.
  • Ver.1 pens for Surface Pro 1 / Pro 2 dock to the charging port which means you cannot charge the Surface and dock the pen simultaneously.
  • Ver.2 pens and later dock to the left side of the various tablet models independent of the charge port.
  • Ver.4 pens and Surface Pro 2017/Surface Book 2 devices have stronger magnets than previous generations making it less likely your pen will fall off the tablet.
  • Surface Book 2 15″ models have magnets on both the left and right side of the tablet so you can dock your pen on either side (or dock two pens).
  • 3rd-party pens may not have magnets that align with Surface devices.

Swapping top and bottom half between pens? Can I just get a new top half?

  • Some customers like to re-use parts from a broken pen and mix and match colors. For example a blue bottom and sliver top. You can freely mix and match colors within the same generation of pen. Unfortunately, it is not possible to order half a pen from Microsoft.
  • Ver.2, Ver.3, and Ver.4 top and bottom halves are not designed to be interchangeable. Ver.2 has a screw-on top while Ver.3 and Ver.4 have slightly different spring tab configurations. The sizing and fastening is slightly different between Ver.3 and Ver.4 so even if you can get it to fit, you may ruin the internal tab that holds the two halves together.

What other pen/stylus brands work with well Surface Pro 3 or later devices?

Some of these pens advertise 4096 pressure levels and tilt functionality but support for these features on Surface devices is not guaranteed. IAF is typically not advertised on these brands but will be similar to the Surface Ver.3 and Ver.4 brand pens.

What is up with pen jitter on Surface Pro 2017 and Surface Book 2?

References:

Did I miss anything? Please comment and I’ll add it to the article.

Back to https://dancharblog.wordpress.com

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14 thoughts on “Surface Pro Pen Compatibility / Interoperability FAQ

Add yours

  1. Despite what the patent says, there are no accelerometers or gyroscopes in any tilt-sensing pen technology (Apple, Wacom EMR, Microsoft). Apple uses additional sensors that are perpendicular to the tip of the pen and analyzes the shape of the signal on the digitizer. Wacom EMR analyzes the shape of the signal on the digitizer without any additional emitters. Microsoft (according to the patent) added more emitters to create an asymmetrical signal on the digitizer, which then lets it calculate 3D orientation. Not a single one uses accelerometers or gyroscopes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jack. I misread the filing. I’ve updated the post accordingly to indicate n-Trig may be using one or more of these techniques. A secondary emitter makes a lot more sense given power consumption of an accelerometer/gyro package.

      Like

  2. So there’s no current evidence that the surface studio nor surface book performance base will be capable of the lowest latency features?

    Like

  3. I just purchased a new surface pro having never had one before. The new pen seems a bit steep (im not an artist, just want a pen) so want to buy and old version of surface pen . Some information says the old pens are compatible with the new pro and other websites don’t. Any chance you can clarity?

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    1. Sarah, the Surface Pro 4 pen (aka Ver.3) will work fine on your Surface Pro 2017. Can you please point out the websites you found which claim the older pen does not work?

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  4. So the latency depends on the digitizer layer on the screen of the Surface Pro/Book Etc. itself not the Pen. Interesting. I thought it was the pen in conjunction with the Surface device initially.

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  5. I just had to upgrade from the first generation surface pro to the newest surface pro tablet. I keep reading that any pen should work like finger point touch in Microsoft 365 apps, but my old SP1 pen won’t work on newSP. Am I mistaken??
    Thanks!

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  6. Got the surface pro 2017 with the pen shipped with the pro 3 model. The purple button Works perfectly but i cant write with it. Is There anything im missing? The AAAA battery is full btw. Thanks for your help. Cheers

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  7. I have a ver.2 pen and tried it on the new surface pro in the store, it worked just fine! I’m glad that I can use my old pen with the new surface pro that I’m buying.

    Like

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