October 16, 2013
It surprises me the number of people I encounter who don’t realize there is a difference between the pens used on higher-end Windows and Android tablets and those used on, say, the older iPads. The key is having an active digitizer built into the screen of the device.
The Surface Pro has an active digitizer, as does the Samsung Note. The older iPads and most other tablets have only a capacitive touch screen—built mainly for touch use with your finger (or a stub-nosed pen).
[2017 Update: The newer iPad Pro line also has an active digitizer when combined with the Apple Pencil.]
Advantages of an Active Digitizer
The advantages of an active digitizer are many:
- Automatic palm rejection. With an active digitizer, you do not need to worry about drawing stray lines when you rest the pad of your palm on the screen while writing. Sure, many software titles attempt a form of palm rejection by trying to predict where your palm will be, but the results are very mixed.
- Much more accurate point placement, finer lines. With an active digitizer, you get much more accurate placement of a fine point. That leads to being able to write finer and more compact notes, for example (which is a big deal for me). And when running Windows 8 in Desktop mode on a small tablet, you need often a fine and accurate point to manipulate the controls on the screen.
- Larger Range of Pressure Sensitivity. Should you be creating art work, having a wide range of pressure input matters.
One disadvantage: the pens are expensive, about $40 each if you buy them separately. And the screens themselves are more expensive (usually making the device higher-priced).
Read the Specs
So be careful when getting a tablet that says it comes with a pen. If it doesn’t say it has an active digitizer screen, you are getting less than you think. For example the new Lenovo Miix2 tablet (a brand new 8-inch Windows 8 tablet, $299) brags that it comes with a pen, but it’s not an active one. I suspect others will be skimping on this feature as more inexpensive tablets continue to roll out.
Other Windows Tablet Models that Have Active Digitizers
I focus on Windows tablets because they can run desktop Outlook, a primary tool in my MYN productivity system. So here are some other Windows tablets that have active digitizer pens.
First is my current favorite (but now dated) Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2. I would not buy one now as the processor is dated, but I am eager to see what Lenovo replaces that model with in the coming weeks—one with Bay Tray I am sure. Notice that the newish Lenovo Miix 10 does not (and has an old processor). The older Lenovo IdeaTab Lynx has no active pen. Lenovo is lagging on Bay Trail tablet announcements and so I am eager to see what they have up their sleeve.
The newly announced Dell Venue line has an active digitizer. That’s true in both the 10 inch and 8 inch models and it is built with Bay Trail. So this is the tablet to watch at the moment. [11/13/2013 Update: I mentioned this in a comment below, but thought I should move it up here. The blogs I've seen from people who have used the 8 inch version of the Dell Venue say the digitizer is pretty bad, that it's not accurate enough to take notes with it, for example. Sounds like the 10 inch version will use the same digitizer. Too bad.]
The Surface Pro 2 and the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix also have active digitizer screens, but they are too heavy to act as real tablets. But they do make good hybrid laptops (see below).
And I am sure many other Bay Trail tablets will come out with active digitizer screens in the months ahead.
Active Digitizers On Laptops?
Active pens probably make little sense on a larger laptop or large hybrid tablet; their screens are bigger and you are less likely to hold and write on them. But they might make sense on a smaller Hybrid laptop/tablet that you put in your lap or flat on a desk. Currently, very few such devices exist with active pens. The old Tablet PC’s had those, but they are out of date. As I mentioned above, the Surface Pro 2 and Lenovo ThinkPad Helix fall in this category (but the Helix has yet to update to Haswell).
One hybrid laptop line recently announced is the Sony Flip line that gets up to 15 inches in screen size with an active pen. The 13 inch model looks very good to me as an Ultrabook choice when doing real work on the road if you need a pen (but it’s rather pricey). Also check out the Vaio Duo 13.
I suspect other hybrids might come out in the months ahead that have active pens.
[Feb 3, 2014 Update from Michael]:
This post has received more comments than nearly any other post I’ve made, so I want to weigh in on a couple repeated themes. First, lot’s of people are asking which computers have what active digitizers, so I want to point you to the best list I know of: https://skydrive.live.com/view.aspx?resid=A3E71B4BBE25C114!107&app=Excel&authkey=!AAO1lowxloMJjhM It’s a link that is in a web page pointed to by BJ in the comments below (thanks!). Note that the Bay Trail devices are the ones listed in that list at the top of the Atom section (with CPUs marked in green). All the Atoms below that are the older (slower) Atom processors.
Next, buying a hybrid (heavier) with a pen, versus buying a 10-inch true tablet (around 1 pound) with a pen. I’ve written extensively on a similar topic here. Gist is I think you want a true tablet (with a pen) AND a laptop (with or without a pen). If the laptop is a 3 to 5 pound hybrid fine, but you’ll probably use the 1-pound tablet for most of your note taking and informal media consumption. Again, I think you need 2 devices–for two different purposes. As of this addition (Feb 2, 2014) I’ve yet to see a true 10-inch 1-pound tablet with the new Bay Trail processor and a good active digitizer. The closest is the Fujitsu Stylistic Q584/QH55, but it’s a tad on the heavy side (1.4 pounds) and over-engineered and over-priced for what most of us need. But if you need something today, that’s it. (I am going to wait a bit).
[Feb 14, 2014 Update: Lenovo just announced what looks to be a good Bay-Trail based Wacom pen tablet.]
Thanks again for all your great comments!