N-Trig vs. Wacom: A Dual Digitizer Duel

Last month, I had the good fortune to have tested two slates, the HTC Flyer and Fujitsu Stylistic Q550, with pen + touch digitizers from the same vendor: N-Trig. Due to software and design choices, the experiences of both were quite different, but I tried to look past that to get a feel for the digitizer itself and compare that to the Wacom digitizers I’ve been using. Here’s my takeaway.

More similar than different

What struck me immediately was the similarity in the feel of the two digitizers. There are stark differences in the external hardware, but I did not find myself noticing major differences in the accuracy or smoothness. The ink on the HTC Flyer was obviously much more jagged, but I attribute that to software and other factors. There was also a lag between the hovering pen and cursor movement on the Fujitsu Q550, but tapping and inking were fine.

What differences I did note were slightly decreased range of pen detection and more responsive touch from N-Trig. I can’t quantify either of these, but I had to hold the pen just a hair closer to the N-Trig slates than I normally did in order to turn off touch detection. Possibly it was just slower to react. On the flip side, I found it more reliable when it came to recognizing two-finger touch. With Wacom, I find I have to be more precise with two-finger contact. This might also be due to reaction time. Those subtle differences aside, I found the underlying technologies to be quite comparable in their performance.

Pen design

And now we get to the hard differences. The N-Trig pens currently being offered are perfectly smooth and cylindrical. A round shape is hardly unusual for a pen, but the complete roundness makes storage tricky. Neither the Flyer nor the Q550 had holding slots for the pen. Chris Lucksted has found the pen silo on the Motion CL900 to be a “bit frustrating”, which I attribute to their attempt to accommodate the design of the pen. A perfectly round pen simply will not work for the pop-out or pull-out silos that have been common on Wacom Penabled Tablet PCs.

The design does not lend itself to usage either. The flush-mounted side buttons were tricky to find by touch, a feat made more challenging by the tendency of the pen to slide and turn. Most Wacom pens I’ve used have a side button that protrudes and/or a tab or clip near the top, some asymmetrical feature that made it possible to orient the pen. A completely round design makes no sense to me, especially since N-Trig’s digital “pencils” have a hexagonal shape, a shape that has worked pretty well for people over the years.

Perhaps the most important distinction here is that Wacom pens are almost always custom designed for the individual manufacturer, while the current generation of N-Trig pens are highly standardized. There are some differences: the Flyer pen had two side buttons, while the Q550 pen had a slot on the end for a tether. But the basic design was the same. By contrast, I’ve used more than half a dozen different Wacom pens, all with different feels, some better than others. I’ve never been stuck with a pen design I didn’t like.

Pen construction

Another difference is the construction material. The N-Trig pen shafts were metal, while Wacom must be plastic. Metal, of course, has the advantage in strength. In addition, the smooth bottom tip of the Flyer’s pen made it suitable for use as a capacitive stylus, allowing it to access both the pen and touch features. I don’t know if some technology limitation requires the current N-Trig pens to be made of metal, but I do know Wacom pens cannot be made of metal. Metal blocks the signal between a Wacom digtizer and the pen. Wrap a piece of foil slightly above the tip of your Wacom pen to see for yourself.

The pen tips are very different. The N-Trig tips were hard with loose springiness. They can be pulled and pushed to see how much give they have. They also clack against the shaft of the pen to contribute to that noisiness that many people observe with them. On Wacom pens, the pull and push of the tip is almost imperceptible, while the impact of the pen tip is no louder than that of a standard ballpoint.

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Finally, all the current N-Trig tablets are using battery-powered pens. This adds a bit of weight to the pen, but not much, and I preferred the heft over the feather-light Wacom pens. The AAAA battery supposedly lasts for thousands of hours, and though uncommon, it is a standard size. I spotted it at Rite-Aid and CVS, so no need to special order one when it runs out. N-Trig does make a digitizer that can work with a battery-free pen, but vendors don’t seem to be going for that. Wacom pens are always battery-free and last for years.

Touch differences

As I noted above, N-Trig seems to have a slight edge over Wacom with touch responsiveness. This makes sense. Wacom has been in the pen computing industry for years and only recently added touch input to their offerings. N-Trig, however, has always offered pen + touch input, starting with the Motion Computing LE1700.

N-Trig offers four-finger input, which means up to four points of contact can be tracked, which can be demonstrated by dragging four fingers across a drawing program. Wacom is limited to two-finger input, but recently added five-finger gesture recognition. This means it can recognize when there are up to five points of contact to trigger gestures, but only track two points at a time. In practice, these differences don’t matter much. Few people will draw with four fingers and most gesture control is limited to two-finger.

Troubles past and present

Of course, no technology is perfect and neither N-Trig nor Wacom dual digitizers are free of flaws. Just last year, GBM founder Rob Bushway called for a recall of the Dell Latitude XT for issues related to the N-Trig digitizer. He was far from alone in his complaints.

But that was last year. This year, Rob is admitting to becoming more of an N-Trig fan and the issues of the past seem to have stayed there. That’s not to say, however, there aren’t new issues.

Chris Lucksted had to return his Motion CL900 for a pen-related digitizer problem. There was also that problem I had with the pen for the HTC Flyer getting stuck in the “on” position, which I fixed by removing and re-inserting the battery. These are a far cry from the problems of the past, but it’s not trouble-free yet.

In a reversal you old timers will find ironic, I’ve noticed Wacom dual digitizers suffer from the “gridding” issue that formerly was a problem for N-Trig. It’s subtle, but under bright light and held at an angle, a grid of dots can be seen on the screen of a tablet with Wacom dual digitizer. The old N-Trig digitizer had a similar issue. If the new ones have that problem, I couldn’t see it and I was definitely in bright light with them. Honestly though, it’s not something that should bother anyone, just a difference I noticed.

Is there a winner?

N-Trig is the new guy in this battle. They burst on the scene with pen + touch years before Wacom offered a dual digitizer and maintain an edge on the touch front, which is the more sought-after feature in today’s market. But their pen technology isn’t as mature as Wacom’s. They got trashed early on in that area and still haven’t quite caught up but hav come back fighting. As their progress has shown, I believe they will continue to improve.

Furthermore, by not to competing on 10″ and under dual digitizers, Wacom is letting N-Trig go unopposed in a burgeoning area of the market. N-Trig’s technology really only needs to be comparable in order for them to stay in this fight, and that gives them a real chance to get ahead overall. This fight is far from over.

That said, if we’re looking strictly at the technology and scoring this fight on points, Wacom is in the lead, but it’s far from a knockout victory. The two technologies are comparable enough that I am comfortable recommending either, and the differences small (or geeky) enough that many won’t care. A lot of it is just a matter of taste. The N-Trig or Wacom question is still valid when evaluating Tablet PCs, but it’s a lot lower on my list of priorities.

Of course, everyone has their own list of priorities. What do you think? Is it an even enough game now? Is the digitizer still a make-or-break feature for you? Or do you not care as long as you get active pen input?

  

Comments

  1. Dale Strauss says

    This is one place where we’ll have to agree to disagree. Although I’ve not had the opportunity to use the Fujitsu on a Fujitsu, I did use both it and the native N-Trig on the HTC Flyer, as well as an earlier model N-Trig on the HP Slate 500, and they in no way compare to the quality of inking of the Wacom on my HP 2740p. They skip; they are slow to detect the screen; vectoring (although less so on the HTC Flyer); poor ink smoothing – in a word inferior to the Wacom in all ways. In addition, they “Click and clatter” on the screen – very annoying in meetings (you won’t notice it in noisey room, but try to have a regular conversation and take notes – too distracting.

  2. Alain Chappaz says

    This is very subjective, but I have run both types of digitizers (Fuji 5020 and HP Tx1000 vs. HP Slate 500), and I still prefer the “feel” and responsiveness of the Wacom digitizers – perhaps because, as I recall, the Wacom technology is more pressure-sensitive. Don’t get me wrong, I find the n-trig digitizer adequate for handwriting, but still, if I could find a Wacom machine in a 10-inch or smaller screen size, I would seriously consider making the switch.

  3. Willem Evenhuis says

    I think Wacom and N-trig should get together and see if they can vastly improve capacative touchscreens without comprosmising ink input capability, taking into account the past experiences done with the seperate N-trig and Wacom experience today and in the past. I think this will solve a lot of problems that inkers have been waiting for.

  4. Hildy says

    The one thing I would inject is that the digitizer does not work in isolation. Comparing the experience on an Atom tablet versus a Core i5 or i7 (like the HP2740) is not fair.

    I’ve had a Wacom single mode digitizer on a 1.67Ghz Via (OQO) and a dual mode n-Trig digitizer on a 1.8Ghz Atom (HP Slate). I find the inking about the same. The Wacom is quieter and has a slightly better feel while inking (although that could be due to the OQO’s factory installed screen protector). The n-Trig has a better heft than most Wacom pens (except the Cross Executive). It is alsomy understanding that the n-Trig design uses less power (and, thus, less battery)

    I would agree that either works well and neither will work perfectly all the time.

  5. ChrisRS says

    It is good to hear that there is some competition. Imagine if there was a real signifcant level of competition. If I could go into a store, pick up conpeeting tablets of similar specs and try the pens it woukd be amazing.

    It is hard to see why Wacom is ignoring the 10-inch tablet space.

    One important metric that can be compared is driver updates and bug fixes. Wacom seems to uncomunicative and very very slow. N-Trig seems to be worse.

    Service may be where the battle may be won.

    When every tablet is “new”, having first model bugs and issues, the purchase decision becomes “which device is better RIGHT NOW; there may never be a fix”. If manufacture had a better service record, I would buy from the most responsive manufacturer, even if some features were lacking or there was a slight price premium.

    Like many people say, “Apple products just work”. They do not have the feature set and price point that I want, but they work for many people. By controling hardware and expectations, Apple can provide better customer service.

  6. Reese says

    For a Digitizer Duel, there are quite a few key elements left out.

    1. Because of the battery design of the N-trig Digital Pencil….by default to save power, the hovering accuracy of the pen isn’t nearly as close as wacom’s. With a wacom digitizer, the pen reacts to the slightest pixel movement. With N-trig….its no where near as pixel accurate. With a battery/ntrig pen, you can move the pen tip around in little circles before the hovering catches up. Some people may not notice this at first…but when your doing stuff that requires pixel accuracy….N-trig is just horrid. Particaully for Art use this is an issue..but also if you want to resize a window or something, selecting the edge of a window isn’t nearly as easy and rather annoying. There is a way to sort of trick it into whats been dubbed ‘High Res Tracking” but it requires disabling the pen’s right click button, and then you have to jury rig the pen button to constantly be held down…which is not as easy to do as it would seem. There is currently no driver based option to change this or make it any more easier or practical.

    2. Wintab…..more so an art issue, but N-trigs wintab driver is utter and complete garbage. Wacom offers a penabled graphics driver which enables you to have pressure in in Wintab supported programs, like Photoshop, Painter, & Paint Tool Sai among other programs, which is why Wacom Penabled tablets are prefered by Artists. N-trig for the longest time didn’t support Wintab…which was one of the many reasons why people hated n-trig.  but a few years back they finally released a driver for it………only it doesn’t really work. I’ve only tested this using the HP Slate 500….and only Photoshop recognizes the driver. Painter/Sai and every other Wintab based program I use doesn’t recognize N-trigs driver.

    and Photoshop…the only program that does is an utter mess with it. It vectors like crazy in CS4 & CS5, and the responsiveness in early revs like CS3 is down right pathetic. To a degree you can color comic lineart….very basicly….but anything that requires fine line work, like sketcking, inking, or even rendering hair is near impossible. In its current condition, the Wintab Driver is useless.

    3. Now, even using non-wintab programs like Sketchbook Pro….because of the way the tip was designed…not only does it make an unpleasant clanking sound with contact…but controlling pressuring is very difficult given how much the nib recoils into the pen. For what its worth, the HTC Flyers pen does work “a tad” better given the different tib/nib…..but its still far from perfect.

    4. Wacom Pens also have Erasers……none of the N-trig Pens have them. Technically the reason the HTC flyer Pen has two buttons is because one was designated to by an eraser. Only..this only works on the HTC Flyer. The eraser button won’t work using the flyer pen on other N-trig tablets like the Slate 500.

  7. Steve S says

    Reese:  A couple of comments.

    First, I don’t disagree that N-trig has a way to go still to “catch up” to Wacom’s inking experience.  But to imply that Wacom is all good and that N-trig is all bad (as some try to say) is also incorrect.  Wacom is having as much trouble with their dual-mode digitizer as N-trig ever did, and you don’t have to take my word for it; just visit the Asus forum at TabletPCReview and read for yourself.  Abrupt failures of touch and inking, inability to accurately calibrate the pen, tablet hardware not found… they are all issues that users have encountered…  just like N-trig…!

    Second, “…Wacom Pens also have Erasers……none of the N-trig Pens have them…” is NOT correct.  The Dell and HP digitizers certainly had them, and the current Digital Pencil has the capability… but only one OEM (HTC) asked for it to be incorporated. 

    Third. “…Only..this only works on the HTC Flyer. The eraser button won’t work
    using the flyer pen on other N-trig tablets like the Slate 500…” This is also not correct.  As reported by me and others, the HTC Flyer’s erase button works on the Fujitsu Q550 and presumably on the Motion Computing CL900.  It just doesn’t work on the HP Slate.

    Fourth, although N-trig went through a period where their software updates were few and far between, they did man up and fix the Dell tablets.  Their current generation of hardware and drivers have shown improvement from the HP Slate, to the Fujitsu T580 and later the Q550 and most recently the Motion CL900.  So they are being responsive.  Most recently, Wacom had NO tablet drivers on their support site, although thankfully I think that they have fixed this now.

    So, again, I understand and agree with the spirit of your post,and my intention is not to flame you, but we’re all better off with a balanced discussion by folks (like you) who have put the time in to actually compare the hardware and draw objective conclusions.

    From my perspective, it should never be about Wacom versus N-trig. It should be about how can we get both Wacom and N-trig to be equally good, so that we consumers have the choice of two good systems and better tablet choices all around!  Trashing N-trig doesn’t do that…!

    • Hildy says

      “Third. “…Only..this only works on the HTC Flyer. The eraser button won’t work
      using
      the flyer pen on other N-trig tablets like the Slate 500…” This is
      also not correct.  As reported by me and others, the HTC Flyer’s erase
      button works on the Fujitsu Q550 and presumably on the Motion Computing
      CL900.  It just doesn’t work on the HP Slate.”

      This is a hardware issue. The Slate was the first to ship and the n-Trig digitizer was upgraded for the Flyer and Q550. I can’t speak for the CL900.

    • Reese says

      I’m not trying to say that Wacom is all good, but their Pen tech is still superior N-trigs..and even if I wanted to make it a more fair and balanced addition, I really can’t think of any benefit N-trig has over Wacom except for using less battery life.  I have the ep121…I really haven’t had any of those problems you describe. The Multitouch for me works pretty much on par with the Slates N-trig.  I know Wacom’s drivers can offer a great headache every once in a while…but from my experience those are largely cursor related issues in Wacoms court.

      As for the Eraser, I should have clarified better in my previous post, but since this article was pertaining to only the Digital Pencil Digitizer, my response was just in regards to that as well. And from what I’ve been able to gather, the battery-less N-trig pens also don’t have the nib issues, and hovering inaccuracy that the Battery pens do.

      However, I wasn’t aware that the Eraser button worked on the Q550. I followed the early forum threads about the Q550 when it first came out, and while some said that the N-trig experience was better then the Slate 500, I didn’t see anyone addressing the issues I had with it. Primarily all I read was just performance problems with the Q550, not Pen issues. Since I haven’t been following those threads as of late, has anyone been able to test the Wintab Driver with Photoshop? Where as a few artists gave the Slate 500 a try, I didn’t see any artists testing the Q550, which made it hard to retain my interest in it.

      and as for N-trig improving it digitizer……I really see one fundamental flaw with the way they are doing it. While the digitzers in the Q550 and Flyer seem better then the Slate 500s…..Is there any chance that those improvements will come to Slate 500? If it was a simple driver update, you would think N-trig would have offered updated drivers by now. The only one that they updated was the rollback driver which didn’t do squat for my slate. So if the improvements are more hardware based…….what that means is that any improvements will require the purchase of a whole new tablet. If the Slate 500 is using 3rd generation tech, and the Q550 is using 3.5 generation tech….well you said it yourself that N-trig still has alot of catching up to do to meet Wacom’s inking quality. How many future tablets and tech generations will it take to see it at Wacom’s level?  Since the digital Pencil pens are inheritantly compatible with other n-trig digital pencil digitizers….it would really make alot more sense for them to improve the Digital Pencil digitizer down the whole board. Offering improvements only with the purchase of new hardware….is well pretty asinine. If anything, it just gives more reason to avoid N-trig since every problem you have with there current digitizer can, or rather may only be fixed by essentially plunking down another $800-$1000 bucks.

      Or maybe since the Slate 500 was the first tablet to use the Digitial Pencil, prehaps it is the lone exception. In which case….it really sucks for anyone who bought the slate.

  8. Steve S says

    “…This is a hardware issue…”

    Hildy:  More likely, it is a firmware / software issue.  However, as you imply, N-trig software releases that are contemporary with the HTC Flyer appear to have incorporated some of the Flyer’s functionalities…

    • Hildy says

      I got my info second hand from Rob Bushway:

      “Overall, I have to say that I’m fairly impressed with the CL900 and
      N-trig’s latest digitizer. My experience is much better than on the HP
      Slate 500. As demoed in the video, I rarely experience stray ink, but
      will occasionally register false touches while writing. In addition, the
      pen-on-screen noise is quieter than the Slate 500, but not quite as
      good as Wacom-based tablets. Overall, I’d say the noise is still
      distracting. I shot an email over to N-trig’s Gary Baum, asking him the
      difference between the two units. According to Baum, the Slate 500 uses
      3rd generation hardware, whereas the CL900 uses 3.5 generation
      hardware.”

      http://www.robbushway.com/2011/06/23/motion-computing-cl900-handwriting-demo-video/

      • Reese says

        Dear lord….I hope it was the camera’s microphone just being extra sensitive to the clicking noise…..but that sounds alot worse then the contact noise from the HP Slate.

  9. edward says

    Using an N-trig on a fujitsu q550.  For anything but playing mine is almost unusable.  I cannot use it for field work or note taking.  To slow.  Junk.  I have a wacom and it has it’s problems at the edges of the screen and with parallax if you change orientation but much better for practical use.

  10. LW says

    What is about accuracy at the edges of the screen? Is it about the same? I wounder if N-Trig is more accurate, would appreciate any information, thanks!

  11. Dnrteuer says

    For the past 7 years, I have been using the Wacom pen that came with my ASUS R1F. I haven’t found any that I like better. This pen calibrated easily and precisely. The feel of it is very smooth and like writing with a Uniball fine point pen. Most amazing thing is that even after I sat on this pen and cracked the plastic slightly where the top and bottom sections join, it still works just as it did on day one. Every now and then, if I am not careful, the top half falls off, but it still works! I also like the feel of it as a pen due to the fact that it is not completely round. I’ve heard people say that it gets stuck in its carriage on the laptop case, but I’ve never had that problem. The tunnel is made so that you sort of rotate it out (so it doesn’t accidentaly fall out).
    Wacom is the winner from my experience.

  12. jo says

    I have an HP TM2 2050 PC convertible tablet and love it. I am looking around for a replacement as mine is getting on and I’d like to move to Windows 8 at some point. I was interested in learning about the N-Trig as it seems many of the new tablets are using it instead of Wacom. My HP has a Round Wacom Pen. It has a slot in the side of the machine which it clicks into perfectly, and pops out easily with a spring type action. The pen also attaches with a cord to the machine, so I never lose it. The nib has not worn down in 3 years of CONSTANT use. I love the round shape. I use my tablet for drawing and I am often drawing 6-7 hours a day when I have a deadline. If I had a pen with angles there is no way I could comfortably do that. The round pen is the best and the ONLY way to go if you are actually really using it to draw. HP had a great computer, perfect size, perfect solutions and perfect price – and now EVERYTHING on the market is inferior and often for more money than what I paid. I am very frustrated. I don’t want the small 10″ screen the Surface Pro offers, I’d love the Acer Aspire R7 if it was pen-enabled. It has the screen surface I need and the power.

    Nowhere in this review do I see a discussion on pressure sensitivity when discussing the N-trig. This seems to me to be critical information. If you are just using it to point and click and make an odd note then it doesn’t matter. But for artists – it is kind of important. I wish more people writing reviews of pen-enabled tablets and the pens themselves understood that there are a lot of artists needing better information about the capabilities and what machine to buy and not just gloss over or not even mention critical features. I could have sold myself a thousand of my TM2 model but HP did not market it well and everyone jumped on the slate ‘iPad’ bandwagon – making things touch – but not even close to doing what it could and should be able to do by now. Technology is going backwards thanks to the iPad – not forward.

  13. Scott says

    For those of us who use digitizers for professional work (digital sketching and rendering, etc) it is a pity that the past few years have seen so many very capable tablet/laptop hybrids waste away unbought because they use NTrig technology. To echo what many have alluded to above, don’t buy any active digitizer device that has NTrig tech if you plan to draw anything more than a stick figure! Long live Wacom (and Samsung’s S-Pen – Samsung now owns 5% of Wacom, and that’s why their S-Pen has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity and have that excellent Wacom touch & feel). Hey Acer; if you’d put Wacom in your R7 we’d have bought them…hey Sony, if you’d have put Wacom in your Flip13/15, we’d have bought them! One last note for manufacturers – please do not under value a storage silo for stylii – it’s important – we want it! :)

  14. Harold Crumb says

    Wow! A Wacom Fanboi? The reason tablets were bought or not bought had little to do about the digitizer. Did you know the biggest flop in tablet history were the Surface tablets with Wacom technology? Now Microsoft is trying again with N-Trig.

    I have used both and I actually have my likes and dislikes of both of them. My best art has been using the N-Trig but I do not attribute this to the digitizer. The same way that a good musician does not attibute their good music to their instrument. Yes, you get your favorite but unless it is REALLY bad (and neither the Wacom or the N-Trig is bad) the tool has nothing to do with the end result.

    The best selling tablet (and best selling tablet to artist) is the iPad and People are doing great art using it and it has NO built in active pen. So the digitizer has NOTHING to do with sales. The fact that bast quantity of articles (which people will follow) put more importance to gyroscope and type of screen connection to the tablets and phones than they do about an active pen maybe the reason for many of these devices not doing well. In essence if the Apple iPad or iPhone didnt have it, It was not important. For instance, the iPhone and iPad had 1 and only 1 possible screen keyboard choice and this choice sucks as the keyboard does not even show how the letter will look when you type them (for instance in any keyboard for any non-iOS device on earth lower case shows qwerty and shift shows QWERTY). Also you can have swype type keyboard on other non-iOS devices. Now you will not see this in 99.9% of the comparisons. And likely you won’t see it on any articles. Now this may change since iOS8 may finally solve that problem (so then the reporters will be allowed to talk about it since they can now include Apple).

    Is there a list ANYWHERE of all the devices that have active pen input?

    You can find list on resolution, pixel density, battery life, even list about external pens. But none with ACTIVE pen. I found a top 5 best tablets with active pens but 2 of them were the Samsung tablets.

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