Make no mistake: the USI (universal stylus initiative) pen movement in the Chrome OS world is well underway. Sure, there’s only one USI pen you can actually buy right now with HP’s solution, but we’re assured that more are on the way from companies like Acer, ASUS, and Lenovo, so we’ll eventually have some options. 2020 has seen a massive rise in the number of Chromebooks able to utilize USI pen input with devices like the ASUS Flip C436, Lenovo Flex 5, Acer Spin 713, Lenovo Duet, and HP x360 14c all signing on to leverage the new stylus protocol. More are on the way, too.
While I think there’s merit in all these Chromebooks getting on board with a single stylus type, the fact that there just aren’t any pens available right now is pretty off-putting. For me and many others I’ve talked to, however, the more aggravating part of this entire USI push has been the lack of good storage options for your Chromebook’s pen and the need to constantly charge it. So far this year, Samsung is the only company offering up a stylus that neatly tucks away in the device itself and its EMR pen doesn’t require a battery. HP’s x360 12b from late last year has a pretty decent magnet to hold the pen (without charging it), but no one else is really offering up a storage solution for USI pens right now.
While it is true that USI pens will work on any USI-enabled device, one way manufacturers can sway consumers to buy their pen is making the outer parts of that pen work well with their Chromebooks. For instance, if Lenovo shipped a small, light USI pen that attached to the top portion of the Duet, users would be far more inclined to buy that particular stylus for their Duet than some other version that doesn’t hang on to their particular tablet quite as well. Perhaps those types of moves are already in play, but until these pens start shipping, we simply don’t know.
Evidence of a garaged, stowed USI pen with charging
The encouraging thing we’re seeing today piggybacks on all the current USI movement and is an augmentation of another recent discovery we came across not long ago. In that earlier find, we uncovered the fact that the ‘Zork’ baseboard would have the ability to use an internally stored stylus. When we came across this, I immediately assumed that meant these devices would be using the older EMR standard pens like the Galaxy Chromebook employs. I don’t have issue with those pens and, in my opinion, having a pen that I can keep safe inside my device and don’t have to worry about charging is worth whatever trade-offs that come along with that.
Since we’ve not seen a powered stylus (like the USI pens we’re expecting to see soon) be stowed inside a device, I freely assumed this wasn’t on the road map. It has always been a choice: small, stowable EMR pen or powered, larger, external AES or USI pen. It would seem that this binary is about to be dissolved with the upcoming AMD-powered Chromebooks as referenced in this commit from the Chromium Repositories in the comments:
This is the first-ever mention of a powered USI pen that not only is internally stored, but internally charged up as well. As stated above, one of my other big knocks against USI and AES pens is the fact that they require power to function and thus need to be charged. Honestly, no one wants to spend a lot of time thinking about charging up a pen. This is something Apple did very well with the new iPad Pro after a few fumbles with the original Apple Pencil. The new version has a satisfying, magnetic attachment to the top side of the tablet and charges while hanging on. It makes a ton of sense, gives the pen a relatively-secure place to live, and keeps it charged up when not in use.
I think having USI pens that can live inside a device is a huge step forward and one I look very forward to seeing emerge. This move will solve all 3 gripes I have with the state of pens on Chromebooks right now. It means the pen will come with the device in the box, it will have a safe place to stay when not in use, and it will charge itself.
At this point, it is impossible to know which ‘Zork’ variants will use this feature, but I’d love to see it come to many devices in the upcoming months. After all, ‘Zork’ has been around for well over a year at this point, so it is time to start seeing devices arrive. With the lower cost/higher performance we’re expecting from these AMD-powered Chromebooks, I think the market is ready to receive a whole new breed of devices when they do begin showing up. Chromebooks with speed, higher-end design, and perks like faster eMMC storage and stowable/charging USI pens could do very, very well in the fall as the pandemic continues to move us towards unconventional methods of working and learning from home.