All the way back in August of last year, Google debuted Cursive – a new progressive web app for handwritten notes – and it was…OK. Actually, “OK” is probably being kind when we talk about how half-baked it felt at first. As it became more widely available, we began testing it pretty regularly on a variety of Chromebooks, and the tests didn’t go too well. The main issue came down to input lag, and when we talk about apps made specifically for handwritten notes, the pen-to-screen feel has to be good. Cursive was not that.
But things have been rapidly changing on that front, and with the release of ChromeOS 102, Google has fully announced Cursive to the broader Chromebook audience. The good news? It is actually a useful, working app that I’d encourage people to use. But there’s bad news, too, and it revolves around the not-quite-universal experience of Cursive across different Chromebooks with different screens and different processors. So let’s talk about what works well, where the problems lie, and what you need to know to get the best handwriting experience possible out of Cursive.
Google’s Cursive update is really solid
Let’s begin with the good stuff, shall we? With the update to ChromeOS 102, Google has put pieces in place to make Cursive pretty great when it comes to pen input lag. On the right devices, I’m pretty blown away by how much better it is. And not just from an improvement standpoint. It would be one thing to say Cursive went from terrible to not-so-bad, but this is even better than that: it’s gone from unusable to a tool I will start actually leveraging. Again, on the right device, the input feels incredibly pen-like and even with my terrible, twitchy handwriting, the USI pen on my Chromebook screen picks up every dot and dash.
The only app I’ve used on a Chromebook that makes the pen feel this good is Squid, and it has been pretty great for a long time. Being an Android app, though, it has had a few issues on Chromebooks with scaling and various other bugs over the years, so I’ve been waiting for a proper PWA to use on my Chromebook for this sort of task. Until now, web-based apps have failed to make it to a truly usable level of pen lag, but Cursive is totally there with this latest update. Whether it is quick strokes, long strokes, dashes, or simple dots, Cursive keeps the digital ink right under the pen and makes taking notes feel about as close to on-paper writing as I’ve felt on a Chromebook. The upgrades are truly great, here, but they aren’t without caveat.
For now, you need the right hardware
So now, let’s now talk about that bad news. In our somewhat-limited testing here in the office, I can confirm that the silky-smooth experience I just got done describing isn’t the case on every Chromebook across the board. I suppose this is to be expected, but when we start talking about the universal nature of USI pens, web apps, and ChromeOS, it bothers me to think that the inking experience with Cursive could vary this much from one device to the next.
For example, on devices like the new Acer Chromebook Spin 513, the Lenovo Flex 5i, ASUS CX5400 and HP Elite Chromebook c1030, Cursive feels like near perfection. I can see myself dropping into tablet mode on these types of devices and taking notes during a meeting in a way that will actually be usable afterwards. That’s just not been the case for me with Cursive until now, so that is a really cool thing.
But the opposite is true with other devices like the ASUS CM3 Detachable, the original Chromebook Duet, the Duet 5, or the ThinkPad C13, where Cursive still exhibits plenty of that irritating pen lag that makes it basically useless. My working theory, at least for now, is that there’s a great deal of importance put on the processor when it comes to Cursive’s ability to translate pen strokes to digital input.
For now, it feels like it may be as simple as faster = better, though, since the input on devices running processors like the MediaTek Kompanio 1380 and 10th and 11th-gen Intel silicon are clearly faster than most and far better at running Cursive. It is unclear whether or not there is some sort of performance threshold that needs to be met to have a solid experience with Cursive or if it just comes down to certain processors dealing with this sort of input better than others. For instance, the AMD Ryzen 5 in the ThinkPad C13 isn’t exactly a slouch, but it still has a ton of input lag. It’s a bit confusing.
The only other factor to consider would be the quality of the screen and digitizer that any given Chromebook may use. All hardware isn’t the same, and there’s a chance that certain Chromebooks will simply come with less-capable screen digitizers and will unfortunately be less desirable as pen-input tools. This doesn’t seem to be the deciding factor with the Chromebooks we’ve tested here, but it is something that needs to be taken into consideration for sure as we really start taking Chromebooks more seriously as handwriting devices.
Will your Chromebook be good at note taking?
So where does that leave us, then? How are you supposed to know which Chromebooks are great at handwriting and which ones aren’t? Well, the first thing we have to consider with that question is the fact that it seems like Google has Cursive in a solid enough spot that we can now rely on it as a constant, not a variable anymore. That’s pretty awesome, and it means we can stop pointing to the app as the problem and now focus instead on hardware differences.
Unfortunately, at this point, that still doesn’t make it easy to know if the Chromebook you intend to purchase will be good at handwriting, and that’s still a problem. For now, I’d say that devices with faster processors generally seem far better at taking pen input, but that clearly isn’t the rule: it’s just a likelihood. In the past, we’ve not put too much stock in one Chromebook being better at pen input than the next, but it seems we need to start doing that moving forward. You can rest assured we will, but until more devices show up for testing and we can apply more broad categories for Chromebooks both good and bad at pen input, my suggestion would be to err on the side of speed. The faster the Chromebook, the better your chance of a solid handwriting experience.