In our early testing of the Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3, we noticed our review unit didn’t seem to be playing nice with our array of USI pens. At first, I wondered if we had a bad unit, but after a few emails it became clear that something a bit more complex was going on. The answer to the problem is simple enough: we need Lenovo’s own USI Pen 2 for this particular tablet. But that answer brings up some troubling issues for USI and Chromebooks, and the path forward isn’t exactly cut and dry.
USI 2.0 – a new standard
Back in March of this year, we reported on an update on the way for the USI standard that has been a part of the ChromeOS story for a few years at this point. Included in this new spec are updates like NFC wireless charging capabilities, support for in-cell display panels, expanded tilt functionality, and an upgraded color pallet. An example of this new stylus type would be the pen that was included in the HP Chromebook x2 11 that attaches to the outside of the device and charges wirelessly while resting there.
All these changes sound great and we were under the impression that they would show up eventually, be available on the right hardware and simply not exist where the hardware doesn’t match up. While that is generally true, there is a cross-compatibility issue present in the move to USI 2.0 that is already causing some pretty serious tremors. We’ve been getting emails, comments and messages about the new Chromebook Duet 3 not working with USI pens, and unfortunately, there’s a clear reason without a simple fix.
The missing connection between USI 1.0 and USI 2.0
Here’s the thing, depending on the devices you are trying to use, all of this is backwards compatible. For instance, the pen that comes with the HP Chromebook x2 11 works on older USI 1.0 devices just fine. Additionally, other USI 1.0 pens we tried on that device when we had it in the office worked as expected. With the Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3, however, things get more complicated.
In this case, we have a USI 2.0 display that uses in-cell technology (like we mentioned above), merging the display parts of the screen right along with the pen input pieces. Ideally, this makes for a more cost-effective manufacturing process and a lighter, thinner screen. Tablets and smartphones use this sort of in-cell tech and have for some time, so it isn’t new. But it is this part of the USI 2.0 tech that is causing some division.
You see, USI 2.0 panels that use in-cell tech simply won’t work with USI 1.0 pens. This type of display is basically USI 2.0 only, and there won’t be anything to change this down the road. We spoke to Peter Mueller, USI Chairman, about this slight hiccup in the universal nature of the USI pen and he had this to say:
Because the touch and display driver are more tightly integrated for in-cell, the touch sensing has to occur within certain timing windows in between the display being driven. It is this timing constraint that caused us to have to modify our USI spec for some in-cell panels. We spent many months looking at alternatives to ensure backwards compatibility, but it was not doable.
We have requested clear documentation and marking, and also shipping with a 2.0 stylus (ideally) in order to minimize the confusion and user frustration.– Peter Mueller, USI Chairman
This all makes sense and there are certainly times when the progression of technology simply means some hardware needs to be left behind. In this case, that just means devices with USI 2.0 in-cell displays will have a more limited selection of pens at this point. As we understand it right now, there are only a few USI 2.0 pens out there, and Lenovo makes one of them. It is currently unavailable on their site and we’ve not had any clarity on when it will arrive.
Being proactive during the transition
Hopefully this changes soon, but until it does, I think the onus is on manufacturers to clearly label their devices and ship them with a pen included. If the Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3 had the new Lenovo USI Pen 2 in the box, I’m not even sure we’d be having this conversation right now. As it stands, the box for this particular Chromebook makes no mention that we’re dealing with a USI 2.0 only and it is clearly causing a bit of confusion and frustration for consumers.
For so long, we’ve been able to simply understand that Chromebooks either have or don’t have pen support. Period. And if they do, USI is universal and you don’t have to wonder if your current pen will work. While USI 2.0 is still mostly that situation, the exclusion of in-cell screens makes things very murky moving forward since this isn’t a spec most manufacturers point out in marketing materials or on the box.
Clearly, this is something we’ll be keeping an eye on moving forward and as soon as we get a USI 2.0 pen, we’ll be giving it a go. For now, the only device that finds itself in a compromised position is the Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3, and much of the issue could be mitigated by clear communication and including a working pen in the box. While we have no assurances on either of those things at this point, at least if you’ve read this post, you are aware of the current state of things. We’ll update as we learn more.