About 6 months ago, we made a video about USI pens and Chromebooks. Back then, the focus was really all about just getting our hands on one of these hard-to-get pens and putting it to the test on a Chromebook that had support for the standard. At that time, plenty of Chromebooks had arrived with screens that could understand input from a USI pen, but there were simply no pens available for months. Once we finally had one in our hands and could actually try it out, I was honestly a bit relieved to find that USI is the real deal and works amazingly well for a universal standard.
In the 6 months since we made that video, much has changed. Even more Chromebooks have launched that support the Universal Stylus Initiative and, as a result, many more USI pens have hit the market. Since we’ve all been so accustomed to a “this pen only works on this brand” mentality up until now, we thought it a good time to look at a few of the options you have as a consumer looking for a stylus to use with your Chromebook. Remember, this is USI we’re talking about, so things are pretty universal, here. When a Chromebook works with USI, it works with ALL USI pens, not just certain ones, so you really don’t have to worry about whether or not the pen will function. You don’t have to worry if you bought the right one for your specific Chromebook. Things like 4000+ levels of pressure, minimal on-screen lag, and instant pairing always work and will do so across all USI Chromebooks. So, let’s take a quick look at the types of USI pens out there currently and clarify the differences between them, because the market is only going to get more and more crowded from this point on.
First up, let’s start with the most straightforward of the bunch from Penoval. I’ve used a handful of digital pens in my time on iPads, Microsoft Surface tablets and countless Chromebooks and this Penoval is one of my favorites. It doesn’t do anything flashy or tricky: it does the job and feels like a million bucks while doing so. As I said above, USI pens just work and that honestly fits the Chromebook mentality. A Chromebook is a Chromebook is a Chromebook…and a USI pen is much the same. With the Penoval and others like it, you’re buying a pen for the quality of the build and the solidity it offers in-hand. I love the way it looks, feels and writes and that’s all I really ask for in a stylus. But there are definitely perks to going with another USI pen and those perks may appeal to you.
The next type of pen we’ll highlight are those with a button or two on the barrel. As of right now, those buttons aren’t perfectly defined. Down the road, some of them may act as quick triggers for erasers or certain types of pens or brushes, but those decisions will largely be made the pen maker as they build their pen. We have a pen made by Waltop in the office that gets marketed under a few different brand names (iPlume is the main one), but if you have one of this variety, the buttons on the barrel serve to wake the pen from sleep – extending the battery life – and speed up right-click actions. On a Chromebook, a long-press of your finger on the screen acts as a right-click to bring up a context menu, so the same is true of a stylus. Hold the stylus on the screen in the same position – like your finger would – and you get whatever you would expect on the screen from a right-click. With this Waltop, though, I can hold the top button and as soon as my pen hits the screen, I get that long press/right-click action. It’s a small trick, but it is handy and a sign that – eventually – we’ll start seeing built-in shortcuts for USI pens that come with buttons.
Now, let’s talk about pens made by Chromebook manufacturers. Already, Lenovo, ASUS, HP, and Acer all have their own take on the USI pen. We have the HP version here in the office and, just like with the Waltop we just talked about, there are fringe benefits to having the HP stylus alongside an HP Chromebook. Does it write better or pair up faster? Nope. Instead, this pen has the ability to line up its internal magnets just right to fit on the side of multiple HP Chromebooks in a very snug fashion. We’ve tried it on the x360 12b, 14c, and the Elite C1030 and it fits all of them really well. Additionally, HP opted to make this pen rechargeable via USB Type C instead of going with the standard AAAA battery. Again, this is the benefit of a powerful standard. Subtle differences can make devices appeal to different user bases, but the core functionality of this HP pen is the exact same as all the others when it comes time to put pen against the screen.
Finally, we have the stowable recharging USI pens that, while still universal and compatible with the same wide array of Chromebooks, have features unique to the Chromebook they ship with. These are the newest entries in the USI pen game, and I for one love the idea. With devices like the Lenovo ThinkPad C13 Yoga Chromebook, the USI pen that lives inside the Chromebook gets topped off while it’s in there, so you never have to go looking for it or wonder if it has juice. Is something like the Penoval USI Stylus a lot more comfortable in the hand? Sure! But I misplace stuff a lot and the pen that is with me is always more useful than the one that isn’t. We know the upcoming ASUS CM3 Detachable Chromebook will have the same trick up its sleeve and I’d argue that for a tablet, this is even more important. We know quite a few Chromebooks are coming soon with stowed, recharging USI pens, so it won’t be long before this is a far more standard thing.
All of this just highlights how amazing USI is, because I could have a Chromebook with a stowed USI pen and use it when I am forgetful, but have something like the Penoval or Waltop in my bag that is my go-to pen for longer note taking or drawing sessions. They’ll both work and I’ll never have to look at a compatibility chart or wonder if I’ve bought a stylus that works with my Chromebook or not. You don’t think twice about what mouse to plug into your Chromebook, do you? Why should you have to worry about this for a pen? If you’re like me, you may buy a better mouse with clickier buttons or a better scroll wheel, but you don’t buy it based on whether or not it will work with your laptop. That’s where we’re getting with USI pens and it is honestly amazing.
I mean, consider things like the Ufro pen we made a video on not long ago: it has an attachment that can scan colors off of physical objects and pass them to a Chromebook immediately without the need for any pairing prior. It just works, and that is the inherent promise and wonder of USI at this point. We have tons of pens now and likely tons more coming. As they show up, you don’t have to worry about what works and what doesn’t – you just need to pick the pen that feels best or has the added features you’d like to use with your Chromebook. That’s the benefit of a standard, and that’s where we are right now with USI pens on Chromebooks.