The story of USI pens is a long one. In fact, the entire USI (universal stylus initiative) platform dates all the way back to 2015. In a similar manner to unifying ports under one, universal standard (USB), USI aims to wrangle all the differing, proprietary digital pen technologies into one, unified standard. That’s a big undertaking for any organization and part of the reason why after 5 years, we’re just now getting to the point where we have quite a few devices that can leverage the tech.
We began tracking USI input on upcoming Chromebooks all the way back in May of 2019 and knew that, eventually, we’d begin seeing some Chromebooks launch with it on board. What we didn’t realize is the fact that most Chromebooks launching in 2020 would come equipped with USI capability if they chose to go with pen support. While Samsung is a participant in the USI movement, they bucked the trend and shipped the Galaxy Chromebook very early in 2020 with their own internal stylus tech (EMR-based). Apart from them, however, all Chromebooks launched this year that have digital pen support are based on USI.
The ASUS Flip C436, HP x360 14c, HP x360 12b, Lenovo Flex 5, Lenovo Duet, Lenovo 10e, and Acer Spin 713 are all big releases for 2020 that lean on the USI tech to offer users a pen experience. The problem? Up to this point, there have simply been no pens available for anyone to go and buy. Pair that up with the massive Chromebook growth we’ve seen across the board in 2020 and you have a large audience hungry for pens that have simply been non-existent up to this point. It’s been a bit of bad timing, for sure, but it finally seems we’re on the other side of the issue as 3rd-party USI pens have begun to show up here and there, signaling an end to the USI pen drought.
Testing one of many USI pens
We’ve recently had the opportunity to have a chat with the Chairman of USI – Peter Mueller – and we are excited about having him on the podcast this week, but as a part of that chat came the chance to finally get our hands on a few working, real-world USI pens being made by 3rd-party ODMs. Specifically, the pen we have in the office is made by Waltop for a variety of resellers and is the exact same pen we came across recently on Amazon being sold and branded as iPlume.
Getting this pen in the office allowed us to finally test a working, production-level USI pen on a few Chromebooks we have around and, you know what? These pens are legit. Not only does the all-aluminum casing feel premium, the input lag is fantastic (even on the slowest USI Chromebook in the Lenovo Duet), the pressure sensitivity is responsive, and the feel of the pen on the screen is satisfying as well. There was no need to pair the pen up or go through any setup processes: it simply jumped between all the USI-compatible Chromebooks we have around without even a hiccup.
This pen – and the others like it that are finally coming to market – is as good as any first-party pen on any Chromebook I’ve tested, and I’m so thrilled to be able to say that. Our only USI pen experience has been with a pre-production HP pen that, frankly, hasn’t been great. Up to this point, we were honestly unsure if the fault was with the pen or with the USI standard, but we can confidently tell you that USI is for real and pens that are built correctly work like a charm on any Chromebook you use them with.
I hope you have a moment to watch the video we made on this because I can only tell you so much: watching brings it to life. With so many big names on board with the USI pen efforts, we can realistically see a near-term future when there are tons of USI pens to choose from and tons of laptops that utilize the universally-adopted tech. It’s one thing to have a standard that just works; it’s a much bigger deal to have a universal standard that works well and is actually great to use in practice. If you’ve purchased a Chromebook this year with the hopes of choosing the pen that you want for it, the time is finally arriving where that is going to be an option, and the end result will be a fantastic inking experience for everyone.