Why Don’t We Use Pens to Control All Our Computers?

It all comes down to habit

Key Takeaways

  • Surface Slim Pen 2 uses haptics to simulate a pen-on-paper feel.
  • Pens can be more comfortable and controllable than mice and trackpads. 
  • Mice got there first, and are still more flexible.
The Microsoft Surface Pen 2

Microsoft

Microsoft's new Surface Slim Pen 2 goes to extreme lengths to make you believe you're writing on paper. 

Pen and paper are our most fundamental way of writing and drawing, and the one that is probably the most comfortable. And yet, outside of graphic design and other specialist uses, we rarely use it to interact with our desktop computers.

The new Surface Pen might not change that, but it does bring one crazy innovation to the pen-on-glass game: haptic feedback that vibrates the pen to mimic the feel of writing and drawing on paper. And, unlike the Apple Pencil, the Surface Pen works on a laptop, kinda. 

"The biggest advantage the pen has over the mouse is that it's much healthier in the long run. Using a mouse for long periods of time might be very comfortable, but a lot of people who use mice then get carpal tunnel, whereas a pen input device doesn't put a lot of strain on your wrist in the first place," health and fitness publisher Erik Pham told Lifewire via email.

Surface Slim Pen 2

The pen is designed to work with the equally impressive Surface Laptop Studio, which has a dual-hinge that lets you pivot the screen out over the keyboard and even fold the screen flat, and open. It's like Apple's iPad Magic Keyboard, only built-in. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio in Stage Mode

Microsoft

The pen can be used at any time, in laptop or studio mode, and it sticks to the side with magnets for charging and storage. Again, just like the Apple Pencil.

But Microsoft's pen has haptic motors inside to give tactile feedback to the user. It sounds impossible, but the power of well-used haptics is impressive. The Apple Watch's Digital Crown is a great example. It really feels like you're turning a crown with some ratcheting mechanism inside, but it's just a free-spinning knob.

Ditto all of Apple's current trackpads. None of them has a physical switch inside, and yet haptics, combined with a subtle click sound, trick your brain completely.

"It's a subtle interaction that makes a huge difference," says Microsoft's press release, and we expect that it is. The feel of pen (or pencil) on paper is an integral part of the experience.

Expending so many high-tech resources to get it smacks of the NASA space pen myth, but it's welcome nonetheless. And the haptics can be used for other kinds of feedback. Confirmation of switching tools, for example, or feedback to let you know your interactive gestures have been detected. 

Two Kinds of Pens

There are two kinds of computer pens. One is the pen that writes onto a touch screen, the kind where you see what you're drawing. The other type is the pen and tablet, popularized by Wacom.

A drawing tablet connected to an Asus computer with a pen in the holder next to it.

Daniele Luciani / Unsplash

This was essentially an electronic mousepad with a pen. You'd draw on the pad and see the results on the screen. It takes a bit of getting used to, but for anyone who works with graphics, there's nothing like it, and it works with any computer and any screen size—not just the iPad or Surface it was designed for. 

If pens are so good at input, why don't we use them for computers? After all, we all know how to use them, and for many people, they are way better—ergonomically speaking—than mice or trackpads because you don't have to twist your wrist to use them.

Part of this is probably momentum. Like the QWERTY keyboard, we've been using them so long that there's no way any manufacturer is going to change them. And if a mouse comes in the box, then a pen is an added expense and an unknown one at that. 

"For me, the reason that pens aren't used more widely than mice is simply a question of what people are used to—everyone learns to use a mouse first and people are resistant to change unless the other option provides an overwhelming advantage," business software CEO Dragos Badea told Lifewire via email. 

Perhaps if Apple had used a pen to control the original Mac, things might be different today. Then again, the mouse has a few advantages, some inherent, and some evolved. Unlike a pen, the mouse stays where you leave it. A pen has to be laid down or stowed in a little holder to keep it upright. Also, a mouse can accommodate scroll wheels and multiple buttons more easily.

And can you imagine gamers twitching their way through a first-person shooter with a pencil? No way. But for the rest of us, the time for the pencil might be here.

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