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Reader Q&A

What is the current status of active digitizer technologies? (2011)

What is your current opinion of active digitizer technology, which I guess comes down to Wacom vs N-Trig, including variations of each?

Would you choose one Tablet PC over another because of the maker (or version) of the digitizer?

For example, I've had a 1st generation NEC Versa LitePad slate PC since about 2004. It had very erratic movements of the cursor, especially in one corner, causing problems with handwriting as well as closing any window in that corner. The problem was never thought to be from the digitizer itself, but from EM interference due to the crowding of components with inadequate shielding, as that model was the thinnest PC by far.

Over the years I have seen blog posts complaining of particular Tablet PC models because of similar phenomena, but there was never any specific design that had the frequency or consistency of complaints as the NEC. Suggested fixes included software patches, keeping the unit cooler, charging with a multifunctional charger that had slightly less voltage than the 19+ that came with it, and opening the machine and placing sheets of aluminum foil between the digitizer sensor and the motherboard and other components. A Tablet PC without a reliable cursor is simply an expensive frustration. Thank you for your thoughts.

Michael M.

Contributing Technology Editor Geoff Walker answers:


Active digitizer technology has matured considerably over the last 10 years. However, that said, the single most important determinant of usability is the quality of the integration into the PC system. While there are some key differences between suppliers' products, poor integration can overwhelm any differences between products. For that reason I would never buy an OEM's first try at implementing an active digitizer (such as NEC's Versa LitePad). If often takes two or three product generations for an OEM to become proficient at integrating an active digitizer, particularly if the PC is high-performance.

There are three main suppliers of active digitizers today: Wacom (Japan), Hanvon (China), and N-trig (Israel). The following table summarizes some of the key differences between the products:

The answer to your question, "Would I choose one Tablet PC over another because of the maker of the digitizer" is YES. The table above shows that for a pen & touch solution, Wacom is superior over N-trig in terms of pen and finger performance. Wacom's batteryless pen is also preferred. However, Wacom also requires two separate sensors (one behind the LCD for the pen and one in front of the LCD for fingers), so that is likely to increase the cost of the Wacom solution. For a pen-only solution, Wacom and Hanvon are equal, with N-trig being less desirable because of their front-of-screen (only) sensor.

Geoff Walker
geoff at walkermobile dot com