Microsoft's new Surface Pen delivers (limited) enhancements to older Surface PCs

9 essential apps if you own a Surface Pen
9 essential apps if you own a Surface Pen (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Microsoft's new $99 Surface Pen is a steep upgrade from the previous iteration that costs $59 (and which is still available (opens in new tab). There are quite a few enhancements that may justify the cost for new Surface Pro owners. But for older Surface devices, the value is not too clear.

Here is what owners of previous Surface devices should expect with the all-new Surface Pen.

What's new?

The new Surface Pen brings significant changes. Here are the key features being advertised or that we noticed.

1. Pressure levels

The new Pen has 4,096 pressure levels, up from 1,024 levels of the previous Pen. The new Surface Pen is simply more sensitive than the last one. While there can be a debate about how significant this advance is, artists and professional inkers prefer more sensitive pens. Higher levels of pressure allow for greater shading or increased detail when drawing. In fact, Wacom's new Intuos Pro Paper Edition tablet features 8,192 levels of pressure – but that device is not a PC, and there is such thing as diminishing returns. For note takers, higher pressure levels make the stylus feel more natural.

2. Decreased latency

Latency is the time between when the pen tip hits the display, and digital ink begins to flow. If you draw or write quickly, you will see a visible gap between the pen tip and the digital ink, almost like the ink is trying to catch up to the pen. Real pens have zero latency, which is why they feel natural. The entire digital inking market has been trying to reduce latency to simulate real pens accurately. The new Surface Pen drops latency down to just 21 milliseconds from the previous 40 milliseconds. That is a significant decrease when you consider the display refresh, OS, and apps by default cause 16 milliseconds of latency.

3. Tilt support

If you took a real pencil and turned the tip on its side you could use it to "shade." That fanning of the graphite creates a different experience than just writing with the tip. Digital pens should do this. too, but simulating it on a PC is not easy – after all, it's just plastic on glass and the computer does not "know" the difference. The new Surface Pen supports this feature, as well, thanks to advanced hardware.

4. Lower initial activation force

Initial activation force (IAF) refers to the amount of pressure needed for a pen to trigger an inking event on the PC – the lower, the better. A similar real-world analogy is how a Sharpie marker can lightly brush against an object and leave a mark versus a pencil. With the new Surface Pen, the IAF is down to around nine grams, making it more sensitive than the last version.

Besides the big technical changes with the new Surface Pen, there are subtle physical changes as well. There is no longer a shirt clip, for example, which some people won't like. The single button is also now visually and physically distinct from the magnetic strip. The LED pairing light is also now green instead of white, so there's that (detalil is detail!).

Otherwise, the new and old Surface Pens look similar, weigh the same, and take the same single AAAA battery, that should last the same amount of time.

What can the new Surface Pen do on older Surface PCs?

11 best Windows apps for Surface Pen users

11 best Windows apps for Surface Pen users (Image credit: Windows Central)

Unfortunately, not all legacy Surfaces get all of these improvements. Here is what Microsoft told me when I asked about the new Pen and older Surfaces:

  • Devices that (eventually will) support new Surface Pen enhancements: Surface 3, Surface Pro 3, Surface Pro 4, Surface Book, Surface Laptop, and Surface Studio.
  • Pressure levels: All the devices mentioned above will see improvements "up to" 4,096 levels.
  • IAF: All devices mentioned above will see "fine-tuning" of IAF.
  • Improved latency: All devices mentioned above will see improved latency.

While these advances are coming, they are not here today – at least not completely. In my usage of the new Surface Pen on the Surface Studio and Surface Pro 4, I noticed an overall increased sensitivity and reduced IAF – there is just less effort needed to use the Surface Pen. That experience is like the new Wacom Bamboo Ink pen, which is a cheaper alternative to the Surface Pen.

However, I did not see any appreciable improvement in latency on the Surface Studio. That is very likely because the Surface Studio – like other Surface devices – still needs a firmware update to optimize the drivers.

Seeing as Surface Studio and the new Surface Pro share the same upgraded Pixelsense accelerator chip, I expect parity between those two devices at some point for all of these features.

Tilt support and shading is a different story. We may only see a few of the newer Surfaces get tilt support with the Surface Pen "later this year" through a software update. Tilt support is already enabled on the new Surface Pro, but it is not yet clear which older Surface devices will also join the tilt club.

Why all the confusion?

Microsoft has at times been vague about the details of the new Surface Pen, and the feature set is apparently spread out across devices. My educated hunch is that Microsoft is going to push a driver update for the new Surface Pen in the next few months, but because it is still being worked on the company does not want to commit to specifics. They know this new Pen can do more, but just how much more on older hardware is currently fuzzy.

"Improved latency" is great, but the new Surface Pro and Surface Studio have a new Pixelsense accelerator that lets them achieve 21-millisecond latency. Improved latency on older hardware likely means between 40 milliseconds for Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book and 21 milliseconds.

The same rationale applies for IAF, which will be "fine-tuned," and the levels of pressure, which may increase "up to" 4,096. These are improvements, but it remains to be seen just how much so. So you shouldn't think the new Surface Pen is as good on older Surfaces as the new Surface Pro 2017.

Bottom line: Wait ... for now

If you are on an older Surface, getting the new Surface Pen is a mixed bag for now, and it's best to wait. (The Surface Pro 1 and Pro 2 used completely different pen tech, so they won't see any such improvements.)

Surface Pens

Surface Pens (Image credit: Windows Central)

The best days of the new Surface Pen are still ahead. When Microsoft releases its new Pen driver and firmware, you will see even more improvements enabled on older Surface hardware. That does not mean the $99 is still worth it, but that is a personal decision you will need to make.

See at Microsoft Store (opens in new tab)

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.

  • How about the parallax effect? Does the new pen imrpoves it on Surface Pro 3?
  • Parallax Effect is about the distance from pen tip to actual pixels under the glass. A new pen cannot change the thickness of the digitizer or glass. So I'd say the answer is no. If you're referring to latency (where the line trails behind the pen) then that's unknown for SP3 at this time.
  • No tilt for the SP4? Well to hell with that. At least the Pro 4 pens will get cheaper.
  • I suppose it could change later, but so far, that's what we've been told. Best to wait and see. Ofc, not even the new Wacom Bamboo Ink pen supports tilt.
  • While tilt support would have been nice on the SP4 (current owner here), my biggest question is does using the new pen on the SP4 slove the jitter problem that the SP4 pen still suffers from? When I upgraded from the SP3 to the SP4, the pen did have some modest improvements, but there was still a bit of jitter when drawing diagonal lines very slowly (especially near the middle of the screen).  For taking notes or for artists who do mostly fast-strokes it's not an issue... but for me it's really annoying. I did the jitter test on the new pen on a new SP2017 and it passed easily.  The pen is amazing with that setup... I am finding it hard to justify upgrading my high-end SP4 to the more expensive equivalent SP2017 model.  Yes, the i7 runs quiter, and  there are other nice improvements, but if I can just buy a $100 pen and breath a bit of life into my SP4, I can holdout until the SP2018 or 2019 gets released.
  • I dunno, I've heard mixed things about jitter e.g. slow drawing a line using a ruler even on new Surface Pro. Seems to just be a thing with N-Trig and I have not heard that this was solved much.
  • based on my own testng, and early videos on youtube, new pen + new SP = no jitter.  I didn't have a plastic ruler with me, but videos on youtube showed this test with good results as well.  Any shift/jitter was caused by inadvertent motion of the hand or ruler.  The pen stroke apears to stay on-point based on my own testing and the videos I've seen.  The few comparison's I've seen put it on par with the Apple Pencil as far as overall performance and accuracy... which is a pretty high bar. There was one video about some wierd behavior where the stroke would intermittently get REALLY wierd, but that was an outlyer that was likely caused by a software bug or a defective unit. Admittedly, my testing wasn't exhaustive... I didn't try OneNote or many other programs.  I tried Sketcable (Which I believe has stroke smoothing), and I tried old-school MSPaint, which definitely doesn't have stroke smoothing.  My results in MSPaint convinced me that jitter problem has been fixed.
  • This is why Surface no longer come with pens. All the current users probably have a multitude of them by now. Why bundle it when the previous updater can still use their previous pen, and if the person really really wanted those few features that only artists would probably notice, then they would purchase it. However, the downside is exposure. Now Microsoft is downplaying their pen input AGAIN.
  • If that was the logic, the price of the tablet would have come down. Instead it went up.
  • You assume all costs remain constant, and they don't. The bill of material costs on the new surface pro may actually be higher than before, so dropping the pen is a way to keep the costs down.
  • Also they are not making the new SP any cheaper than previous models, even without the pen
  • Giving the cost of the Studio I'm glad the new pen will be fully supported eventually. The big question going forward is what version of the pen will come free in the box? Giving it's a new product here in the UK it's a bit of a kick in the teeth to drop up to 4K+ on a device only to find the accessories supplied are out of date.
  • Good point about the included pen for Studio, no idea.
  • If they aren't ashamed of removing the pen from the Pro 5 yet raising the price, I'm pretty sure they'll put in the cheaper pen on the Studio
  • I feel that the SP3 pen with latest Insider Update is underperforming with detection of touch. It's not a change in latency time. But it seems to be trying to avoid accidental touches. Microsoft has increased the time required for software to react when you first start making a line or start writing. Once started, there are no issues. But the first touch/mark starts with a delay now. As an example, try writing 5" (5 inches) in OneNote. You'll need to zoom in to write correctly.
    Edit: Missed my main point. Lol. I wonder if the update is to accommodate the new Pen. Which in turn resulted in lowering performance of the older ones.
  • Thanks for the article and investigation this is exactly what I needed to know, I will wait for the firmware/software updates. Q: Can the pen be paired to 2 devices at the same time or only 1? (example SP4 + S3 using the same pen)
  • Only one device for BT pairing, but that is only needed for the quick-launch button. You could use the pen on any Surface and just start using it/drawing without pairing at all.
  • Cool thanks!
  • Another question I haven't seen answered: Will the new pens use the same interchangable pen tips as the old one? I found when I changed to a different tip the feel of the SP4 pen felt MUCH better for my use.
  • Good question and yes, the are interchangeable.
  • Thanks.
  • No clip?! How am I supposed to clip it to my Surface cover when I run to a meeting? Boooo! That was its best feature.
  • Get a cap for it, with a clip.
  • I wish they could thin it down a little, that's something you hear from Pro-Artist reviews, that long term use with this thicker pen gets uncomfortable. The jury seems to be out on their slow-line jitter problem. Still waiting on the Pen to even be available here in NZ (the Surface and keyboard are). Can't seem to get an answer on when it will be.
  • When I looked at the new pen, I heard that right now only two apps support tilt. Photoshop and the built-in sketch pad. For now I will stock with my gen4 pen until more apps support tilt.
  • Clip studio , Painter support tilt.
  • When you say tilt support & shading will come to SB, does that include the original model or just the performance base version? Same question for the other expected enhancements/improvements compared to the Pro line.
  • Thanks for the comprehensive report, Dan. I was curious about how the new Surface pen would work on the SP3. I sure as Hell won't be paying for the new Surface Pro 5 what Microsoft asks for it without the pen included so I did consider getting just the new pen. I think I'll wait a while indeed for Microsoft to first deliver all the updates (well, and the pens) and then I'll see the reviews.
  • So, almost just like the surface dial. Still waiting for the onscreen dial support on the surface book. At least the new Surface Pro shows what that experience looks like on a smaller screen than the studio. I want it 😭
  • Is there anywere an overview which device does support the Surface Pen? Things like Asus Transformer, HP X360 ...
  • so there is still a little hope for tilt support on SP4? ... :)
  • You can't even get a new pen anyway (at least not the color of your choice). Can't even pre-order on Microsoft's website. And the silver one is even out of stock online.
  • Hey Daniel how about the Surface laptop?
  • If I'm using an SP4 pen on a SP, does the PixelSense Accelerator improves the latency?
  • What about the Surface laptop?
  • Shame you still have to buy a nib kit (various thicknesses) for £19.99 when you only need one standard nib, this problem has been going on since I bought a surface pro 3 I have the 4 now and still cant get a pack of standard nibs, are there any out there? thanks
  • There's only one side button on this stupid thing.... freakn useless!... Who really is going to spin the pen to erase? Yes tilt is great but ONE BUTTON? There is NO WAY I would go with surface without 2 buttons no matter what other improvements they come up with. It absolutely needs 2 buttons,,,, and a scroll wheel would be handy as well. I find this backward logic hard to fathom.... WAKE UP PEEPS!
  • I have a question:
    Isn´t the new pen scratching the Surface because the "rubber surface" is nearly completely gone?
  • Still waiting for Tilt to come to my Surface Book :'(
    Also wished it would come with two freely programmable thumb buttons like how it's with my Cintiq 24HD Touch.
    I guess one just cannot have it all.