One of the advantages of the HP Envy x2 is that it comes with a smartpen. How does it compare to Surface Pen and Apple Pencil?
This contest is important because all of these firms are pushing towards a PC future that is more mobile, more connected, and involves more natural interactions. Like touch, of course. But also pen. And understanding how these things compare is very important for those who want or even need such a peripheral.
And the smartpen wars have been heating up since last year, when Microsoft responded to Apple’s iPad Pro and Apple Pencil by releasing a new Surface Pro and Surface Pen that together (and uniquely) offer a faster inking experience thanks to custom Microsoft-designed componentry in the Surface Pro. Microsoft’s claim, at the time, was that this combination was “twice as responsive as the Apple Pencil.”
True or not, Microsoft’s time in the sun was brief: Just weeks later, Apple responded by introducing new iPad Pros that cut the latency of Apple Pencil down to 20 ms. The latency of Surface Pen when used with the new Surface Pro is 21 ms. (And it must be higher on other Surface devices that don’t have the new Pro’s custom circuitry.)
To discover the truth of the matter, I tested the new iPad Pro and Apple Pencil against the new Surface Pro and new Surface Pen a few weeks after Apple’s announcement. And what I found … drum roll, please … was that the two smartpens offered roughly equivalent performance and functionality.
“And the experiences are very similar,” I wrote at the time. “Almost identical, really, excluding that initial hard tap you get with the Apple Pencil. Both devices glide across their respective glass displays, and both offer a fluid, natural experience with no noticeable lag or performance issues.”
But now it’s 2018 and HP has delivered the first Qualcomm Snapdragon-based Windows 10 2-in-1 PC, the Envy x2. And it even comes with its own smartpen, the cunningly-named HP Pen. Given the Envy x2’s positioning as an iPad Pro replacement, it’s reasonable to wonder how the Envy x2 and HP Pen compare to Apple’s entry. And, of course, to Microsoft’s.
In the pro column, the Envy x2 does provide a loop to hold the Pen. This is more important than you might think, as these smartpens are very easy to lose. Surface Pro and iPad do not include any such protection, so HP wins this round.
The HP Pen, unique among these entries, also includes a clip to prevent the pen from rolling off the desk. The Surface Pen is flat on one side for the same reason, where the Apple Pencil is a perfect storm of “fall on the floor, eject cap from end of Pencil, frantically try to find lost cap.” Winner: HP.
Like Surface Pen, the HP Pen offers a few buttons, in this case on the barrel, which let you more easily perform tasks like right-clicking. I very much prefer the faux eraser on Surface Pen, however. Winner? Surface Pen.
Like Surface Pen, the HP Pen is powered by a AAA battery. The Apple Pencil has no removable battery, but instead lets you remove the (non-eraser) tip and plug the hidden Lighting connector into your iPad Pro to charge it. This looks goofy, and has been the subject of ridicule. But it works quickly: You can plug the Pencil in for just a few seconds and then get right back to work. Advantage: Apple.
The HP Pen is the smallest smartpen of the group, and while some may find the large Apple Pencil to be, well, large, I think it feels great in the hand. More important, it feels the most natural. Winner? Apple.
And then there’s performance.
Sorry, Windows fans. This is where the HP limps into last place. Where Apple Pencil and Surface Pen offer silky smooth performance—a fact I reminded myself of this morning by using Apple Pencil again—the HP offers lag and slow performance.
It’s most noticeable if you want to draw. My attempts at drawing with the HP Pen were frustrating, and I was unable to achieve the same straight lines, shading, and other effects that were so easy—so noticeably smooth—on the iPad Pro.
Given this sad showing, I’ll go so far as to say that artists will need to ignore this device entirely. If your primary goal with a smartpen is creative work, consider the Apple or Microsoft solutions. It’s night and day.
For writing, however, the HP is at least usable. It’s still in last place from a lag/performance perspective, but it is workable. And if your goal is note-taking, perhaps in an educational or corporate environment, the HP offers a reasonable solution. The size and weight of the device itself, and the way in which one might hold it, it all seems to work pretty well.
(Note, however, that Surface Pro, unique among these entries, offers the ability to angle the screen back quite far while writing, which is useful. With the iPad Pro and HP, you have to remove or fold back the keyboard cover to write. But some iPad Pro users might have a non-keyboard cover that would achieve a good writing angle; I don’t have such a cover.
Long story short, the HP Envy x2’s smartpen experience is undercut by the laggy performance of the device. No one should purchase this PC for the smartpen functionality. But it’s a nice perk for occasional note-taking and other writing only.