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Hands-On with the Surface Slim Pen 2

Posted October 5, 2021 | Hardware | Microsoft Surface | Mobile | Surface Pro 8 | Surface Slim Pen 2 | Windows


Microsoft’s Surface Slim Pen 2 resembles a carpenter’s pencil and it works even better when paired to Surface Pro 8. But I find it awkward to use, and its vaunted haptics capabilities require some configuration.

So let me address those two issues upfront.

First, the form factor. And seriously, think about this for a moment: carpenter’s pencils aren’t designed for drawing or handwriting, they’re used by woodworkers on worksites to leave temporary marks and measurements. So it’s odd that Microsoft would go with such a peculiar form factor, especially given how awkward it feels in the hand. And I can think of only one reason: it’s flat, so can fit better in a charging well in the thin Signature Type Cover that Microsoft also sells for Surface Pro 8 (and X).

There is at least some sense to that. As you may recall, the inability of previous Surface Pros to protect Surface Pen in transit was always a key complaint, and it clearly bothered Microsoft enough that they changed the design of the smartpen after experiments with ever-stronger magnets failed. But I will at least give them some credit: Surface Slim Pen 2 is ergonomically superior to the tiny styluses we see on some other PCs and smartphones. Those devices are almost unusable.

My second complaint is tied to the only major new feature that Surface Slim Pen 2 has compared to its predecessor, its new haptic motor. The promise is compelling: Slim Pen 2’s haptic motor, in combination with a new Microsoft G6 processor (available only in Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio) and vague “new capabilities in Windows 11,” is supposed to provide the best-ever smartpen writing experience. It’s so good, Microsoft says, that it creates a sensation that feels like writing on paper with a real (non-digital) pen.

And I’m here to tell you that, yeah, it actually works. But it took me a while to get to this determination because Surface Slim Pen 2, inexplicably, wasn’t configured correctly on my review Surface Pro 8 for whatever reason. At first, I was pretty sure that the pen was broken because I couldn’t get that haptic feedback—and the resulting pen on paper feel—to work at all. Or that I was, perhaps, not using a compatible application. But I spoke with another reviewer who had experienced the same issue, and he advised me to go into Pen & Windows Ink settings (in Settings > Bluetooth & devices) and turn up the haptics all the way. (Naturally, this feature is called Tactile signals in Settings, and not haptics, and you turn it up by using an “Intensity” slider.)

(And yes, you can disable haptics—sorry, tactile signals—if you prefer that as well.)

And when I did that, I could feel the haptics motor kick on inside the pen for the first time. Progress! Excited, I opened up Microsoft Whiteboard, which by this point was full of my non-haptics-based scribbles, notes, and drawings, and tried anew. And barely, briefly, I experienced that pen-on-paper sensation. And then it went away. Over a period of several minutes, I only experienced it one or two other times, and both times only temporarily. This suggested a software problem to me, and, dejected, I returned to Settings to see if there was anything else I needed to configure.

And there it was. For reasons I can’t explain, Surface Slim Pen 2 was configured for my left hand. But I’m a rightie, and when I changed that option, it started working fine. Yes, the haptics are still too low for my tastes, even at 100 percent intensity. But they do work. Voila!

(By the way, haptics do require a compatible application. As of this writing, those applications include Adobe Fresco, LiquidText, Shapr3D, Sketchable, Microsoft Journal, Microsoft PowerPoint, Microsoft Whiteboard, and Microsoft Word.)

With those observations out of the way, I can move on to more good news. Because, other than the awkward hand feel—to me—Surface Slim Pen 2 works great.

For starters, I love how it fits and stays, magnetically, in the charging well in the Signature Type Cover (though I of course still wonder why a normal Surface Pen couldn’t have done so as well). It’s easy to remove and put back, and the grippy magnets ensure a perfect fit every time. A pleasant white light on the Slim Pen 2 barrels pulses when you put it back, so you know it’s charging. (If you don’t have a Signature Type Cover, you will need to purchase a Surface Slim Pen Charger for $34.99 to charge the pen.)

As with previous Surface Pens, Slim Pen 2 supports 4,096 levels of pressure and 77 degrees of tilt on most recent Surface PCs. It also supports a new feature that Microsoft calls Zero Force Inking, by which the PC senses the pen hitting the display and instantly provides Digital Ink (assuming you’re bringing it down inside a compatible application). This previous version of this feature was called Zero Force Activation, but now it has been adapted specifically for those times when you intend to write or draw.

Slim Pen 2 also has a sharper pen tip than its predecessor, which I’ve never used beyond a quick demo. This helps create finer points when drawing or sketching, and cleaner text when taking notes. And as with previous Surface Pens, the top of the Slim Pen 2 acts as a digital eraser, further blurring the lines between this device and the pencil it emulates.

So yes, overall, Slim Pen 2 works great. I no longer have an Apple Pencil around to compare, but this seems buttery smooth to me. And if you’re drooling over Surface Pro 8, especially, and expect to use it for art or note-taking, I strongly recommend giving it a shot.

On that note, Surface Slim Pen 2 costs $129.99, or about $30 more than a standard Surface Pen. Some have griped about the price increase, but the original Surface Slim Pen costs even more, at $144.99, despite not being as capable. And Apple also charges $129 for its 2nd-generation Apple Pencil, which is a huge advance over the original, which still costs $99 too: Microsoft matching Apple’s pricing makes sense to me.

Surface Slim Pen 2 only comes in a matte black color. And it is compatible with a wide range of Surface PCs and devices—seriously: Surface Laptop Studio; Surface Pro 3, 4, 5 (2017), 6, 7, and 8; Surface Pro X; Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2; Surface Go, Go 2, Surface Go 3; Surface Hub 2S; Surface Laptop 1, 2, 3, and 4; Surface Studio and Surface Studio 2; and Surface Book 1, 2, 3, as well as any other PCs that support Microsoft Pen Protocol (MPP)—but remember that you only get its haptics functionality and pen-on-paper feel if you have a Surface Laptop Studio or Surface Pro 8.

Just be sure to configure it correctly.

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