Intel gives the deets on how the Universal Stylus Initiative will make digital ink better

Microsoft Surface Book
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
You may not realize it, but the modern stylus is a bit of a mess. The main problem is lack of standardization. Think about it. You can use a mouse, or keyboard, or monitor with most systems — whether they run Windows, Linux, or even Android. But a stylus? That’s tied to a single device. You can’t use the stylus from your Samsung Note with your Microsoft Surface, or vice versa.

Intel, and device makers, would like that to change. A consortium was formed last year to promote the Universal Stylus Initiative (USI), a standard everyone could use to enable stylus support. The details of the technology behind it was explained in-depth at this week’s Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

The USI standard relies on an active stylus capable of two-way communication with the device it’s paired to. The link between the device and the stylus uses “frequency and time division multiplexing.” Put simply, it lets a stylus communicate in particular patterns, on particular radio frequencies. In doing so, the stylus gains many features.

For example — most stylus implementations don’t support multiple users. Input from a second device won’t be recognized, or won’t be accepted properly, because the computer doesn’t know how to read the input from the second stylus. With USI, though, up to six styluses are supported. Each can work over a particular frequency, and communicate with a paired device at particular times, making it easy to separate input.

USI is also designed to enable a high level of functionality. It supports 4,096 levels of pressure recognition, simultaneous pen and touch (i.e. fingertip) use, 9-axis motion sensors, and on-stylus buttons. While the standard itself defines how a stylus communicates, there’s room for others to define what is communicated. So, if a company wants to program particular gestures, or unique new buttons, they can do it within the USI framework.

Why does this matter? According to Intel engineer Alex Erdman, who gave the presentation, it’s all about making use easier and better for users. “We know people often use three or four devices. Each might have its own stylus. And because they’re proprietary, the pens are expensive,” he explained. A standard could “broaden the market, increase market opportunity, and bring the cost down on components as the industry scales up.” It could, in other words,do for the stylus what USB did for wired peripherals.

To make USI possible, Intel is relying on a new driver called Intel Precise Touch, which is loaded when a supported device boots. The current Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book already use this driver. When loaded, the driver off-loads the task of recognizing pen input to the system’s integrated graphics — presumably, Intel’s HD Graphics. Which, of course, means this implementation isn’t going to work with devices that have, say, a Qualcomm SoC.

Intel says the performance impact of offloading touch recognition to the GPU is minimal. There’s no difference in “normal” desktop use. If the GPU is fully loaded, then using a stylus may reduce the GPU’s performance in other tasks by up to 10 percent.

All Intel 6th-gen and 7th-gen processors support the Precise Touch driver. Currently, Intel has developed a Precise Touch driver for Windows, and for Chrome OS. A driver for Linux is reportedly being considered, but Intel hasn’t set a date for its release.

What all this means for you, is that you may soon be able to purchase whatever specific stylus meets your need, rather than relying on whatever came with your device. Opening up the stylus in this way would at least be of interest to digital artists and their editors, who are understandably picky about the tools they use. It might also slash the price on replacement styluses from their current stratospheric heights.

Update 8/17/2016 7:00PM: Intel contacted us to explain that USI can be used with any device, so long as it has a chip that supports the USI standard’s specification.

Product Review

The Nuimo Click’s self-powering control convenience is cool but costly

Smart home devices might be clever, but needing your phone to use them is not. Senic’s Nuimo Click is the set of physical buttons that your smart devices are missing. But these smart, self-powered buttons aren’t cheap.
Computing

Here's our guide to how to charge your laptop using a USB-C cable

Charging via USB-C is a great way to power up your laptop. It only takes one cable and you can use the same one for data as well as power -- perfect for new devices with limited port options.
Computing

Our favorite Windows apps will help you get the most out of your new PC

Not sure what apps you should be downloading for your newfangled Windows device? Here are the best Windows apps, whether you need something to speed up your machine or access your Netflix queue. Check out our categories and favorite picks.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Computing

Windows 10 user activity logs are sent to Microsoft despite users opting out

Windows 10 Privacy settings may not be enough to stop PCs from releasing user activity data to Microsoft. Users discovered that opting out of having their data sent to Microsoft does little to prevent it from being released.
Computing

Intel's discrete graphics will be called 'Xe,' IGP gets Adapative Sync next year

Intel has officially dubbed its discrete graphics product Intel Xe, and the company also provided details about its Gen11 IGP. The latter will include adaptive sync support and will arrive in 2019.
Computing

Intel answers Qualcomm's new PC processors by pairing Core and Atom in 'Foveros'

Intel has announced a new packaging technology called 'Foveros' that makes it easier for the company to place multiple chips together on one package. That includes chips based on different Intel architectures, like Core and Atom.
Computing

Razer’s classic DeathAdder Elite gaming mouse drops to $40 on Amazon

If you're looking to pick up a new gaming mouse for the holidays, Amazon has you covered with this great deal on the classic Razer DeathAdder Elite gaming mouse with customizable buttons, RGB lighting, and a 16,000 DPI optical sensor.
Computing

Intel's dedicated GPU is not far off -- here's what we know

Did you hear? Intel is working on a dedicated graphics card. It's called Arctic Sound and though we don't know a lot about it, we know that Intel has some ex-AMD Radeon graphics engineers developing it.
Computing

Firefox 64 helps keep your numerous tabs under control

Mozilla officially launched Firefox 64 by placing new features into the laps of its users including new tab management abilities, intelligent suggestions, and a task manager for keeping Firefox's power consumption under control.
Computing

Apple MacBook Air vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 6

The MacBook Air was updated with more contemporary components and a more modern design, but is that enough to compete with standouts like Microsoft's Surface Pro 6 detachable tablet?
Computing

Installing fonts in Windows 10 is quick and easy -- just follow these steps

Want to know how to install fonts in Windows 10? Here's our guide on two easy ways to get the job done, no matter how many you want to add to your existing catalog, plus instructions for deleting fonts.
Computing

Email take-backsies! Gmail's unsend feature is one of its best

Everyone has sent a message they wish they could take back. How great would it be if you could undo that impulsive email? If you're a Gmail user, you can. Here's how to recall an email in Gmail.
Computing

These laptop makers produce the most reliable, quality hardware today

If you want to buy your next laptop based around a specific brand, it helps to know which the best brands of laptops are. This list will give you a good grounding in the most reliable, quality laptop manufacturers today.