This may seem like a totally off-topic post for this site. But twice over the last year I asked readers for advice and suggestions about Tablet PCs, which they liked or didn’t like, whether they found them useful, etc. I got a slew of very candid and helpful emails, in which many of you shared your experience and so forth. So I wanted to take a moment to report back on my experience to repay the favor.
If this isn’t a subject that interests you, by all means, hope down to the next post for more of the standard TPM fare.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about, a Tablet PC is basically a laptop that is only a screen — no keyboard. Instead of using a keyboard to input commands and text, you use a special pen that ‘writes’ on the screen. The computer then interprets your handwriting and converts it into text or simply stores it as your handwriting. In the later case it’s pretty much like using a paper tablet. The screen has a virtual lined piece of paper and there you have all your words and doodles and all the rest.
I wanted to get one for two reasons. The main one had to do with how I keep notes. When I was more of a full-time reporter back in the earlier part of this decade I had a whole system in place for how I took my reporting notes. I typed them all into Word documents as I did the reporting. Any other system I found unworkable since it’s critical to be able to do searches back through what are often copious notes.
But I would still find myself writing a lot of my notes out in longhand on real paper tablets. And more and more so in recent years. The problem was that after a few days all that information was pretty much lost to me because there was no ready way to access it.
So for that and related reasons I wanted to see if there was some way for me to take longhand notes — in a way that really felt and functioned like taking notes on a scratch pad or tablet — that I could save and later access electronically.
The other reason was specific to TPM. I still haven’t really gotten around to it as much as I’d like. But I’ve wanted to do more on the site with posting documents — often public records. And what’s helpful is to be able to actually mark them up to highlight points of interest for readers. So again, my interest in having a way to be able to mark-up or write on electronic documents — images, pdfs, etc.
I got hundreds of emails from readers. And from a mix of their advice and my own research I decided to get the Motion Computing 1400. Some manufacturers make Tablets with keyboards that you can swing into place when you need to use one. But Motion specializes in ‘slate’ tablets, that is, just a screen that you write on. No keyboard. (You can of course attach one separately.) From what I could tell, and from the majority of readers told me, when it comes to slates, Motion is really the premier designer and manufacturer.
(I bought mine from Infocater, which seems to be the best place for buying these things by mail order.)
So how did it go?
Well, in so many words, the technology more than exceeded my expectations. And that’s probably both a comment on the particular hardware I bought and the state of the technology in general. Over the last four or fives months mine has become completely integrated into almost all the work I do. And I can’t imagine not using one.
Having used one for more almost half a year now, I’m actually quite surprised that the technology hasn’t been more widely adopted — a factor, I suspect, of computer economics which I’ll try to touch on in another post.
I don’t think I’d ever want to have a Tablet PC as my only computer. When I write at length I almost always use a keyboard. I’m writing on a desktop with a keyboard right now, for instance. The simple fact is that I can write a lot faster on a keyboard than I can with pen and paper. So when I’m writing a post or working on an article I usually use the keyboard. But for taking notes on a phone conversation or while I’m reading a book or an article or for editing my own writing, I now invariably use the Tablet.
One question I had before I got one is just how well it would be able to read my handwriting. If I had to stylize my handwriting in a particular way or write super-neatly, then that would defeat the purpose. In practice, though, the handwriting recognition is almost amazingly good. I don’t have the worst hand-writing in the world. But my script is certainly not neat. And it can accurately interpret pretty much everything I write — without my making any particular effort to write slowly or legibly.
And the key thing is the computer can quite easily search through your hand-written text for a particular word or combination of words. That for me was really the key, reams of handwritten notes that my computer can search through in a split second.
Here, for instance, is an example from the notes I took for the review I wrote of David McCullough’s new book 1776 in The New Yorker. This is probably neater than my normal note-taking handwriting. But stuff that’s far more of a scrawl the thing can easily get through.
The other thing I find the Tablet most useful for is editing my own posts or columns. In the past I would always have to print them out and then work over them with a pen. Now I just do it all on the Tablet.
Most manufacturers sell Tablets mainly through ‘vertical’ markets, to sales forces, hospitals, etc. So it’s actually quite difficult to find more than one of them on display on at your local computer store. Often there aren’t any. And without getting your hands on one it’s hard to shell out the money since you really don’t know how or how well the things work. I think that’s one of the main reasons they haven’t taken off yet with consumer and non-specialist business purchasers.
(ed.note: I hope it goes without saying. But in case not, I paid full freight for the machine I described in this post. And I received no payment, preference or inducement to write any of the above. Strictly my candid opinion.)