What New Tablets Can Learn From Old Ones: The Power of the Pen

Tablets are all the rage. You may have started with a smartphone to check email on the go, and then to browse the Web and play Angry Birds; then you started wondering if a bigger screen might be even better. The larger screens of tablets are certainly great for videos, reading, and Web browsing.

But what if a vendor emails you a contract, and you want to sign it right there on the tablet and email it back? Or, once you load up all your textbooks, you start wondering if your paper notebooks can live on the tablet, too. And all those PDF manuals would be even easier to read if you could highlight the important bits. Perhaps having a stylus is not as bad an idea as some have made it out to be.

The good news is that you can get many of the old-school pen capabilities on new tablets, including the iPad. I'll explain how. But first, a bit of background.

Wacom Digitizers and Early Tablet PCs

Have you heard old-school tablet PC users rant about how Windows tablet PCs have had these input capabilities for years? And it's true: Wacom Penabled tablets--which enable precision pen input on-screen--have been on the market for over a decade. Windows XP Tablet edition came out in 2002, with an upgrade in 2005, and there was Windows for Pen Computing before that. These tablets were pen-only, without finger-touch controls. Instead, the pen communicates to a built-in digitizer. This allows for precise controls for drawing and more, telling the computer which pen buttons are pressed, where the pen is touching or hovering, and how hard its nib is pressed.

Wacom's line of Cintiq tablets--basically a monitor with pen input--can detect 1024 levels of pressure differences and even tell which way the pen is tilted. These high-end input devices are used by animation studios to design, model, and animate 3D movies, among other things. A 21-inch Cintiq can run almost $2000, in addition to the desktop PC required to drive it.

Cintiq tablet
A Cintiq tablet.
The expense that a Wacom digitizer can add to a tablet PC is no less dramatic, although prices have come down. In the early days, there was at least a $1000 premium for adding a swivel screen and a Wacom digitizer, not to mention the added weight and the hit to battery life. Most options were either convertibles (laptops with screens that flip around and fold down) or slates (lacking a keyboard completely).

Modern Convertibles and Slates

Modern convertibles are coming down in price, and all-day battery life is a reality with low-voltage processors and extended battery options. You can find some less-expensive convertibles targeted to consumers, but they remain bulky and hot, and generally have poor screens. Business-class convertibles aren't in retail stores, but are often highly recommended for their greater durability and better-quality screens. Current front-runners include those by Lenovo, HP, and Fujitsu.

motion c5v
Motion's C5v is targeted directly at healthcare implementations.
There are also slate-style business tablets that lack keyboards. Some support a pen only, and others, both pen- and finger-touch input. But they are primarily used in places like hospitals and construction sites. Made by the likes of TabletKiosk and Motion Computing, these slates are pricey, with starting prices near $2000 and going up from there. Digital artists have also taken an interest in these devices, which pack Wacom digitizers in a more portable package. Only Wacom, they feel, has digitizers with good drivers for accurate drawing, modeling, and Photoshop work.

Older models are also still popular due to their 4:3 aspect-ratio screens, which are better for working in portrait mode. This aspect ratio, abandoned for the widescreens that can play videos without black bars for laptops, is making a comeback in tablets--most notably in the iPad.

Next page: Moving beyond Windows tablets

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