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

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What about those of us just looking to sign a document or take notes with diagrams or other simple drawings? What about all those Android tablets and iPads? With the right apps and the right stylus, you can turn any tablet into a digital notepad.

Choose the Right Apps

I turn to Penultimate ($2) for handwriting notes on my iPad. Penultimate has excellent ink smoothing and good palm rejection (ignoring my hand as it rests on the screen to allow only writing from the pen). Sometimes my palm will leave some stray marks, and other times the app will delete my writing thinking it was my palm, but overall, it's comfortable to use, with options for exporting to PDF and sharing via email. Many other apps also see good reviews; another app that deserves a look is NoteTaker HD ($5).

You can take handwritten notes over a variety of paper styles with Penultimate.

I find the free Maple Paint to be the most frequently recommended app for adding drawings and diagrams, or for writing notes by hand on Android tablets. It supports a keyboard if you'd rather type, and it has many pen tools for the times you need to draw. On my HTC Flyer, I turn to the included Notes app, which syncs to Evernote, but that works only with the n-trig pen (more on that later). Other apps to check out include TabNotes (free to try, $3 to buy) and PenSupremacy ($1.09).

When you need to fill out and sign a PDF form, or just highlight and mark it up, try iAnnotate PDF ($10) for iOS, or RepliGo Reader ($5) on the Android side.

Choose the Right Stylus

A capacitive digitizer (the kind in the iPad and all but the junkiest Android tablets) works when the electrical conductivity of your finger disrupts the current running through the sensor behind the screen. This means the only things a capacitive digitizer can "see" are things that are conductive, like fingers. Special styluses are available that transfer the conductivity of your fingers to a soft foam tip.

The main drawback is that your palm is just as conductive as your finger or the tip of the pen, so it all looks the same to the digitizer, and any palm rejection must be implemented in software. Another thing you lose is pressure sensitivity. That may not matter much for handwriting, but for artists, this can be a deal breaker.

Many cheaper capacitive styluses are floating around, but I have found that they don't register well, or feel sticky on the screen, and don't flow as a pen over paper would. Some higher-quality ones that receive strong reviews include those by Wacom ($30), Pogo ($15), and Targus ($15).

Active Digitizer Options

To overcome the reduced accuracy and lack of pressure sensitivity of a capacitive tablet, consider some options in the dual-digitizer realm. A dual digitizer combines an active pen with capacitive touch. Wacom makes them, but not smaller than 12.1 inches, and the only consumer-focused slate you'll see that digitizer in is the Asus EP121.

N-trig also makes a dual-mode pen and capacitive touch digitizer in two flavors. The older variety became infamous in Dell's initially expensive XT series of convertibles. Subsequent driver updates improved the performance considerably, but first impressions left a sour taste.

N-trig's newer DuoSense digitizer uses a battery-powered pen and comes in a variety of sizes. This cheaper-to-implement solution is finding its way into both Android slates including the HTC Flyer ($499) and the recently announced Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet ($499), and new Windows slates such as the HP Slate 500 ($799), Fujitsu Q550 ($729), and Motion CL900 ($899). Only the Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet and the Motion CL900 have storage for the pen in the tablet.

The tablet market continues to evolve and grow, and the new consumer interest is helping to spur innovation. While old-school digital "inkers" may still not be fully satisfied by the new offerings, many options exist for the casual inker, with many more on the way.

For a trip down memory lane, check out these articles from the release of the first version of Windows XP for tablets in 2002:

Tablet PC: A Sneak Peak

Windows Comes to Tablet PCs

Pen-Based Programs Debut With Tablet PC

Putting Pen to Tablet

Microsoft's History With the Tablet PC

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder HTC Flyer Tablet Computer

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