Hands-on with Windows 10's new Windows Ink

Microsoft's Windows Ink apps aren't about to revolutionize how we work, but they have potential.

windows ink workspace

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This summer, a spate of new features are headed to Windows 10 by way of the Anniversary Update, Microsoft’s next major revision to the OS. Chief among the additions is Windows Ink, an experience specifically designed for digital pen users.

The full Ink experience is still months away—longer, if you wait on the fruits of Microsoft’s partnership with Wacom, which will reportedly yield a special Ink pen by the holidays. But thanks to the recent, massive Windows 10 Build 14322 that Microsoft released to its Insider beta testers, we’ve had a chance to try out several aspects of Windows Ink, including Ink Workspace, Sketchpad, Sticky Notes, and more. 

windows ink icon

Click the new pen icon to launch the Windows Ink Workspace apps.

If you haven’t actually worked with digital ink before, relax: Windows Ink is an optional way to interact with Windows, in much the same way you can use either voice or keyboard to query Cortana. Many of Microsoft’s existing applications already include pen support in some form or another: Clicking the stylus that’s attached to a Surface Pro 3 or Surface Pro 4, for example, launches a pen-optimized version of Microsoft OneNote. With Ink, Microsoft is making the pen more central, presumably in an effort to convince consumers they need a pricey, pen-enabled Surface tablet rather than a cheaper, more traditional laptop. (And let’s not forget about the pen-centric, $22,000 Surface Hub aimed at organizations).  

The Ink Workspace: A Start menu for Ink

Nothing within Windows 10 insists that you should immediately begin inking, but you’ll probably notice a small icon in the lower-right corner of the screen. Click it (using the mouse cursor is fine) and you’ll launch the Windows Ink Workspace. 

windows ink workspace

The Windows Ink Workspace puts pen-enabled Windows apps at the top, with more granular settings down below.

Think of this as a Start menu for Ink applications. You won’t see any Live Tiles or other notifications in Ink Workspace, but there are several large landing areas to launch pen-specific applications. At this point, that includes Sticky Notes, Sketchpad, and Screen Sketch. 

First, though, it’s worth visiting the Settings menu, where you can configure your digital pen properly. Clicking into the Settings menu via the link at the bottom of Ink Workspace takes you to the standard Bluetooth configuration screen. If you own a Surface Pro 4, for example, chances are your pen is already paired and ready for use. Instead, use the left-hand rail and navigate to the Pen settings, which are far more useful.

If you’re a lefty, like I am, setting up your pen for left-handed use will affect the palm rejection and general performance of the pen. Several other toggles are optional: For example, you can have your device display a small cursor as your pen tip nears the screen. Or you can configure your PC to display a handwriting panel for ink input, instead of displaying a “soft” keyboard, when the keyboard is detached.

The Pen menu also lets you configure what happens when you click the “eraser” button on top of the stylus: Clicking it once launches OneNote by default, while double-clicking saves a screenshot. Holding it launches Cortana, so you can ask her a question. You can modify all these behaviors, if you so choose. One thing you can’t configure, however, is the small, hidden secondary button on the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book stylus—it’s simply not represented in the Settings menu.

Returning to the Ink Workspace, you’ll notice a small array of icons for recently used apps at the bottom of the screen, as well as a link to pen-enabled apps within the Microsoft Store. Right now, the suggested apps are entirely weighted toward drawing, but more may be on the way.

Sketchpad: A richer Whiteboard

If you’re familiar with the Whiteboard interface used in Microsoft’s Surface Hub, you’ll likely notice the similarities in Windows 10’s Sketchpad app. (That is, after you’ve relaunched following the seemingly inevitable crash when Sketchpad is first opened.)

Both Sketchpad and Whiteboard skew toward minimalism: Whiteboard supports a pair of pens, a few digital ink colors, plus a “lasso” tool to move ink around. Sketchpad offers a few more options: You can choose from among a digital pencil, a pen, and a highlighter. Microsoft provides options to adjust the line widths and colors, and the ability to crop the image and share it, but that’s about it.

Windows Ink Sketchpad

Windows Ink Sketchpad allows you a minimal number of pens and tools to illustrate your ideas.

Microsoft’s one nod to whimsy, the digital straight edge it showed off at Build, acts realistically. You can place the “ruler” and then draw, and if your stylus drifts below the edge the line will continue, straight as an arrow. Nevertheless, it’s just a hipster conceit that ignores the “proper” way to ink a line: Click once, extend the line to its endpoint, click again. Having to actually draw said line just seems silly, especially because if you accidentally extend that line just a bit too far your only option is to erase the entire line and start over. On the other hand, the French curve—which apparently will appear in a future update—seems far more worthwhile.

Fresh Paint painting Mark Hachman

I still like Microsoft’s Fresh Paint app for its realistic paint physics, but it’s far more complicated than Microsoft’s bare-bones ink apps.

At this point, the number of drawing apps accessible to Windows 10 users is almost humorous: There’s the classic Paint, of course, and my favorite app, Fresh Paint, which was added as part of Windows 8. In some ways, OneNote offers you a richer experience, as you can annotate your own ink. Now there’s Sketchpad, and the Surface Hub’s Whiteboard app—and those are just the Microsoft-authored applications. 

Screen Sketch: Sketchpad with a purpose

Like may of Microsoft’s applications, Screen Sketch simply repurposes one specific aspect of another app—in this case, Sketchpad, or else the digital inking capabilities of Microsoft Edge.

Windows Ink Screen Sketch

Windows Ink lets you annotate whatever is on your screen at the time.

Screen Sketch allows you to simply take a snapshot of your desktop and scrawl notes upon it, using the Sketchpad interface. It’s all extremely simple, with an implied workflow that consists of launching the app, writing something like “See this” or “Here” next to a circled block of text, then sharing it with a friend or colleague. 

Sticky Notes: Bare-bones note-taking

As far as note-taking is concerned, I lean toward OneNote for the richest experience, and Google Keep when I just want to jot down a shopping list for the store. I’ve never really seen the point of Sticky Notes, which have no apparent permanence and only clutter up your screen. With the new Windows Ink experience, you can simply replace your typed reminders with scrawled notes.

Windows Ink sticky notes

The out-of-focus perspective on Windows Ink’s Sticky Notes is kind of cool, but you can’t really save or act on the note at this stage.

Fortunately, Microsoft appears to have a plan in place to enrich Sticky Notes over time. At its Build conference, Microsoft showed Sticky Notes that could recognize a jotted reminder, and transform it into an instruction to Cortana. I’m intrigued by the capability, though not sure the average user will ever take advantage of this.

At this point, that’s all Windows Ink has to offer. But Microsoft plans to integrate inking more deeply into future revisions of Windows 10, and in more subtle ways. One feature I’m particularly interested in trying out is “drawing” a route in Maps, which will automatically calculate its distance. (A paper route, for example.)

While still a work in progress, the Windows Ink suite of apps and utilities are part of Microsoft’s mission to change the way we interact with our PC—i.e. toting a Surface tablet around a workspace, rather than treating it like a traditional laptop. But Microsoft has spent decades tweaking and massaging apps for the traditional notebook and desktop, and far less time developing a user interface and purpose for pen-based computing. At this point, I’d say that Windows Ink needs a bit more spit, polish, and feedback from users—exactly what the Windows 10 Insider program sets out to do.

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