tablet pc: first thoughts

| 11 Comments | 4 TrackBacks

When I went to the social software symposium that Microsoft sponsored in March, I found myself sitting at a table with Todd Needham, the head of the MS Research's University Relations/Research Programs group (though I didn't at the time know who he was). He was taking notes on a Tablet PC, while most of the people sitting around him, including me and Clay, were using Apple Powerbooks.

As I watched him using the tablet, it occurred to me how useful the pen-based features would be in grading the kinds of documents students hand in to me--there are often diagrams and page mock-ups that I want to write on, and I end up having to either make do with Word's commenting features or printing the documents out and writing on the paper version. Todd and others there had also mentioned how convenient the tablets were when traveling, since they didn't require unfolding and using the keyboard in a cramped seat--instead, you could work with it much like a notepad or book.

Since I had spent a lot of time on airplanes this year, and was in the process of grading a stack of design documents while I was in Seattle, I finally said to Todd, jokingly, that I was experiencing tablet envy. He asked me if I was serious (which I was), and then made me an offer that was hard to refuse. "What if I sent you a TabletPC to try out for six months? Put it through its paces, see what you think, and at the end of that time if you're willing to switch, you can keep it."

It was a no-risk offer, and I was genuinely intrigued by the tablet's features, so I agreed. And less than two weeks after I arrived back in Rochester, a Toshiba Portégé showed up in my office.

Here are my first impressions, after a few weeks of playing around with the new system.

The tablet-specific features of the operating environment are really very slick. I particularly like the Zinio magazine reading software, which lets me read a variety of magazines (purchased one copy at a time, or via subscription) on the screen, and allows me to annotate the pages as I go. Very nice implementation, and ideal for reading on the go.

Microsoft OneNote, the notepad-like environment for taking ink-based notes, shows promise, but it still feels clunky to me. Making sense of folders, sections, pages, etc is less than transparent, and I'm having trouble finding things I've created.

The handwriting recognition, as promised, is remarkably good--even with my chicken-scrach handwriting. However, at least in OneNote, it's not very good at grouping lines of text together, so when I convert my handwriting to text I end up with a bunch of fragments that are then difficult for me to "glue" back together. While I suspect that I could be taught how to do this, it's definitely not self-evident in the interface.

I'm less than impressed with this particular's much too small for me to work with effectively. It's not so much the screen real estate, since I've worked with no problem on a 12" iBook. It's the cramped keyboard, the almost unreadable screen resolution (I'm getting old, but not that old!), and the oddly placed trackpad and mouse buttons, which are constantly forcing my hands into uncomfortable positions. (I should be able to reach the left mouse button with my right thumb, for example, without taking my fingers off "home" position on the keyboard.) The system has no external drives--most egregiously, no CD or DVD drives--which makes it nearly impossible to get software onto it. I've been able to borrow an external CD-ROM from our techs in order to install software, but not being able to read or write discs on the road (or at home) is extremely problematic. From what I can tell, however, other vendors (Dell, Gateway, HP, etc) have much better Tablet hardware implementations.

From an OS standpoint, all the reasons that I'm glad my primary machine were reinforced in the first few days. I opened up the computer, and tested the network connection by going to a few web sites (including the RIT computer registration site, so I could get on the local network). Then, being the responsible citizen that I am, I downloaded all availalble Windows updates (that took about an hour to download and install), VirusScan software (another half hour), and AdAware. On its first run--only two hours after I set up the machine--VirusScan found three different worms on my system. AdAware found seven pieces of suspect software/spyware. Argh!

To add insult to injury, two days after I'd gone through this process, Microsoft released a series of new critical Windows security updates, and RIT barred me from their network until I'd downloaded and installed them. But the Microsoft site was so overwhelmed that it took me half the day to get the stupid updates.

But enough of the kvetching. On to the positive stuff.

I was indeed able to grade design documents in the way that I had hoped, though my understanding is that students without tablets won't see the ink in the native Word doc--I've still got to test that. However, I believe I can dump the Word docs into either Windows Journal or PDF format and still deliver electronic versions of the graded documents to students.

I'm also finding that while I hate the built-in trackpad, I love the stylus. It's wonderful for selecting text on the screen, navigating interfaces, and even playing games. Again, there are vendor-specific issues--the button on the Toshiba pen is placed in such a way that I'm constantly clicking it by accident and changing modes unexpectedly.

I've started using the Tablet for coding data for my grant project--we're using PC-based software called NVivo, which I had been running under Virtual PC on my Mac, with somewhat sluggish results. It runs beautifully on the tablet, and again, using the stylus to select text for coding is very intuitive and easy.

So overall, first impressions are mixed. With a better screen, keyboard, and stylus, I'd probably be more impressed. But the potential is definitely there, and I'm going to continue to play around with features and functions over the summer when I have a little more time to explore.

Thanks, Tood, for giving me an opportunity to try the system out. It's been an interesting process thus far, and it's definitely made me more enthusiastic about Tablets in general and some of the applications running in this environment specifically.

4 TrackBacks

Tablet PCs from Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal (2004) on May 5, 2004 12:28 PM

Elizabeth Lane Lawley plays with a Tablet PC: mamamusings: tablet pc: first thoughts: ...less than two weeks after I arrived back in Rochester, a Toshiba Portégé showed up in my office.... The tablet-specific features of the operating environ... Read More

Liz Lawley writes over at from Bryan Strawser's Weblog on May 5, 2004 1:43 PM

Liz Lawley writes over at mamamusings about her six month experience using a tablet PC: The tablet-specific features of the operating environment are really very slick. I particularly like the Zinio magazine reading software, which lets me read a varie... Read More

Some tablet talk from more signal - less noise on May 8, 2004 12:14 PM

I buy my tablet, and a week later they are all over the news. I'm going to tell myself it is no coincidence. ;-) DeLong points to Liz Lawley's first thoughts about using a tablet. She doesn't have many nice... Read More


I have never tried tablet pc but i think Microsoft too doesn't trust it.
To convince you, read here (

Well, after hearing that story I now have "tablet envy" envy!

Great comments.

Is it a Portege 3500 or M200?

Did Todd install the preview version of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 for you? If not, you might want to try it -- the recognition improves considerably.

You can look at a picture:

If your TIP looks like this then you have a preview version of the next OS release. If it doesn't look like this then you're using the original OS release.

There is a Preview of the upcoming OneNote also. The line grouping is better than the current release in the Preview. Still not perfect, but better.

Lora, it's an M200.

The version of XP on it is not the 2005 preview edition, but I did get a subscription to MSDN Universe, so I'm wondering if that might be on the discs I just received in the subscription. (Of course, without a drive, I can't install it! :D )

I've heard that the new XP Tablet version also puts the pop-up text entry box near the cursor rather than at the bottom of the screen, which would be nice.

Congratulations on entering the Tablet PC world. I look forward to more of your writings about how you use it and what you think are the benefits over a notebook.

Liz - I'm still learning all the neat features on my tablet - but one of the things I'm looking forward to is just what you are talking about - the ability to annotate - including photographs. I, too, will be interested in hearing more about your "non-Mac" adventures. :} K in K

Why not just have students create PDFs of documents to hand in and use Acrobat's annotations ability to draw circles, highlight, comment etc.

If you really love the stylus capabilities of the Tablet PC, there is an applescript hack out there that will turn inkwell on in Panther and allow you to use a stylus on your powerbook's trackpad :-)

I had a prof for computer science last summer who had a tablet and would leave blank pages in his PowerPoint presentations just for scribbling on. It was great because he could ask for input from the class and write things down instead of just flipping a slide and showing the finished answer (which is much less satisfying). Then he would save the presentation with the scribbles and put it up on the class website for "posterity."

I'm also a teacher and would like to be able to annotate student work and send it back all electronically. Therefore, the question dealing with thier ability to view tablet pc scibbles on a NON-tablet pc) or non-tablet pc windows) is important. Can you answer this at this time? Do they need it or not? Also, if scibbles are posted in html or as a document, do they need anything special??

I've been using my new tablet for about three weeks. It took me a while to get use to the franklin covey calander app, but then it seemed to click and it feels like my familiar paper version again. I don't like using Excel on the tablet, but it is good for keeping a current copy of a spreadsheet handy for small changes.I love taking notes and surfing the web on the tablet. And I love the mobility.

We have created a text entry technology for Tablet PCs which is faster and easier to use than the onscreen keyboard or handwriting recognition.

For a short demo of our software product see: (3 minutes)

Our text entry technology, called MessagEase, takes a few minutes to learn and a few sessions to get used to. But once you do, you'll be able to enter everything using a very small area of your screen.




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on May 5, 2004 11:01 AM.

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