Tablet Note-Taking Fail: The Pen is Still Mightier Than the Stylus

Tablet Fail

Five minutes. That’s all the time it took for me to fling down the HTC Flyer in disgust and pick up my old reliable paper notepad. I had brought this new 7-inch Android tablet with me to Mandarin language class because I hoped it would help me take better notes in addition to syncing the audio of my teacher and classmates with my writing. But the Flyer thwarted me at every turn.

First, as I leaned on the bezel to write I noticed that it was accepting input from my palm instead of the pen as it popped up a virtual keyboard and a context menu while I was just trying to write. I looked down at one point and I was back on a menu page rather than on my note. Worse, when I later tried to play back the audio I had recorded, my teacher sounded like a Dalek drowning in a vat of boiling chocolate while the noise of the pen hitting the screen drowned him out. Unfortunately, the Flyer is just the latest example of note-taking tech gone wrong.

The digital pen ought to be mightier than the finger, the keyboard, or the bic, but the reality doesn’t live up to the hype. In December, I was similarly disappointed with ASUS’s Eee Note tablet because of its poor audio recording and lack of basic features such as OCR (which the Flyer doesn’t have either).

Pen-based tablets that focus on note-taking should be the next big thing. Everyone from students to office workers to factory workers needs to take notes on a daily basis. Paper is inherently bad—it’s easy to lose, has no multimedia component, and isn’t searchable. The Livescribe Echo Pen is a device that records audio and your strokes while you write on paper, but it still uses paper. Keyboard input limits the user to set lines and spacing that doesn’t mimic the way students take notes or teachers draw on whiteboards. And capacitive finger input is just too imprecise, as are capacitive pens that simply mimic a finger’s capacitive charge.

The world is waiting for the ultimate note-taking tablet, complete with an active stylus that allows for accurate, pressure-sensitive strokes and software that really empowers note-takers. Here’s what we need:

  • Total Touch Rejection: When I’m using the pen, the tablet should not accept any input from my hands. Even if I accidentally lean on the home or back buttons, those touches should be ignored until I put the pen away.
  • Accelerometer Rejection: Don’t you dare change the orientation on my tablet while I’m trying to write something. Disable the accelerometer when I’m using the pen.
  • Audio That Really Syncs With Text: I should be able to tap a word that I wrote and hear the audio snippet from a few seconds before and after that word was written.  I thought the Flyer was supposed to do this, but apparently I was just dreaming because hitting the play button just cycles through the entire recording and scrolls down the notes page while doing it.
  • A Good Microphone : My $80 Olympus voice recorder can detect voices across the room, even when it’s buried in my pocket, so why can’t a $500 tablet? The recording software should also be able to filter out the sound of the pen hitting the screen.
  • No Lag: Even with fancy N-Trig DuoSense technology and a speedy processor, there’s still some latency when you write on the Flyer. The ink should appear immediately when the pen touches the screen.
  • Built-In OCR: It’s not enough to simply store notes as graphics files and force users to employ an external tool such as Evernote to convert them to ASCII text. The tablet’s built-in software should offer the option to do OCR on your notes to make them fully searchable and indexable.
  • Pagination: The tablet should store notes as separate “pages” that a user can flip through. The concept of one endless scrolling page that follows the pen is unnatural and uncomfortable. Let me flip to the next page when I’ve filled this one up.
  • Built-In Stylus Bay: I should be able to snap the stylus into a port on the tablet chassis so I won’t lose it. HTC completely ignored this concept on the Flyer and made it much too easy to lose the pen.
  • Stylus Should Come Standard: Selling a note-taking tablet such as the Flyer without its pen is like selling a large-screen TV without a remote control. If the pen costs a few dollars extra, then build that into the price, but don’t gouge users on the cost of the stylus  just so you can cover the cost of the tablet. Fujitsu uses the same DuoSense technology as the HTC Flyer, but charges $23 for an extra stylus. HTC charges $80 for a stylus and doesn’t even include one with its $500 tablet. Lame!
  • Screen Flexibility: Maybe this is beyond the capability of current technology, but I’d like to write on a tablet that actually feels like paper by offering some give. Using a stylus on a hard plastic screen is like trying to sign a cement wall.

We can hope that Microsoft provides more of these features in Windows 8 or that upcoming Android devices such as the ASUS MeMo 3D get this right. But right now, we’re still left wanting.

If tablet makers take note-takers seriously, they will provide these features and have a chance to do something that the iPad can’t. Or they can keep fooling around and giving us new reasons to visit the stationary store.


AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. Noah Says:

    I am a high school student, and i totally agree! i wish that tablet makers would make great note taking devices for students

  2. JonGl Says:

    “The world is waiting for the ultimate note-taking tablet, ”

    That’s because the world rejected it when they had it, and now they don’t know what they’re missing. The Apple Newton MessagePad was an amazing note-taking device. I used it constantly for taking in-lecture notes, and during conferences, etc. It does outlining, as well as deferred ink recognition (if that’s your bag). The best part was that if you wrote really fast, you could simply write in any blank spot on the screen, and the text would go where it belonged. When you notes fill up, you draw a horizontal line, thus starting a new note, and just keep going (your page requirement). Now, what did it not do? touch-sensitive and simultaneous audio recording (both processor and storage issues), but considering this was in 1997 (the MP 2×00 series were best for this), one can’t expect everything. The biggest shame is that computers have moved on, and it’s near impossible to get them to communicate with modern computers. But still, you can have mine when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers…http://www.geekculture.com/joyoftech/joyarchives/378.html ;-)

    -Jon

  3. dstrauss Says:

    Avram – with the exception of your last request, you just described my HP 2740p convertible tablet with Microsoft OneNote. Granted, it is not a nice slim sexy iPad-like device. It is a “heavy” 3.7 lb back breaker with a 2.4ghz i5 Core, 256gb SSD (aftermarket) and 8gb ram (aftermarket). The base unit comes with 250gb HD and 4gb ram. No, you cannot buy it for $500-$800, but then again you can’t get a full desktop replacement in that form factor or price. It only has about 3.5 hours per battery, but multiple additional internal and external batteries.

    I’m sorry; you just cannot do any of the things you ask for, today, in a slate form facotr. The Asus EP121 comes closest, but still pushes three pounds and lacks real storage and ram expandability. Getting to nearer to iPad size, the HP Slate 500 has an enemic Atom processor, and worse yet relies on the N-Trig technology, because it is cheap and energy efficient (it relies on a battery powered pen). Vectoring, noise, and poor inking are all trademarks of the N-Trig; go Wacom or go home for now.

    I’ve tried both iPads (with nearly every known note taking app), the Slate 500, and the HTC Flyer – NOT A SINGLE ONE can remotely compare to the HP 2740p (now 2760p) convertible tablet. If you truly want a note taking machine, that is your only choice. Perhaps spmeday King Jobs will annonuce that the digital pen is now acceptable because Applae has “done it right” but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  4. absnbd Says:

    pen based tablet pc has been available since 2002, when microsoft showed off their XP tablet pc edition. Unfortunately, the prices are too high, and the machines are too bulky, so most people even didn’t know there were many different brands of pen-based tablet pc, so they just got brainwashed by Apple ipad. But now, since Intel oak trail platform is available, you can try Fujitsu Stylistic Q550 or Motion Computing CL900, or even Dell Latitude slate (available Oct. 2011).

  5. Kevin Says:

    Avram Piltch, best post I have read on what is need …. excellent! Good comments by all, especially dstrauss. I tried out the Flyer, and was also disappointed – I am hoping the Puccini does much better. I will research he tHP 2740p convertible tablet; Microsoft OneNote is nice, though overly complex product.

  6. Solom01 Says:

    I’ve been using an HP TM2 for about a year that does all of that. It is fairly inexpensive (about $900) and a bit heavy (about 3.5 pounds) but with an i3 processor the battery life is about 6 hours; and since the battery is replacable with a spare battery it can run for about 12 hours. The weight and size is not too different from some of the larger textbooks, and since in most cases you are at a desk of some type when you are at a lecture the weight is really not too important. I also have an iPad and though it is a lot of fun to use when surfing the web or playing a game, you can’t expect a $500 tablet to have the guts needed for what you’re asking it to do.

  7. Chris Says:

    I really would like to try the NoteSlate (www.noteslate.com). If it’s like as it looks, this could be the ultimate low cost note taking device. It’s coming out in June, and i think it will be worth 99 bucks. Anyway, since i’me very interested in digital note taking devices, could someone tell me about an up to date website or a blog that speaks about the specific subject?

  8. lonestarmotorcyclist Says:

    It is my understanding that thw flyer will only take pen inputs if you hold it along the virtual spiral when taking notes. I read that on a forum someplace. If you still don’t like it I would love to take it off your hands!!! :)

  9. Smig Says:

    @lonestarmotorcyclist.

    I’ve just tried holding the flyer in my left hand and gripping the screen with my thumb over the spiral of the notebook.

    It will still detect palm and fingers from my right hand and pop-up the keyboard.

  10. Smig Says:

    I’ve found that the best way to ink is to make sure that I can always feel the edge of the bezel under the fleshy edge of my palm.
    It very rarely launches the pop-up keyboard.

  11. Jonathan Says:

    Does anyone know what’s going on with the Asus EP121? It seems to be discontinued for some reason.

    I would really like to find a decent tablet to use with Onenote. Has anyone tried it on the Samsung Series 7 as compared to any of the Asus products?

    All advice appreciated.

  12. Tek Bahadur Says:

    Hi Jonathan

    EP121 is great for using with stylus and onenote. I am writing this comment on EP121. I used it for taking all the minutes these days, it is just awesome. Samsung Series 7 is as good as EP121. Only draw back of ASUS EP121 is its weight and short battery life.

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