Owners of Tablet PCs understand how convenient and productive using a pen and ink on the screen can be and how it can stimulate the creative process. Working with a stylus and a touchscreen is a totally natural way to interact with a computer and now that we are seeing the availability of ultra-portable computers (UPCs) with touchscreens a whole new group of users are discovering how great this work method is. Pocket PC users have enjoyed many different text input methods for years and the thought occurred to me to see what methods exist for the Pocket PCs "big brothers".
The Tablet PC has very good handwriting recognition integrated into the system that is accurate and fast but even so, some people do not like entering a lot of text by handwriting. I enjoy working in ink on my Tablet PC but when it comes time to enter a lot of text, such as this article, another method is preferred. Sometimes I find an external keyboard or the Tablet PCs inking ability is not the solution for entering text. Owners of non-Tablet devices with touchscreens are in need of some way to ink since they do not have the benefit of the superior handwriting recognition of the Tablet PC’s Text Input Panel (TIP) and a good text entry method is essential to unleash the productivity of these little devices.
This article is not intended to be a detailed review of the methods discussed here, rather an overview to give the reader an idea of methods that can help productivity. With that caveat read on for the entire article.
Overview of entry methods
This article is ignoring the fact a user can always connect, either by cable or wirelessly, a full-sized keyboard. There are a lot of times that whipping out a keyboard is not convenient nor prudent and you really need to enter data using a stylus on the screen and it is this situation I am addressing with this article. Looking at all the options for getting text into your computer you find that the methods can be lumped into four different program categories: on-screen keyboards (OSK), handwriting recognition, speech recognition, and alternative on-screen keyboards. We’ll take a look at each category in the hopes that you can make an easy choice.
Tablet PC owners have a very good on-screen keyboard available all the time. The TIP keyboard is easily selected with the keyboard icon which pops a complete keyboard onto the screen for tapping all the keys you want. A virtual keyboard can provide the convenience of a real keyboard if the task at hand is appropriate for entering text one character at a time. The main benefit of the TIP keyboard is the always available nature of the tool.
Tablet PC TIP keyboard
Owners of UPCs without the Tablet OS do not have the TIP keyboard to fall back on and those users should be aware of the on-screen keyboard that is part of Windows XP. Windows XP has a number of accessibility options that are designed to make it easier for those with disabilities to interact with the GUI and one of those utilities is the on-screen keyboard. The Windows XP on-screen keyboard (OSK) is accessed through the Start Menu under the Accessories menu where you will find the Accessibility menu. There are a number of useful GUI manipulation utilities including the OSK which is a complete replica of a physical keyboard with a number pad and works just like you expect it to. It is just as useful as the TIP keyboard with the comfort of a standard keyboard layout.
Windows XP OSK
If you have a UPC without the Tablet OS you should be aware you will not have a keyboard automatically appear that will make it possible to login to Windows after a reboot or resume. This can be a problem as you might imagine but there is a free OSK from IBM that will appear for login. The IBM Touchboard is a no frills keyboard that you can download and configure to appear with the Windows XP logon screen.
All of these on-screen keyboards do a fine job and offer a good and quick way to enter small amounts of text into documents, logon screens, etc.
Many people prefer handwriting directly on the screen, in fact that’s the whole premise behind the Tablet PC. The handwriting recognition (HWR) that comes standard on Tablets is unquestionably an accurate way to ink text through the TIP and have it converted automatically to text. The text is entered directly into whatever program is running and the TIP makes it easy to correct any words that aren’t interpreted properly. There is a lot of online information about the TIP so I won’t spend much time on it here as I am sure all Tablet owners are very familiar with the use of the TIP.
Owners of other touchscreen equipped UPCs or computers with a digitizer tablet have several options that provide a very solid HWR capability to those devices. The first program we’ll discuss is ritePen from the EverNote Corporation. jkOTR recently reported that ritePen is to be bundled by Sony on the upcoming U750P.
ritePen offers HWR in a very user friendly fashion by letting the user write anywhere on the screen. This is less restrictive than the Tablet PC’s TIP and is actually easier on the smaller screen of UPCs. The program is very accurate and is a capable text entry method that is almost as accurate as the TIP method. The program can interpret both printing and cursive handwriting and like the TIP will enter the text directly into any program. From the ritePen website:
"ritePen utilizes the riteScript™ handwriting recognition engine for accurate and unrestricted handwriting recognition. It understands any handwritten style, does not require learning or training, and allows you to write continuously, in whole sentences, automatically segmenting your handwriting into words and lines.
When ritePen runs on the Tablet PC, its riteScript engine automatically fuses with embedded Windows XP Tablet PC Edition handwriting recognition and provides users with improved recognition results."
Quoted from <http://www.evernote.com/en/products/ritepen/features.php>
This makes the program even useful on Tablet PCs since it is generally accepted that the HWR on Tablet PC 2005 is the most accurate available on any platform. It is nice to get the many benefits of ritePen and still maintain the native accuracy on the Tablet PC. Not that ritePen’s accuracy is shabby by any means, I find it very accurate too. ritePen is a solid performer and one I enjoy using.
ritePen Write Anywhere
ritePen Correction Window
Another HWR option is PenOffice from PhatWare. Pocket PC owners who use Calligrapher will recognize PenOffice right away as it is basically the same program for the Windows platform. PenOffice lets you write anywhere on the screen like ritePen and has a bunch of utilities that makes inking on non-Tablets a real joy. Tablet owners shouldn’t overlook PenOffice either as it also integrates into the Microsoft HWR:
"Now, if you write on the Tablet PC Input Panel, the Microsoft handwriting recognition will be used, however, when you write anywhere else on the screen PenOffice handwriting recognition will be used. In addition to handwriting recognition you also will be able to use advanced PenOffice features such as recognition gestures, PenCommander, spell checker, word document markup, correction window, and others."
Quoted from <http://www.paragraph.com/penoffice/>
Users of MS Word should note that PenOffice provides document markup directly onto the Word documents which is a really useful feature. PenOffice will let you use it without training but for increased accuracy you can tweak the program to your particular writing style. PenOffice is a solid performer and PhatWare is continually updating the program with new features.
PenOffice Word Markup
The last HWR program worth mentioning is PenReader from Paragon Software. PenReader is available for several different platforms from the Tablet PC to Linux. It is a full featured HWR program that has some interesting utilities like the calculator. You can write simple arithmetic expressions right on the screen and PenReader will return the results. PenReader will also work in 28 different languages and has the unique ability to let you work with any two languages simultaneously. That is very impressive so bilingual users may want to take a look at this capable program.
All of the handwriting recognition programs I’ve mentioned work very well and have been around for years so the engine that each employs has evolved into nice stable products. I have tried all of them and find many things I like about each so the thing for each user to do is try the demo versions they offer and see how they "feel" to you. HWR programs are very objective with each user having different likes and priorities in regard to features so try them out before settling on one solution.
A very under-utilized method of getting a lot of text into the computer fast is using speech recognition. This method lets the user speak conversationally into the computer and the recognition engine converts the speech to text and inputs it directly into whatever program is running, such as a word processor. This is very effective given how fast most people can speak versus type and as long as you have a decent processor and memory in your computer is a very efficient way to enter text. Most Tablet PCs have more than enough horsepower to successfully use speech recognition but some UPCs that skimp on the processor or memory may find it very slow to use this method. Speech recognition can be a real boon for users with disabilities that find working with manual methods to be difficult.
Tablet PCs have a decent speech recognition built into the Tablet PC 2005 that works almost as well as expensive dedicated programs. There are two prerequisites that a lot of users often fail to meet that in my opinion are essential to get decent accuracy. A good noise-canceling microphone can make the difference of 20 – 30% greater accuracy than regular microphones and the importance of a good one cannot be overstated. These microphones are available with a USB connection and are relatively inexpensive. Some Tablet PC manufacturers have taken a step to make speech recognition easy without extra equipment by building array microphones into the Tablet. These microphones usually use at least three microphones installed in an array to allow almost complete noise cancellation which makes it possible to use the speech recognition with only the computer. The other thing which will go a long way towards speech efficiency is to train the software. Most speech recognition programs offer the user an enrollment process which can take anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour that trains the software to recognize the individual user’s speech patterns. This training will allow most users to get 90%+ accuracy from the very beginning of using the program and is critical to obtain good productivity. The major speech recognition programs learn over time to recognize less common words and phrases and it is important to give them a few weeks to get the maximum accuracy possible.
The Tablet PCs speech recognition is accessed through the TIP (all text input originates here) under the Settings menu on the right side of the TIP. The first time you open it will trigger a configuration wizard which sets up the microphone and gets you to do a 10 minute training session. You can stop the training at that point and start using the speech recognition but as stated earlier I strongly urge you to complete all the training exercises. Once you have trained the engine it is a simple matter to jump right in. There are indicators to let you know how the recognition is going while you speak. With any speech recognition program it is important that you don’t "chase the recognizer", or in other words don’t wait for the recognized text to appear in the document before moving on to the next spoken passage. All the engines use a lot of CPU computations and sometimes there is a lag between speaking a sentence and seeing it appear on the screen. Waiting for the text will end up frustrating most people and have you speaking unnaturally in fits and starts. Just speak like you would to another person and let the program do its thing and you will be happier.
Some Tablet PC users (and those without the Tablet OS) find their usage requires a dedicated recognition program that has a lot of speech utilities in addition to the recognition stuff. There are two long time players in this arena, Scansoft’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking and IBM’s ViaVoice which is also sold by Scansoft. Both programs are very similar with the primary difference being in correction techniques and computer control capabilities that let you speak menu commands to work with the computer strictly by speech. This is important for the disabled users I have already mentioned. The two programs can provide accuracy of greater than 98% when properly trained and used for a while making them incredibly productive for bigger text entry jobs.
NaturallySpeaking offers an additional training method that has the program scanning all your email within Outlook to determine your writing style which is totally automatic and helps the accuracy get jump started in the beginning. ViaVoice is a very capable program too and you can’t go wrong with either choice. Unfortunately there are no demo versions for either program so it is best to look for reviews online and get feedback from users of each program to make a purchasing decision. NaturallySpeaking retails for $199.99 but you can find cheaper deals online. ViaVoice retails for $189.99 but the good deals are also online. Note that both of those products come with USB microphones of good quality which bumps up the price. Of all the text input methods discussed in this article speech recognition is the most productive by far and shouldn’t be overlooked.
The last category of input methods is the alternate on-screen keyboard genre that provide the OSK with a specialized key layout to speed up text entry. All of these methods require practice and can take several weeks to get the proficiency up to a level where the user is comfortable using them for extended periods.
One of the longest running keyboards is the FITALY keyboard, which has been around for touchscreens and PDAs for years. The FITALY layout is designed to place letters in such a way to minimize the travel of the stylus while inputting words. Entry rates of 50 words per minute are not that uncommon with the FITALY keyboard and users who get proficient with this keyboard swear by it. Text is entered by tapping the letters in a word in order and the speed comes strictly from the key placement. The software is priced at $39 for the Windows version.
Another alternate keyboard program is AlphaTap which uses a special key layout coupled with "stroking" for entry. Words are entered by sliding or stroking the stylus over the letters that spell a word until the word is recognized by the program. Stroking has an advantage over methods that require you to tap out the letters by turning the text entry into a fluid motion which some people find easier. The program costs $39 but there is a Lite version available which is free. Interested users should download and try the Lite version before purchasing the full version to make sure you are comfortable with the method. I have not used AlphaTap so I cannot offer further insights into using the program and for this reason I do not have any screen images to publish. The AlphaTap website doesn’t have any screen images up for some reason so you will have to download the free version to see what the keyboard looks like. I hope they rectify that in the future as it is important for users to see what the interface looks like for any utility like this which is a personal decision on the user’s part.
MessageEase is a unique text entry keyboard in that the key placements are not only in a layout designed for fast entry but commonly used letters are larger than others. The keyboard is totally resizable on the screen which can even allow entering text with a finger on passive digitizers. A lot of users swear by this method that has even appeared on electronic devices for use with mobile phones. The MessageEase website has a number of demos available to help the prospective user determine if this method will work for them. Like most methods a healthy learning curve is needed to get a level of proficiency with the program.
The many looks of MessageEase
The last input method I want to mention is the free IBM Shorthand Aided Rapid Keyboarding (SHARK) program. Words are entered by stroking over the letters in a word in one fluid motion and the program then recognizes whole words at a time. I find that SHARK can be learned in just 30 minutes and provides very fast text input. I have previously published an in-depth review of SHARK so I won’t get into the details but will simply state that SHARK has become my preferred method of text entry after the HWR of the Tablet PC.
SHARK keyboard with onscreen indicators
SHARK is free and can be downloaded from the IBM website and a video demonstration of the unique method can be found here.
My experience has always been that text entry methods are a very personal choice and it is up to the individual to investigate the alternatives before making a final choice. Whenever possible get a demo version that lets you use the method and see how it feels, with all the various choices it is certain you can find one that works for you. I use three different methods in addition to a wireless keyboard: Tablet PC TIP, Tablet PC Speech, and the SHARK keyboard. These methods allow me to get information into my PC quickly and easily. I am sure there are other methods that I am not aware of so if you have any to add please let me know.