Tablet PC Software Query

As mentioned a while back, I recently obtained a Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet PC, which I've been playing around with a bunch. I like it quite a bit-- the handwriting recognition is a whole lot better than the older Toshiba model I used for a while last year, and the interface works a little more smoothly. Of course, it runs Vista, and the Office redesign is a world of pain, but you can't win 'em all.

There are a couple of things I'd like to be able to do with this that I suspect will require new software. In particular, I'd like to be able to use it to make occasional sketches, and put together lecture notes. I did this previously using the Windows Journal program, which would be really useful if you could export the files as, well, just about any format other than greyscale TIFF. I wrote out a couple of weeks' worth of lectures in Journal before discovering that I could get them into a format useful for students only by first saving them in Microsoft's one-page web archive format, then opening them in Explorer and printing to PDF. This is, shall we say, sub-optimal.

So, my question to you, the tech-savvy readers of the Internet, is: What should I be using instead? A colleague who has a tablet says nice things about Grafigo, particularly the way it turns rough sketches into more regular shapes, and that sounds interesting. Google also turns up things like this article on tablet software, some of which sounds kind of cool (MathJournal in particular), but I'd love to hear feedback from people who aren't professional software reviewers.

So, what should I be putting on my shiny new tablet? Or, to put it in a slightly different form, what should I be asking people to buy me for Christmas to put on my shiny new tablet?


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(Wait, wrong person.)

By Erik V. Olson (not verified) on 23 Nov 2007 #permalink

Of course, it runs Vista, and the Office redesign is a world of pain, but you can't win 'em all.

Are you baiting Kozlowski on purpose?

Are you baiting Kozlowski on purpose?

Would I do that?

I haven't used the new Office much-- just for marking up a couple of drafts of my thesis student's final paper-- but I really don't like their new concept, which seems to me kind of like the reductio ad absurdam limit of context-dependent menus. I want the same options in the same places on every screen, dammit. I don't want to be presented with an entirely different screen layout depending on what I did last.

It wouldn't be so bad if you could customize the home toolbar thingy, but that doesn't appear to be possible. You can add commands to a narrow "custom" toolbar below the main options, but if I load that up with the commands I want instantly accessible, I'm stuck with an inch worth of useless crap at the top of the screen, which reduces my writing space.

As for Vista, the early Mac/PC commercial with the "You are coming to a sad realization" security guy isn't all that far off. I haven't gotten around to disabling that "feature" yet, because it's stopped asking me about the three programs I run regularly, but it's really freakin' annoying to have to keep approving the normal operation of programs I installed. I also got a "Firefox is trying to access the Internet" message ("Yes, thank you, that's what my web browser is for..."), but that was a virus from Norton, and can't really be blamed on Microsoft.

I'm waiting for one or two killer applications for the Tablet PC that haven't been written yet (as far as I know):

1) I want digital smart "paper" for doing math. MathJournal looks like a start, but isn't exactly what I want. When I work on a physics problem, I'm vexed by the constant need to copy stuff from one line to the next, divide by factors, factor equations, substitute variables, etc. I want software that lets me drag stuff around from one side of an equation to the other, logs every step (in case I make a mistake and have to go back), and will let me do all kinds of algebraic manipulations on the fly. I don't need another math software package- Mathematica does most of that for me. What I want is smart, math paper.

2) I want the "smart paper" to interface with Mathematica- so when I need to run an integral, it will call up the Mathematica kernel and do it. It will use Mathematica to plot and graph and all that.

3) When I'm done, I want it to transcribe my handwriting and typeset it (MathML or LaTeX, my choice).

I see this kind of tool as being a huge replacement for the yellow legal pads I currently carry around with me. I could work through problems in class on it, save my work, and print out the solutions for my students. I could replace all of my handwritten calculations with it.

Sorry about the rant, but I really think this is the one application that needs to be on the Tablet, but isn't. Until it shows up, I don't think I'll buy one.

To let people look at my Journal notes, I've installed FreePDF XP, and I just print to PDF from Windows Journal directly.

For annotating PDFs, I've gone through a trial of Bluebeam PDF Revu, which is rather nice in that is has PDF as its native format, so you can (rather) painlessly share with non-tablet users (there's some kind of PDF version issue with old versions of Acrobat). I ended up not buying it because there were numerous annoying little user interface issues that made it feel so much more clumsy than Windows Journal, plus it appeared to be a bit unstable on Vista (crashed twice on me, doesn't have autosave like Journal).

Btw, I've been ranting on the X61 Tablet's manufacturing quality here before. Right now, mine's under repairs because the pen got stuck in its little hideaway and can no longer be coaxed out. Argh.

I like the new version of OneNote for taking and sharing notes, but I've used Journal for classes in the past. It was no trouble to make a pdf and give to the students.

For annotating PDFs I use PDF Annotator. It's ok.

I would like to test drive the other programs mentioned, especially Math Journal...

By Joanna Mirecki… (not verified) on 23 Nov 2007 #permalink

Well, you're crazy about Office, of course. If you think of the Ribbon as a unification of toolbars and menus in a way that organizes commands in a more sensible way, you're basically on the mark. And the context-sensitive tabs always show up at the far right, so they don't change anything that's already there.

As for Vista, just disable UAC. It's an investment in the future by pushing software vendors to get their stuff up to snuff in re not doing privileged shit, but most current software just isn't there yet (Firefox seemed to be a particularly egregious offender), and there's no reason for you to pay the price now for global future benefit.

To the rest, I love OneNote, but I don't know that it's necessarily what you want for what you're talking about. It can export to Word and HTML, but it exports by OCRing your Ink (which it does behind the scenes to enable search anyway), but since you normally are viewing and editing OneNote notebooks as native Ink, you don't really know how it's going to OCR, and it doesn't seem to do as good a job as the regular TIP, so the exported documents are near-gibberish if they started as handwriting. It does print well, though, so if you install a PDF print driver, you should be fine.

To clarify a bit, in the previous version of Journal that I used, printing to PDF was not an option, because it turned the "highlighter" into an "obliterator"-- all the colored ink that I used to highlight important points of derivations, which worked very nicely on the notes, became solid bars of color obscuring what was written behind them (this was with the full version of Acrobat installed, on the college's license, so it wasn't a matter of using some cheesey third-party PDF printer). The roundabout route through Explorer fixed that, for some reason.

I'm not wild about PDF, anyway. It works, but honestly, I'd be happier with GIF or JPEG as an export option.

Mike Kozlowski: Well, you're crazy about Office, of course. If you think of the Ribbon as a unification of toolbars and menus in a way that organizes commands in a more sensible way, you're basically on the mark.

It organizes commands in what somebody at Microsoft thinks is a more sensible way. I'd be ok with it if I could customize the "Ribbon" to contain the commands I want to have one click away, and get rid of the stuff I never use. For example, I find Word's auto-generated lists and outlines to be way more trouble than they're worth, so I don't particularly want those buttons in the "home" command set, but I frequently add symbols and equations, so I would like to have the Equation Editor and Insert Symbol buttons in there.

I can add commands to a custom toolbar, but that just chips away another quarter-inch of valuable screen space. Meanwhile, the top inch of the screen is taken up with a "Ribbon" of commands, 90% of which I never use. And the default command set doesn't include buttons for "Save," "Undo," or "Print," which is crazy. That's fine if you're using it with the keyboard, and can do control-key shortcuts easily, but it makes it difficult to use in tablet mode.

Save and Undo are in the shortcut bar in the title bar by default, aren't they? And print can be put there if you need it to be one click away instead of two.

As for the lack of tons of customization, well, they have reasons for that, and independent of their reasons, I think customization is a mug's game. The more I optimize one particular computer to work exactly how I want, the more problematic it is for me to actually change anything.

I have a prof at UChicago who lectures using journal and a projector from his laptop. Some how he just saves from journal to PDF, but he never uses the highlighter but pen colors are exported just fine.

As for office...the real solution is LaTeX and emacs.

I'm waiting for good open source support for tablet before I bother to look at them closely.

That math paper sounds cool, but I can imagine it going wrong on so many ways (I now have to look for where either I or the computer dropped that &#$@ constant)

By a cornellian (not verified) on 23 Nov 2007 #permalink

A colleague wants to use tablets in the classroom, and the complaints you have get doubled when the goal is to get students in a college algebra class to work with it. The software just is not there yet.

What are the odds that V$ta was designed to make a competitor's software, like Firefox, work poorly? The only evidence against this hypothesis is that the new Orifice runs like CrapWare (TM) as well. Our college did a really quick reverse install after some tests in August, and a local company is making lots of money putting XP on new machines so companies will not see all of the speed and memory of a new computer used up just running the o/s.

Like Chad, I find it strange that the new 'improved' versions of Orifice seem designed to reduce productivity by hiding common actions in odd places. I suspect it simply reflects what M$ employees do when they are not working on a linux box rather than what most users do with it.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 24 Nov 2007 #permalink

another vote for OneNote - it's really the best software for keeping notes, sketches etc. and has decent conversion to text ability.

You can also try basic tricks like using MS powerpoint, when you view full screen you can draw on your slides - the same thing works with empty slides, obviously.

I've been using a OneNote 2007 (on an HP convertible tablet running Vista) to take class notes and do my homework this semester. I found this OneNote to .pdf converter the first time I needed to send out meeting notes to a group of people who didn't have OneNote

but it would do strange things to my homework (parts of equations like numerators, powers, upper limits on sums and/or integrals would get broken across pages, or would show up both before and after the page break). Then I found this article

This fixed most of my problems (I think one time I got a blank page in the middle of an assignment from the exporting process). As far as stability, I think the program has crashed twice when I was using it, but it came right back and recovered right up until the crash point.

I never installed the rest of Office 2007 (tried it on a machine at school and didn't like it), and when I need to I use Office 2003 (mostly for Excel). I do nearly all word processing in LyX