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Tablet Musings January 20, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in computers.

Rumor has it that Apple will be announcing a tablet computer next week. As a user of Windows tablet computers for over 5 years now (I’m on my third), I thought I should write something. Perhaps, I should say that this provides me with an excuse to write something… 🙂

I have always owned a convertible tablet pc. In one mode it is a normal laptop, and in the other mode the screen flips around and lays down flat – and I can write on it or otherwise interact with it as a tablet (mine is a >2 year old Lenovo X61T:


How much do I like this? Well… I will never own a different type of computer as long as they make something like this for a reasonable price. The reasons for this are many fold, but I think the big ones are the following.

First, I think with a pen. It is either my age or how my brain is wired, but I need to draw little pictures and arrows to help me organize my thoughts. I like taking a plot I have and writing on it – just the way I did in the old days with my log book, for example. Or if I have to review an analysis paper I mark the PDF up directly with the pen… it is sooo much easier and intuitive than marking up a PDF with Acrobat’s mark-up tools. Due to this feature I’ve almost completely stopped printing out papers.

Second, I lecture. I project my tablet on the very large overhead screen, and write my class lecture notes directly onto the tablet. Given my handwriting this is much easier to read than my chalk-board writing. As an added bonus I don’t get chalk dust all over my a** or dry-erase all over my hand. That last one can be quite an issue, actually, as I’m left handed!

Third is an application called OneNote written by Microsoft. It is part of the Office series. When it came out in 2005 I’d never seen anything like this. The closest that exists now is EverNote and it is still quite a bit different from OneNote. It has replaced the big heavy logbooks I used to carry around. I have close to 4 gigabytes of information in this notebook format now. And it is all searchable (including my handwriting).

As far as I’m concerned, this tablet technology totally revolutionized the way I use and interact with computers, so I’m a huge proponent of it (obviously).

That said, things aren’t perfect. For example, the X61T is both a laptop and a tablet. As a result it isn’t the best it could be for either. The tablet screen could be brighter in laptop mode, and it could have a track pad rather than a joystick. In tablet mode it is carrying along all that extra hardware to be a decent laptop, as a result it is too heavy in this mode. Don’t get me wrong – this laptop is over two years old and at the moment I don’t really feel any desire to buy a new model. Ideally, I’d love a slate computer – this is just the screen and the computer bit – so much smaller. Like a thick pad of paper. And also a light laptop to carry around. Then I could have the best of both worlds. However – this is too expensive. The combination would be well over $3K, and would weight more in my carry-on baggage when I went flying. Also, the X61T is old enough that the very high resolution screen (which makes PDFs look very good) doesn’t have touch. That would be a nice addition for browsing the web.

I have only rumors to go on for the Apple tablet. It sounds like it will have only a touch sensor on the screen – like a bit iPod Touch or iPhone, rather than the very high resolution pen digitizer required for writing. If that is the case this announcement won’t be very interesting to me. However, I’m very much in the minority here – I’ve not met many people who are as passionate about their tablets as I am – and there are a lot of people who own these machines (but many of them never use them in tablet mode at all). Indeed, I worry that a computer you can write on will become a smaller and smaller market due to things like the Apple tablet, and that will only drive the price of my kind of tablet up, eventually forcing me back to paper. 🙂



1. Dave Bacon - January 21, 2010

It’s interesting that you say your handwriting is better on the tablet than on the chalkboard. For most people their tablet writing is way worse than their blackboard writing (though I have met people for which this is not true.) In my own use of the tablet for teaching, for instance, I noticed that it is very hard to get the “size” correct: on a blackboard when I write I know what the size is but when I project up to a screen, I either write too large or too small and at least for the tablet I used my writing was much “shakier” than when I write on a blackboard (err whiteboard as I’m in CS :)) So…what’s your trick? Why do you think you have better luck with the tablet than the blackboard?

2. Gordon Watts - January 21, 2010

Dave! I thought you were a 100% mac guy!

My secret is that you can’t read my chalk board writing, but you can my more carefully controlled hold-the-pen-normally writing. On the chalk board I start out ok, but I quickly end up with letters a half inch high (for example). I rarely use different color chalk. I’m a mess by the end – which makes me self-aware during my lecture. As far as the size of the handwriting on the tablet, I just do it normal size – and when that is projected on a 1280×1024 screen in a lecture hall (like A114) that comes out to be about the right size. Sometimes when I’ve got a smaller screen, I’ll project at a smaller resolution – which makes my handwriting bigger.

But, like the chalk board, there is no secret. I’m sure if I used the board 100% of the time my writing would look a lot better than it does now. And I started doing this because I was writing on transparency, and I didn’t like lecturing in “portrait” mode…

3. Handwritten equation « Life doesn't make sense - February 6, 2010

[…] a comment Go to comments Over at the Quantum Pontiff, Dave is pretty intrigued by MoboMath. Gordon Watts has similar interests in tablets having owned a Lenovo X61T. Similarly, I am pretty interested in […]

4. Tonio - May 23, 2010

I’m passionnate about my tablet but if there no new software and hardware improvement, an apple tablet doesn’t interest me

5. gordonwatts - June 11, 2010

Right – if Apple added the ability to write, that would make it suddenly very interesting. Then the only thing missing would be interoperability of Ink between the platforms.

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