Those of you who follow our company closely will be wondering why we are reviewing an Android OS device when Active Ink is strictly a Windows OS company. The answer is two-fold: 1) we are constantly barraged with customer inquiries about Android/Ipad tablets, and 2) we are currently testing a web-based version of Active Ink forms that can be accessed by any device with an internet connection.
In theory, these web-forms could be filled out by any Ipad or Android; but it turns out that your ability to fill them out is constrained by the type of device you are using. If your device has no pen and has no ability to recognize handwriting, you can only interact with a small subset of the e-form features that you can access on a traditional tablet PC with an active digitizing pen. Since the Ipad and the Android tablets do not offer handwriting recognition and most do not offer styluses, they fall into the “limited subset” category. You can use their virtual keyboards to fill out type-in fields, operate menu pull downs, and select check boxes, but you cannot write notes on top of images and you can’t sign your name to an e-form. This is because the Ipad and Android’s touchscreens interpret fingertip or stylus wiggles as an attempt to scroll the image, NOT as a writing input.
Even with those limitations in mind, we decided to test the HTC Flyer ($499) because it is one of the few Android tablets that comes with its own digital pen (a $79 extra) and software to support it. We wanted to see if this device and its pen could be put to an Active Ink use. It turns out that it can’t. While we liked the Flyer and its pen, this is not a device that can be used to complete an e-form containing any complexity -- meaning with signature fields and note fields. This is because the Flyer’s stylus (called a “Scribe”) is NOT a true digital pen or stylus in the traditional sense. It is a unique input device designed to be used with only a few pre-arranged drawing functions with in the Flyer's OS. It cannot be used as a pointer or key operator and it can only write on special pages (such as with the Flyer’s book reader) or on jpg screenshots that the Flyer can save and share. While we can see a myriad of cool uses for these annotatable snapshots, they don’t jive with Active Ink. Most importantly, you can’t convert the Flyer’s handwritten scribblings into text in any program, they can merely be saved as flat images. As a result you can’t sign your name to web-based form using the Flyer, with or without its pen, unless you take a flat "screenshot" of that form after you have typed in most of the fields, saving the signature field for last. Doing this creates a flat, lower-resolution copy of the form, which could be emailed or archived, but none of the inputted data could be extracted.
That said, there are a few positive things that we can point out in this little Flyer. While its screen size is smaller than the HP Slate 500 that we recently reviewed, its workable area, resolution and precision of input all feel less frustrating than that Windows machine. However, this impression is probably due to the fact that the ease of scrolling, page turning, and zooming are all superior to that found a traditional Windows machine, which requires you to locate down a tiny scroll bar, grab it, and slide it with your fingertip or pen.
One of the frustrating points with the Flyer if you are a traditional tablet PC user is the temptation to try to use its pen as an active digitizing pen -- it looks like a traditional two button A.D. stylus so you will find yourself point and clicking your way through pages as if it were a traditional stylus. All this does is create screenshot images of whatever you touch, causing to start over and put the pen down.
Bottom line: Can you use the Flyer (or any other Android tablet) to fill out a web-form? Yes you can – as long as the form requires only typing, menu pull-downs, and check-box selecting. You cannot draw on or annotate the simple forms these devices can handle, you cannot sign with them, and you certainly cannot convert handwriting with them.
These limitations remind us of the world of baseball. If the traditional Windows tablet PC were a baseball player, it would be a versatile triple threat that could hit, field, and pitch successfully. Using Active Ink software these traditional tablets can convert ink to text, provide precise pen input resulting in elegant handwriting, and they can draw on documents or produce real signatures.
In contrast, Android tablets are lumbering designated hitters. They can’t “pitch” or “field” at all, but they’re pretty good at going to the plate with their one specialty. Android tablets can’t use Active Ink software and they can only “see” certain dumbed-down web-based forms, but they scroll well and typing on their virtual keyboards is easier than using a Windows tablet virtual keyboard. If a company had no need for handwriting input, ink-to-text conversion, free-form annotation, or signatures; it could deploy a fleet of Android smartphones to fill out its greatly simplified forms and get by. The question is, will the marketplace demand more designated hitters or more triple-threat utility ballplayers? Time will tell.