Active Ink is focused on one feature of tablet PCs more than any other -- we are obsessed with the look, feel, and performance of the stylus. Our monomania on the subject of styluses (styli?) can be traced to the fact that our customers will primarily use handwriting, often cursive handwriting, to complete their electronic forms. If a customer's overall handwriting experience is poor, his satisfaction with his tablet and our software will be poor. As a result we demand a great stylus/handwriting experience and we have very high standards.
There are basically 5 methods for digitizing handwritten input on tablet PCs. They are:
- Capacitive Touchscreens using your finger or an aftermarket "dumb" stylus -- This method is found on the Ipad, nearly all Android devices, and a few Windows tablets. It is cheap and it produces poor handwriting results regardless of whether one uses a finger or any ofthe rubbery aftermarket styluses that are available now. Currently, we cannot recommend ANY device that uses a capacitive touchscreen as its sole digitizer.
- Resistive Touchscreens - This older technology can still produce precise input using "dumb" (non-powered) styluses because resistive styluses have narrow tips, not a fat, rubbery tips like capacitive styluses have. A resistive stylus must contact screen to register input, so you cannot float a cursor by hovering the stylus above the screen. Surface feel and pen pressure are typically a little stiffer with a resistive screen than with the N-trig and Wacom systems -- a bit like the feel of a pencil on notepaper -- but many users prefer this stiffer feel. Inexpensive, resistive screens are not as sensitive to finger-flick operations. This technology is only found on two Windows tablets at present -- the Asus t101mt and the Active Ink Scribe. But both of these devices work well with Active Ink and are recommended by us.
- Optical Touchscreen Sensors - This technology, made by NextWindow, is found in kiosk devices, big screens, some peripheral devices for laptops and HP's Touchsmart desktops. It uses optical sensors which scan horizontally just above a screen's surface to triangulate the position of any object that comes in close proximity to the screen. It works well with Active Ink using any kind of pointer, but it's not currently found on tablets. That may be changing soon with the Ipad!
- The N-Trig digitizer uses powered stylus with an internal battery, this system is currently found on the HTC Flyer, the HP Slate 500, the Fujitsu q550, and the Motion CL900. The N-trig system will float a cursor if the tip of the stylus is held just off the screen, but the tip of the N-trig stylus compresses slightly upon contact with the screen, giving it a spongy feel and imprecise feedback, especially when attempting to double click. We have found that the error rate when handwriting with any N-trig stylus is markedly greater than with the Wacom or resistive styluses. An N-trig system will work with Active Ink, but it is not preferred by us.
- The Wacom digitizer - This older, familiar digitizer continues to used today by Motion Computing's higher end devices, as well as by the Asus Ep121. It remains the gold standard for electronic ink. This non-powered stylus does not have a piston-powered tip and will float a cursor when not in contact with the screen. The Wacom stylus is famed for its smooth and natural feel and it is still Active Ink's preferred digital pen.
Tablet PC manufacturers seem to be shying away from resistive touchscreens on their newer models, so the stylus-enabled tablet market is currently split between Wacom devices and N-Trig devices. N-trig seems to be capturing more of the low-end -- presumably because the N-trig technology is cheaper. Unfortunately, the N-trig technology is also inferior -- in our opinion. We've tested the N-trig system on three different devices so far: the HTC Flyer (an Android tablet), the HP Slate 500, and the Motion CL900. While each the styluses of all three can be used on any of the other three, we found that the inking experience varied quite a bit between the three, ranging from unacceptably bad on the HP 500, to mediocre on the Motion machine, to not-too-bad-at-all on the Flyer.
Why does the same system perform so differently on these three machines? We don't know. Perhaps it has something to do with various sensor screens used by each differently-sized machine. All we know is that even when it works well, we really wish it was a Wacom.
Our beefs with the N-trig system are simple. Their metal-tubed styluses are too short and too slick to hold comfortably, causing hand fatigue when used frequently. We have heard that an anodizing problem with the HP 500 stylus caused much of that device's frustrating errors, but we couldn't verify this. All three devices we tried had the same spongy tipped styluses that provided imprecise feedback, resulting in more frequent stray marks and more errors. All three had "flush-mounted" stylus buttons that were positioned in such a way that we frequently hit them by mistake.
All these ergonomic quirks resulted in the simple fact that it took us more time to complete a test form with the N-trig system than it did with a Wacom digitizer or a resistive touchscreen and we found ourselves preferring either one to the N-Trig system.
On a final note, regardless of their digitizing system, we constantly find ourselves turning OFF the touch capabilities of all the devices we use if we intend to do some heaving inking. When touch is enabled, we find that it results in more stray marks on our Active Ink forms. We recommend that you follow our lead as well. Turn off touch whenever you want to lay down a lot of ink with the stylus.