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Handwriting recognition on tablets: what you should know about it

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A lot of you have asked me or commented about a recommendation for a good tablet that can do handwriting recognition. It’s not easy to answer this question, that’s why I thought of writing this post and clarify things a little bit.

Since the beginning of tablets you’re used to see someone holding a tablet PC like an agenda and writing with a stylus. That was until earlier last year, when Apple introduced the iPad.

Slates are not for writing

The iPad marks the beginning of the slate tablets as an important IT niche, but also marks the switch in focus from a utilitarian purpose to an entertainment device (tablets are basically media consumption devices). The most notable difference is that you’re using your fingers, not the stylus any more. Sure you can still purchase tablet PCs and some slates models with a dedicated stylus, but that’s the exception, not the rule. This shift in focus means you can’t write on most slates sold today unless you get special apps, as there’s no real support by the operating system manufacturer. The only notable difference is Windows 7, an OS that’s almost brilliant at handwriting recognition, but sucks at pretty much anything else that’s touch related. It’s quite a paradox.

What’s a screen digitizer and why do I need one

One hardware component that prevents you from handrwrite on a tablet and get your input translated to text is the lack of an active screen digitizer. Digitizing (see Wikipedia definition) is the process of translating an object, image, sound, movement into digital data. A screen digitizer can transform your handwriting into valuable data that can be interpreted at software level and translated into actual text you can save, select, share and so on.

If you have the appropriate app on your iPad or Android tablet you’ll see that you can draw using your finger or a stylus, and even take handwritten notes (see my Tuff Luv stylus review and watch the video at the end), but without a screen digitizer what the operating system sees is a series of points of contact between your finger/stylus and the screen. An active screen digitizer is much faster (it translates movement and sends data to the OS), is more accurate, can detect and ignore your palm for example as you rest it on the screen (as you normally do when you write on a sheet of paper).

Handwriting versus handwriting recognition

Now let’s distinguish between handwriting and handwriting recognition. It’s one thing to draw on your tablet (handwriting counts as drawing too) and it’s a completely different story to get your handwriting transformed into actual text. I use on my iPad apps like Adobe Ideas, Sketch Pad and Bamboo Paper to take notes and handwrite text on various images, but that’s not handwriting recognition.

You can annotate images on the iPad easy and free
You can annotate images on the iPad easy and for Free

Handwriting support in apps or at operating system level

Handwriting recognition involves support from either an app you’re using or from the operating system that provides a text input area where you handwrite. Then in a second or two, depending on your device computing power your writing is transformed into text. If you want to handwrite as a text input method on an iOS or Android device you can try WritePad, a paid app (has Android and iOS versions). On iOS you can only handwrite in the app itself, while on Android you can use the handwriting box instead of the on-screen keyboard.

That’s the easiest way to deal with the lack of handwriting recognition support at operating level. Somy Android tablets like the HTC Flyer and Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet use screen digitizers and custom software to circumvent this limitation. The real solution would be support from iOS and Android for handwriting, but since not many consumers are interested in this feature I doubt we’ll see it implemented very soon, unless there’s interest in attracting more business users.

Handwritten note, but it's not converted to text
Handwritten note, but it's not converted to text

So how can I get real handwriting recognition today?

If you really need handwriting recognition today the best option is to get a Windows 7 slate or tablet PC. It’s the best operating system that gets you handwriting recognition. If you want handwriting recognition on your iOS or Android device search for apps that offer the functionality. As I’ve said above WritePad is one such app, but there are others you can use. You can also get the Lenovo Thinkpad tablet that offers its own digitizer and apparently support handwritten text input all over the OS.

If you only want to annotate images or take notes without converting them to text get a capacitive stylus and download apps for image editing. You can then start inking.

Unfortunately those are your only viable options right now when it comes to inking and handwriting recognition on slate tablets. Things will surely change next year once Windows 8 ships. Until that happens I’m waiting for your questions and comments.

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