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Sorry, Geeks: Tablet PCs Still Can’t Beat Regular Pen and Paper

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By writing this article, I have probably put myself on the “hit list” of every Tablet PC enthusiast. James Kendrick runs a great site called jkOnTheRun. Hugo Ortega runs a site at Uber Tablet. There are also a lot of sites that support the UMPC (ultra mobile pc), a mini Tablet PC that has pretty much bombed despite some attractive features. Even though the Tablet PC platform that was introduced in 2002 has yet to become mainstream, it still has a strong cult following.

A Tablet PC is a notebook (sometimes slate-shaped) mobile computer. Its touch screen or digitizing tablet technology allows the user to operate the computer with a stylus or digital pen. Most tablets today allow the user to use the keyboard like a regular notebook, but also allow for the screen to be turned and “folded back” so the unit resembles a notebook. Tablet PC computers usually have less memory and omit other features which similarly priced notebooks have. They are somewhat popular in the business world, where people can substitute their tablet for pen and paper. But is it really a substitute?

I entered the Tablet PC world in May of 2006 when I purchased the first ultra mobile Tablet PC, the Samsung Q1. Writing on this was very uncomfortable since the letters would vector themselves into outrageous shapes if I happened to touch the screen while I was writing. The actual handwriting appearance was completely annoying as the writing would appear “squiggly” as I inked a word, but straighten itself out afterwards. The promising new Sony UX Micro PC series didn’t help the situation either. While the screen on these computers had a resolution that made everything look razor sharp, the actual digitizer (which operates at a different resolution) must have had a total resolution of about 5 pixels. Try inking on it and you’ll know what I mean.

At the end of the year, Fujitsu came out with what seemed to be the perfect pen and paper replacement: the P1610D tablet. Not only was this tablet about the size of a paperback book, but it also employed a technology that allowed the user to rest his/her palm on the screen while writing. Unfortunately, early releases of this tablet had calibration problems and when the processor was very active, inking became quite painful.

Luckily, Fujitsu also released the T4215 series, an active tablet (which requires a special kind of stylus pen) that has a gorgeous (but somewhat grainy) screen, DVD writer, and other attractive features. While the T4215 makes a great notebook (and it is priced far more than other notebooks with similar features), it is just too heavy to take with you and write whenever you want.  Putting it on your lap is also the equivalent of going out in the hot sun and flashing a huge magnifying class on your legs. You get the point!

Two months ago, HP got into the game with its very affordable TX1000 Entertainment PC, which also works as a tablet. Everything looks great until you try and ink on this. The horrifying experience is equivalent to writing on a pad of paper with a pen that is running out of ink. After using this for an hour, I actually considered smashing it against the wall.

Luckily, Fry’s Electronics allows computer returns without a 15% restocking fee. I thought that perhaps I expected too much from this absolute piece of junk and was happy to find out that they had received five returns of the same exact computer that day. To be fair to HP, this computer is advertised as an “Entertainment PC” rather than a “Tablet PC.” It’s entertaining enough if you just make sure to look at the screen at a completely straight angle. Otherwise, the screen looks undersaturated.

My final attempt was an OQO Model 02, which I reviewed very favorably a couple weeks back. The fact that this mini computer didn’t have a slot for the stylus, as well as the slow processor creating lag time when inking, made this computer useless for my inking needs. While I was very impressed with the screen at first, I noticed it looked quite different at other angles.  Luckily, someone on eBay bought it for almost the full amount I had paid. After shipping the unit to the lucky (as long as he’s not using it as a tablet) new owner, I felt a sense of frustration. “What’s next?” I asked myself and the answer didn’t hit me until I arrived at the office the next morning.

I noticed a plain white binder that almost seemed to be trying to communicate to me.  Instantly, my mind had flashbacks of the days before I became a tablet geek: buying smooth, ball point pens; being able to read without having a screen glare back in my face; and knowing that all my writing would be there without having to press a “save” button.

I remembered how much more simple those days were, especially knowing that my notes would be right in front of me whenever I wanted.  I converted my Windows Journal and Microsoft OneNote files into PDFs, and printed everything out that I needed for work. Luckily, I had easy access to a hole puncher. My next duty was to find folder tabs. I labeled one tab “admin,” the other, “tasks,” and another “general information.” I thought of a couple more categories but wanted to keep it simple. I then filed each page under the tab that matched it the most.

While rapidly snapping in the pages, I was reminded of how much time I’ve wasted this past year on Tablet PCs. My life could have been so much more productive had I not purchased  so many tablets, lost sleep over the excitement of their arrival the next day, being frustrated because they didn’t meet my needs, and going through the hassle to return them. I decided to make up for that time by buying a beautiful Sony notebook, the new FZ140E, which I’ll review in another article. I can’t write on this thing, but for a price much cheaper than most of the tablets I purchased, it has a far better screen, a more useful keyboard, a faster DVD writer, more memory, better speakers, etc.   

Some may argue that a pen and paper may be great, but they need something where they can view their most important information wherever they go. This, my friends, is what a Smartphone or PDA phone is for. Every cell phone carrier has at least five phones that have thumb keyboards, organizers, Internet access, email access, word processing, etc. I’m using a Motorola Q right now, which feels like a small bar of thin soap. Before that, I had the Treo 700p and countless others throughout the years. On all these phones, I have installed Microsoft Word-compatible software that allows easy synching between my mobile device and my laptop.

Now, I’ve decided to take it a little further. On the phone, I have put the following folders: Work; Personal; Bills; Blogs; Computer. I’m going to use these folders to put only the most important information I write down on pen and paper each day, such as passwords, information about one of my company's products, how to use certain features of all my graphic design software, etc. I will always have this information at my fingertips and on my computer, whenever I sync the phone to it. For those who want to be more on the cutting edge, you can now sync Microsoft OneNote files with your windows mobile device even adding pictures and sounds to your notes.

Tablet PC enthusiasts are living in a dream world. They may think they are cool by writing on a computer screen with a digital pen; it certainly garners them attention. They may think they are cool because they can use a computer without typing. They also think they are ahead of ordinary geeks because they can velcro their tablets to their car dashboards and use them as GPS machines, or even media players. What good is this if the battery life on most tablets running advanced applications lasts them about as long as Paris Hilton’s singing career? I understand their dream world as I was once a part of it. For now, just give me plain old paper and a nice pen!

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About Daryl D

  • No electronic device will ever replace pen and paper… until maybe electronic paper.

  • griz

    Yup! NASA spent millions to design a pen that could write in space. The Russians used a pencil.

    However, these little UMPCs have a place in my universe.

    They are small enough to carry, powerful enough to run Chinese translation programs, and Chinese speakers can write characters into the translate box without knowing any pinyin.

    Very useful tool for me – better battery life is still an issue.

  • Daryl: use whatever works for you but stop trying so hard to justify your decision. No one else really cares if you use a Tablet, a PDA, or a pad and pen. I’m not sure why you’re so convinced your experience is the ultimate arbiter of the inherent value of the Tablet form factor. Maybe you chose badly in the units you tried (as related to the work you were trying to do).

    I’ve happily used the Toshiba Portege M200 and currently the Lenovo X60t Tablets with none of the issues you’re describing. Both are incredibly light, small enough to use comfortably on a plane, and the ThinkPad is a battery life monster that regularly last 5-5.5 hours.

    Personally I’m not terribly impressed with the UMPC experience either. The OQO Model 01 got so hot you needed oven mitts to hold it and it blue-screened all the time. The Asus R2H is a fully featured unit but is pretty brick-like and runs Vista poorly with sorry battery life.

    I use a Nokia N800 internet tablet every day though. It’s a lightweight, pocket-sized device that’s great for checking mail, doing some light web surfing, reading RSS, and carrying photos, ebooks, music and video. Weighs next to nothing and gets 3 continuous hours from a phone battery (so carrying a spare is easy and cheap). It has built-in WiFi and pairs via Bluetooth with either my Treo or Nokia N95.

    So it seems to me that your approach to managing information, computing, and going mobile don’t intersect well with a Tablet PC or UMPC. That’s cool. Accusing everyone else using a Tablet of being delusional poseurs isn’t.

    Enjoy your binder and pen. Paper and analog ink is a great combination.

  • cr0ft

    Frankly, I don’t understand why people want to ink anything in the first place unless it is to actually draw something. Typing stuff out is many times faster if you know how to type and in the vast majority of situations you always have a surface to put a device down so you can type.

    As for readability, searchability, portability (of content) and plain old neatness, typed text is leaps and bounds beyond the average chicken scratching that geeks wind up doing.

  • Great points, Daryl. No worries about battery life. No worrying about whether a document is saved. And no screen glare. Clearly, manual typewriters are better than notebook computers. (What? Same argument, right?)

  • daryl d

    Good points, Croft. I guess some people like the idea of inking because it makes it more “personal.” By the way, I was correct when I said I would be condemned by geeks everywhere. I got some nasty emails this morning from geeks who acted like I killed a family member or something.

  • Although I have never used any of these devices, except for pen and paper, I appreciate the thorough explanation of each of these tools. I can see how they could be useful, but have to vote for good old pen and paper, too. There is simply no comparison. I’m blogging about this tonight. 😉

  • CMW

    I share your frustrations as a user of TPCs since 1986 on a daily basis. I’ve owned more than a dozen TPCs, and used a dozen more, including the Samsung UMPC Q1P.

    If you want a good experience that precludes your negatives, you need a TPC with a fast processor and at least 1 gig of RAM.

  • Bobby Chapamn

    I dont mind your point of view or your article, as you’ve made some decent points, however to slander the users of tablet PCs just seems odd. We chose a computer and therefore merit your criticism?

    I use a tablet PC and I found the Samsung Q1 to be a fantastic device. It takes very little time to get used to vectoring, and I’ve found that because there is more of an interaction with my notes that I take (this is versus traditional typing by the way) I am able to more accurately recall where the information is within a specific file. And by moving my documents around by hand, I found that I was able to more easily recall where I filed said document.

    Granted this can be done with pen and paper, but try carrying 2 years of notes from weekly meetings with you to your next meeting. I guarantee my Q1 will seem much smaller by comparison, and I can use a find function to find the exact note I’m looking for, even if it’s handwritten or in an audio file. Not to mention that your pen and paper cant get on the internet to research a subject, copy paragraphs to a sheet of paper, site sources, and arrange photo’s in seconds.

    As for battery life, there are some great ways around this. I have an inverter in my car, so I don’t even have to buy a car charger for my Q1. If I’m going to be in the car for more than 2-3 hours, plugging in my Q1 isn’t exactly a deal breaker. This is suffice to mention the extended battery or the MANY universal powerbanks that can be used to lengthen your battery life.

    While I haven’t gone so far as to strap my Q1 to my dashboard, I do use it for maps and media, and I find this is a fantastic alternative to CDs, especially since I tend to walk around doodling pictures and listening to my music anyway. When I get in my car it’s not that big of a deal to unplug the headphones and plug in the car audio jack. Now I can keep running on my same playlist no fuss or swapping devices.

    It’s all about the user’s experience when deciding on a computer. The tablet PC is a remarkable device for me, and it certainly is for many others as well. If you aren’t comfortable using the Tablets, don’t use them. But really there’s no reason to mock or insult those that do use them.


    PS: As for the attention we get from using the Tablet, for me that’s a drawback because I’m not really a social person… but I do have a few phone numbers from women I’ve talked to. “Yeah, you just write directly on the screen. Go ahead, you can jot down your name and phone number.”
    But for the most part, it really is just annoying.

  • matias

    good work Daryl
    You make a perfect article to get traction. You take a “hot” topic in the geek arena, you bash all that made a choise in that respect, and sit to watch the furious responses. Meanwile the links and the pagerank goes up, making your boss happy, geting some google ads credit in the interim.
    You are a very good journalist.

  • bliffle

    There are many options on the road to hyper-integration. For me, the combination of a slim laptop, PDA and cellphone seems to be meta-stable. I’ve tried various convergence devices, but that seems to work best. Even the obvious convergence of PDA and cell has failed (for now) with me as I found both the TReos I tried deficient. That’s OK.

  • I use my Toshiba R15 to take notes in my college classes. I think it comes in very handy seeing as how I can audio record my lectures. The tablet doesn’t seem practical for everyone but for me as a student and future teacher…it just seems right. I have two batteries, a car adapter, and it comes with a good built in microphone. If I am up late at night and trying to do work in our bedroom, I can turn the screen down to keep from waking my husband. I use a ordinary paper journal for writing my daily life. (Want to pass it on to my children some day)

    But other than that, I don’t use paper as much as I used to. Most of my classes are done online. Or at least the assignments are sent in online. So having a computer where I can do the assignment, mail it, and be done…helps. As for my previous life, I lost a lot of my paper notes. True the computer can crash, battery run out, or virus can get into the computer. But if you back everything up…it works pretty well. Besides I never forget my computer. My paper notebooks, yes. My electronic notebook, no. Plus my book bag just got a lot lighter.

    I can see where you are coming from. I wouldn’t use a really small tablet for day to day computing. That seems like an accident waiting to happen. It’s just a matter of perference here in the tablet community. I wish the companies would let people rent the tablets for a while before they actually decided wheither it is right for them. All I know is without mine, I wouldn’t be the same.

    Back to the using a tablet as a teacher. My old high school, which I hope to teach at, uses TVs that can be hooked up to a computer. So all I have to do to teach the class is write down my notes on Windows Journal. Plus do you remember how hard it was for a student to copy down notes from a chalk board? The chalk board is landscape style. Then the student tries to translate that to a portrait style. And for teachers that write notes all over the board at weird angles…its doesn’t come out the same in a spiral notebook. The visual element is not the same.

    Anyways sorry this is such a long comment. Just thought the “professionals” could use the opinion of a “student.” Though I might say that Tablets for high schoolers. Like the experiment they tried at one school, is not a good idea. In fact, high schoolers don’t have the motivation that a “mature” college student would have. Know what I mean? Well I liked your article and its good to get a prospective from someone else so keep up the good work.

  • Bill

    I’m moved by this article. After I finish handwriting this into my HP4200 Tablet (which I have written all my notes into for over a year) I am throwing this out, along with the telephone, flatscreen TV, Xbox 360, my cell phone, and all the other “tech” devices I thought improved my ability to work and play. I’ll be riding horseback to work this week to unplug the office and fire the staff.

  • I’ve used personal computers, large and small, for 20 years now. I’m still waiting for the utility that will replace the stack of 3X5 cards on my desk, for ease of data entry and retrieval. Hasn’t happened yet.

  • bliffle

    Dirk, too bad you missed hypercard on the original Macs.

  • Hypercard was fantastic and ahead of its time, but it was still a one-card-at-a-time stack, not something you could spread across your desk like a deck of cards and seem them all at once. There’s a spacial dimension to 3x5s that’s it just hard to get on a 2-dimensional screen.

  • Carl

    >>Hypercard was fantastic and ahead of its time, but it was still a one-card-at-a-time stack, not something you could spread across your desk like a deck of cards and seem them all at once. There’s a spacial dimension to 3x5s that’s it just hard to get on a 2-dimensional screen.

    Wouldn’t it be great if cards in a HyperCard stack could be viewed like OS X Dock?

  • Mutia

    Pen writes straight from Mind, Fastest possible. That is GOD’s word.

    But some people some how have to waste their Time. That is also GOD’s Word.

  • utk

    Plz try ..Asus EP 121…..and you will be amazed….