Each morning the sun rises up over the east side of campus; long shadows reach like spindly fingers spanning building to building. As the morning breaks, tens of thousands of students march onto university grounds with heavy backpacks containing laptops, chargers, textbooks, notebooks, folders and more. Pupils walk briskly between classes, run to hand in homework on time, juggle multiple notebooks, and combat the countdown clock on their laptop battery. One would think technology companies would be itching to release a product capable of simplifying this routine, lightening the load, and providing an ideal platform capable of conforming to an individual student’s needs. Many of the big names in mobile computing are currently fighting for better electronic textbooks, improved software, and increased mobility; but what if their most capable tool has already been released more then 30 years prior? I speak specifically of the Tablet PC, a niche product that failed to achieve widespread success due to countless factors, factors that still impede adoption today. This seemingly archaic technology is rarely considered relevant beyond the finite scope of the traditional intended market, but it could very well be the best and most underutilized tool available to students today.
The Dynabook project was one of the first strong pushes for mobile computers, which relied on our most natural input methodology our fingers and pens. In 1964 the RAND Tablet was released and banked very heavily on this “natural stylus input,” but it wasn’t until 1989 when this technology gained mobility on the GRiDPad. Microsoft had applied these ideals with their run at what they called “Pen Windows” back in 1992 through the WinPad, but promptly dropped the venture and rolled what scraps remained into Windows CE. Many years later, after the rise of the palmtop PDA, we saw Windows XP Tablet and pen computing brought back into the larger form factor. While most XP Tablet features were injected after the fact, systems still performed quite admirably for those who adopted it. Over the years and iterations, tablet features began to be integrated deeper and deeper into the Windows Operating System, however at the same time these computers faded from the market eye.
Tablet PC Summit Conference – October 1992
As a technology enthusiast, long time tablet PC user, and third year Mechanical Engineering student, I’m here to say that pen computing has been integral to my academic success and that it very well may be the perfect tool for other students in a similar position. Perhaps you were like me in high school and had one big notebook. A singular notebook, filled to the brim with notes spanning every class – simply because you hated the idea of carrying around multiple notebooks. Finding particular excerpts was a nightmare and keeping everything straight was even more difficult. However, once I switched full time to my tablet and electronic ink, I became, quite possibly, the most organized student around with minimal effort.
Realistically, it isn’t so much one particular feature, but rather a combination of several elements that turn this bit of kit into a seamless digital notebook. Notably some of these are specific to my usage scenario, however taken more generally; one can see the widely applicable usages.
OneNote That same note taking software you’ve seen tacked on the tail end of Home and Student editions of Microsoft Office is a sublime utility for organizing your class notes. However, the full capabilities of the purple notepad are seen only by ink-enabled users.
Digital Ink While novelty may fade, utility never loses its luster. OneNote is grand for organization, but without digital ink it stands almost entirely useless for mathematics, physics, statistics and design, along with any form of diagrams, charts or general illustrations. I recognize that such areas of study preclude many disciplines, but for those in the sciences and arts transcription of these notes is absolutely mandatory. For the first three levels of calculus I never had to use single sheet of paper. Upon request, I was permitted to submit homework digitally directly to the grader. Not only do I currently have a digital copy of every pen stroke of notes I have handwritten for every course, spanning several years, but also of every single homework assignment I’ve completed digitally. Granted I was unable to use digital submission for the majority of my courses, but the notes are still retained and highly organized.
The Pen Wacom Stylus Bringing the best to the table in terms of digital ink technology, Wacom Styli are light, multi-buttoned, multi-tipped, highly accurate and lack any internal battery. Imagine drawing a diagram only to realize that elements are high and to the right you could either flip the pen around and erase the offending elements with one swipe of the eraser end cap or instead, hold the side button, select the offending elements and drag them to their rightful place. With the first option significantly more difficult and the other downright impossible with their graphite-based counterparts, digital ink quickly morphed and streamlined my workflow. This seemingly useless, albeit expensive, pen quickly becomes one of the most powerful tools in your holster.
The Sleeve Essentially the Lenovo Tablet Sleeve serves to hold the tablet securely and keep the pen close at hand, but the functionality extends so much further beyond that basic description. Designed to have the tablet slide in with the screen facing outwards, this permits one to use the tablet without ever removing it from the shoulder or case. With a simple swing and a quick retraction of the screen cover, one is given access to all notes, ebooks, as well as the vast expanse of the Internet. I carry little more than my tablet a solid 3.8lb black block on a shoulder strap, a few sheets of engineering grid paper and mechanical pencils in my pocket. No backpack, no textbooks, no notebooks or folders almost everything I could ever need is compiled into my light and portable tablet.
Convertible Tablet While it is rare for me to use my tablet as an actual laptop, it is an invaluable setup. My ThinkPad generally sits in tablet mode, however there are a few occasions where I need it to be a normal laptop be it for CAD, typing, or simply easier browsing. Not only is it great to have that added functionality, but convertible tablets tend to offer significantly better battery life than slates as there is generally the option for a larger battery. I achieve around 13 hours with my x200t in optimal configurations.
I love using my tablet daily and I could never imagine going back to paper notes again. With Windows 8 standing prominently on the horizon, promising better battery life, improved touch control, and even deeper pen integration, the world of pen computing will only serve to improve. As a student, I cannot stress enough how helpful my tablet has been in keeping me organized and while it has earned me a reputation as “the guy with the computer which comes from nowhere” I would never trade it back in for an ordinary laptop. I simply suggest that you consider a tablet as a significant option for academic computing and if you already have, please share your experiences below.