Handwriting on the Computer: Windows Journal & Tablet Input Panel

First there was handwriting on paper. Then, typing on paper with a typewriter. Then, typing on a keyboard that resembled a typewriter’s, that showed up on a computer screen. And now—handwriting on a computer! Have we come full circle?

The History: from the Keypunch Machine to Tablets

Until fairly recently, the only way to get information into or out of a computer was to use a keyboard of some kind. From creating punch cards with a keypunch machine (which is how I "programmed" the first computer I ever used) to today’s wireless input devices, everyone had to learn to type. Some people learned to do this with all their fingers and without looking at the keyboard. Others learned to use one or two fingers and looked for every key they pressed. But it was all typing in one form or another.

Katie Keypunch - International model 032 (c.1941)

In recent years, the new-found popularity of tablet and touchscreen computers and tablet input devices has meant that people don’t have to learn to type if they don’t want to. It’s just as easy to write on a pen-enabled computer as it is to write on paper. This is just one more way the computer is evolving to meet people’s needs.

I got a tablet input device for practical reasons. I’d been using a trackball for several years, and my wrist, which already had some problems, was beginning to hurt more and more. My daughter, who’d had wrist problems of her own, suggested that I should try using a tablet and pen instead of a mouse or trackball. My only experience with tablets was in the days when I was selling computers, when tablets were fairly large and bulky, were used for high-end graphics, and cost roughly an arm, a leg, and one’s first-born child. Times have changed!

Using Windows Journal on Tablet Input Devices

Just a very short time after I bought the tablet, I was asked to write a series of tutorials on Windows Journal and Tablet Input Panel. Why not, I thought, since this would force me to learn how to use the tablet for more than just mousing around and clicking on things.

At first glance, Windows Journal looks like the more sophisticated application. You get a sheet of "paper" to write on, and there are pen and highlighter tools to work with. What you write can be saved and shared in several different ways. You can convert your handwriting to text, or leave it in written form. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? And that’s just covering the basics - all presented nicely in this tutorial: First steps in using Windows Journal.

As those TV ads say, but wait, there’s more! You can design your own pages and save them so whatever you write looks the way you want it to. You can send what you’ve written directly to your email program, either as text or as a graphic file. Windows Journal would be great for taking notes in class, because you could use your tablet computer just as you would those good old spiral notebooks that used to be the only "input device" a student had. Learning how to do all these things, is covered in our Using Windows Journal: Beyond the Basics.

Using Tablet Input Panel on Tablet Input Devices

Compared to Windows Journal, the Tablet Input Panel—a small window that slid out of a hiding place at the edge of the screen—looked very primitive indeed. I thought it wouldn’t take long to cover all its features. One tutorial, most likely. My goodness, was I wrong!

As it turns out, Tablet Input Panel is a highly sophisticated application with a simple interface. It does handwriting conversion nearly flawlessly with no special effort on the user’s part (although it can be trained to do better) and the conversion is done while you write. One tap enters what you’ve written into whatever application you choose, so people who have a tablet or touchscreen computer have no real need to add on a keyboard. This makes those computers truly portable and not much heavier than the paper they replace. The advantages for school and business are obvious. We covered the basics about it in our tutorial called Getting started with Windows 7’s Tablet Input Panel.

I’ve been using Palm PDAs for many years, and was pleased to find that the "graffiti" handwriting that they expect is close enough to the way I print already that I didn’t have to learn too many new letter forms. But I did have to print, and I did have to write the letters separately and distinctly, or they’d be recognized as something completely differently from what I intended. I was delighted to find that I could write in my own quirky form of cursive handwriting in the Tablet Input Panel and it would be recognized as exactly what I wrote nearly every time. I could now write smoothly and swiftly on the tablet and not have to go back and fix something in just about every word. Win!
And all this is covered in Windows 7’s Tablet Input Panel: Text Entry and Handwriting Recognition

There were a few things that Tablet Input Panel didn’t always recognize, which didn’t surprise me, since my handwriting has its own peculiarities. It took me about an hour to go through all the personalization, and after that, I could just write away and be confident that Tablet Input Panel understood what I was trying to do. If you ever need to make it learn your style, read our guide on Training Tablet Input Panel to Work Even Better.

My trusty Palm PDAs had also taught me how to use gestures, so I was familiar with the idea when it came to try them out on Tablet Input Panel, even though (like most people, I suspect) I had to try the gestures again and again till I finally figured out the technique. I managed to learn and then showcase how this is done in Tablet Input Panel: Using Gestures for Speed and Convenience. After that, I was sailing through everything without taking my pen off the tablet. Wow, if only I had had something like that when I was scribbling madly, trying to keep up with what a teacher was saying, and hoping I’d be able to read my notes when it came time to study for the test!

Last, but not least, you can use also a special version of the tool for doing math. How cool is that? At least for the "average" math geek. Even though I did not cover this myself, one of our editors, did go into detail about it, with How to Do Math With Math Input Panel in Windows 7 & Windows 8.

Learned Enough about using Tablet Input Devices?

I’m glad our Editor in Chief Ciprian Rusen assigned me these tutorials, because in figuring out how to explain these things to you, our readers, I learned an incredible amount myself. Now I really understand why the tablet computer is so appealing to so many people. And now, the notion that you have to type or you can’t use a computer won’t be putting up barriers for people any more. I’m hoping you will learn just as much from our tutorials and you will get the best out of these tools great tools: Windows Journal and Tablet Input Panel.