Getting Started with Windows 7’s Tablet Input Panel

The Tablet Input Panel is a Windows 7 program that looks simple, but is actually quite sophisticated. Fortunately, as with most Windows 7 built-in software, even with its many options it's very easy to use. You'll find it in the Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions. Like Windows Journal, the Tablet Input Panel is designed specifically for use with a tablet or touchscreen device, to make text entry and handwriting recognition smooth and effortless. Tablet Input Panel understands multiple languages and can convert nearly anyone's handwriting to legible text. It's a tribute to its abilities that you can use it in a limited way with a mouse or trackball if you'd like to experiment, and it will still recognize what you wrote.

Tablet Input Panel - What Does it Do?

Have you ever wondered about Tablet Input Panel and what's it good for? As you will see later on in this article, you can use it to write anything you want, or to enter text into a browser address bar, or a username/password field. Unlike Windows Journal, which offers the option of saving what you've written in graphic form, the Tablet Input Panel will convert your handwriting into typed text almost immediately. And what's more, it will do it in multiple languages. If you don't already have the extra languages installed in Windows 7, you can add them from your original disks, or, if you have Ultimate or Enterprise editions, get the Multilingual User Interface packs from Microsoft here. For more instructions about language packs and how to install or remove them, check out this article and the ones recommended at the end of it: Install and Change to a New Display Language in Windows 7 Home and Professional.

Where'd it go?

If you have a tablet or touchscreen computer, or are using a tablet as an input device, chances are good you've seen the edge of the Tablet Input Panel peeking out at you from the left side of your desktop screen.

If it's not there, open the Start Menu, then click on 'Programs -> Accessories -> Tablet PC -> Input Panel'. If you've just installed a tablet or touchscreen device, the Tablet Input Panel may not appear on your Start Menu. If this is the case, click on 'Programs -> Programs and Features -> Turn Windows features on and off'. From there, you'll see Tablet PC Components. Make sure this box is checked and you should be good to go.

Getting it started

There are three built-in ways to open Tablet Input Panel (besides opening it by typing Tablet on the Start Menu's search box). One is to hover over the small part of it that shows at the edge of your screen, which will make it pop out a bit more. Tap on the section you can see, and it will open fully. If you don't want it at the default left-side location, click 'Tools -> Options -> Choose where the tab appears -> Right edge of the screen'.

To dock the panel in another area, tap 'Tools ->Docking ->Dock at Top of Screen or Dock at Bottom of Screen'.

The second way to open up Tablet Input Panel may not be quite so obvious, if you're new to this kind of device. When you place your cursor in a text entry area on the screen, such as the address bar in a web browser or a place where you can enter a username or password, the Input Panel icon will appear. Tap this, and you can enter your text by writing in the Input Panel.

The third way is to create a shortcut to the Input Panel on your taskbar.

It's not there by default. Right-click on the taskbar, choose Toolbars, and select Tablet PC Input Panel.

If the place where the Tablet Input Panel opens on your screen is inconvenient, you can drag it around like any other window.

The Tablet Input Panel also has a virtual keyboard, if you'd like to type instead of write. In the upper left corner of the Input Panel screen you'll see an icon shaped like a keyboard.

Tap it and your keyboard will appear.

The Tablet Input Panel opens up with whichever interface (keyboard or pen) you used last. By default, Input Panel automatically switches to the keyboard when you place the insertion point in a box for entering a password.

Making the Tablet Input Panel uniquely yours

What other options do you have? Tap Tools -> Options and you can see a wealth of possibilities. Let's go through some of the choices you might want to make, so that the Tablet Input Panel works the way you want it to.

The first Options tab you'll see is Opening. Besides the location of the Input Panel tab, which we've already discussed, you can choose which action opens the Input Panel. I would suggest leaving it as the default 'Tap the Input Panel icon or tab' because, if you choose 'Point to the Input Panel icon or the tab', it's all too easy to open up the Input Panel inadvertently if your pen or finger gets too close.

The second section lets you choose where the Input Panel icon appears, and lets you decide whether you want to see the Input Panel tab on your desktop. The Input Panel icon is the little one that will show up when you tap a text-entry point on your screen (see above). You can choose whether you want the Input Panel tab to show even when your pen is out of range. This is not checked by default, and the tab is hidden outside the edge of the screen until you come close to it with your cursor. I've chosen to check this, since the tiny portion of the tab that shows is unobtrusive and with this option I always know where it is located. If you choose 'Show Input Panel sliding open from the tab' (the default) then your Input Panel will slide open when you tap it. If you don't like this motion or if you think it's too slow, un-check this. On my computer, I see no difference at all whether this is checked or un-checked.

If you don't want the Input Panel showing up at all, un-check 'Use the Input Panel tab'. Why would you want to do this? Because the Tablet Input Panel doesn't behave like most other Windows programs. Clicking the red X in the upper right hand corner of the Input Panel doesn't close it. It just returns it to its hidden spot at the edge of your screen. If you want it gone, you'll have to disable it here. When you want to use the Tablet Input Panel again, check the Getting it started section of this article.

The Handwriting tab gives you a couple of options: the width of your line, and how close to the end of the writing line you get before Tablet Input Panel gives you a new line to write on. I'd suggest just playing around with these options and setting them in a way that appeals to you.

The 'Ink to text conversion' tab lets you choose how fast the Tablet Input Panel converts your handwriting to text. The default conversion is pretty rapid, and you may not want it to go quite that fast. This is another option you should play around with till you find settings that suit you.

The Text Completion tab offers you two options. You can have the Input Panel complete your words for you automatically as you write, suggesting what it thinks is the correct word when it can. You may be familiar with this already from other Windows programs or your web browser. It will pop up a list of suggestions, and you can choose the correct text.

You can also have the Input Panel predict what you're going to write next (Predictive text), based on what you've already written. When this works properly, it can speed up your text entry enormously. Predictive text works only in English (US and UK dialects), French, Italian, German, and Spanish. Text prediction in Chinese (Traditional and Simplified) is done on a character-by-character basis.

What is the Insertion tab all about? This is another oddity of Tablet Input Panel. When you first open up the Input Panel, you'll see an array of buttons on the right side of the screen. When you start to write, those buttons vanish and are replaced by a tab on the bottom of the window that says Insert.

This Options tab lets you choose which side of the window the tab appears on, and whether you tap or point to it to insert text. Again, I'd suggest leaving it as the default 'Tap the insert button', because it's very easy to get into Insert mode if your pen or finger moves the wrong way. You can also choose whether you want the Tablet Input Panel to insert characters automatically when you pause, and tell it how long to wait before inserting. This is unchecked by default. It's another option you should play around with to see if you like it or whether it drives you nuts.

On the Advanced tab, you can set the level of security you prefer. Microsoft provides a chart that tells you about the different levels of security here. The default level is Medium-High. If you accept the default, when the Tablet Input Panel senses that you are entering a password, it will switch to the keyboard automatically, but you won't be able to see which keys you're tapping. This isn't a problem with a touchscreen device or a tablet computer, but if you're using a tablet and pen as an input device I honestly do not know how Microsoft expects you to enter passwords with this setting. As we all know only too well, passwords don't show up as recognizable characters on the screen, so you won't be able to tell whether you're typing them correctly at all. I think the best compromise if you're using a tablet input device is to switch to the Medium level of security.

But wait, there's more!

In this installment, we've covered the basics and the options.You've gotten Tablet Input Panel set up and configured to make life easy for you. The next tutorial in the series will go into more detail about writing, recognition, formatting and more, and the third tutorial will cover the more advanced features. So don't hesitate to come back for more info on the tool or check out the articles recommended below.