Windows 7’s Tablet Input Panel: Text Entry and Handwriting Recognition

Tablet PCs are becoming more popular these days, and for good reason. They're compact and easy to use and can be every bit as powerful as their cousins with keyboards. They're designed to let you write on the screen with a stylus the same way you'd write on paper with a pen. However, most web sites and other software aren't designed to accept handwriting. This is where the Tablet Input Panel really shines--it converts almost any handwriting to typed text your applications can use. In this tutorial we'll learn how to enter text quickly and accurately.

NOTE: As with the previous tutorial, this tutorial applies to tablet computers, touchscreens, and tablet/pen input devices. You can also "write" if you only have a mouse or trackball, but some of the following instructions won't apply.

Let's Write!

Since Tablet Input Panel is specifically designed to let you send your text-converted handwriting to other applications, many of the tools in the Input Panel won't work properly if there is no other application available to send text to. So let's start by opening up Notepad.

Now, open up the Tablet Input Panel by tapping its tab. You'll see a small writing area with a group of black buttons on the right side. In the top border of the window, you'll see the options for writing and keyboard, the Tools menu, and a group of four buttons you may not recognize. These buttons are called "correction video buttons," and what they do is show you little animated clips that demonstrate how correcting, deleting, splitting, and joining text works.

If you don't want those to be visible, the next button (next to the red Close icon) lets you hide or display them.

As you begin to write, the cluster of black buttons at the right will disappear and a button labeled Insert will appear at the bottom of the Input Panel box. If you don't have another application open that you can transfer text into, clicking it will just clear the screen and bring back the buttons. The button might also be greyed out if don't have any other application running, which is why we started by opening Notepad.

By default, the Tablet Input Panel recognizes your handwriting word by word. If you'd prefer to have it recognize character by character, you can switch from the default Writing Pad (Write in freehand style) to the Character Pad. Tap Tools, and choose 'Write character by character'. The writing pad will change to one with spaces in which to write each character. If you choose this method of text entry, be aware that the Tablet Input Panel will recognize each character without considering its context in a word, and you won't have the handwriting dictionary available.

Let's assume you are using the default mode (Write in freehand style). Start by writing anything you like. As you move from word to word, the Tablet Input Panel will convert the previous word to text. (See the first part of Getting Started with Windows 7's Tablet Input Panel, for the settings for text conversion.)

As you approach the end of the line, Tablet Input Panel will add more space. Don't hyphenate words at the end of the line—just start writing the whole word on the next line instead.

When you've written everything you want to write, tap the Insert tab and your writing will appear in the other application.

Making Corrections

Writing on the Tablet Input Panel is just like writing on paper with a pen, and if you make a mistake and want to do the whole thing all over again, you can correct it as you would with a pen. If your tablet stylus has an eraser, follow the manufacturer's instructions for using that. If you don't have an eraser, or don't want to use it, you can have a little fun with the corrections. Draw a line through what you wrote and it will vanish. Scribble it out as you would with a pen, by using M-or-W-shaped lines, circular lines, or angular lines. Just about everything meant to look like a scribble will be accepted as a "delete this mistake" command.

But what if you don't want to do the whole thing all over again? This is where those commands that have their own little animated videos come in. If Tablet Input Panel has run two words together, you can use the Split command to add a space inbetween. If one word has been incorrectly recognized as two, you can use the Join command to put the pieces back together. The very best way to learn how these commands work is to watch the videos. In this case, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words.

If a word is misspelled or recognized incorrectly and you want to fix a few characters, tap the word. You'll see the correction area appear--the word's characters are separated. Look right above the writing area and you'll see several suggested corrections for the word you've chosen.

If one of those is what you meant to write, tap it and the Tablet Input Panel will make the correction automatically. If nothing appropriate appears, just write over the characters that came out wrong. The handwriting recognition is still active, so you may see the whole word change while you're doing this, as Tablet Input Panel tries to anticipate the corrections. If you start to write in the space between two words, Tablet Input Panel will give you more space to write in.

If you are writing character by character, tap the incorrect character and you can then choose the correct one from the list at the top of the window or write over the incorrect character with the correct one.

Once you've got something written and are satisfied with it, click the Insert tab and you'll see your text appear in Notepad.

If you're using Tablet Input Panel to insert text into a program or web page, and after you've inserted the text you see that you've made a mistake, select the incorrect text and it will appear in the writing pane, so you can then make corrections.

AutoComplete and Text prediction

You're probably already familiar with the way AutoComplete works, especially if you have a smartphone. The Tablet Input Panel looks at what you've written, and makes an educated guess at what you're going to write. A list of suggestions will appear above the writing area. To use one of those suggestions, just tap it.

Text prediction is more sophisticated. It takes a look at what you've already written, and anticipates what comes next. The more you use the Tablet Input Panel, the better the text prediction will get. It's only available in English (U.S. and U.K.), French, Italian, German and Spanish. It's also available in the character-by-character mode in Traditional and Simplified Chinese.

It takes a while for Tablet Input Panel to build up enough data to start making suggestions. I haven't used it quite long enough, so I can't illustrate that here. I'll have to keep writing.

If you don't want to use either or both of these features, tap 'Tools -> Options -> Text completion', and un-check the items you don't want.

Using the Number, Symbol, and Web Buttons

Like the Insert tab at the bottom of the screen, the black buttons at the right do nothing if you don't have an application open into which to insert converted text. If you still have text in the Input Panel screen, tap Insert to send it to Notepad. The black buttons will reappear on the right side of the text entry panel. These buttons act directly on the text in the other application you're using. Try tapping them to see this at work.

There are also buttons that open up the Number panel and the Symbols panel. You can have both of those panels open at once, if you wish, and tapping the keys in those panels puts the numbers or symbols directly into the other application. They don't do anything if you have no other application available to send the characters to.

The Web button only works if you've got your web browser open, and includes keys for common components of URLs. Open your browser and place your cursor in the address bar at the top of your browser screen. Tap the http:// button, followed by the www. button, and watch those appear in the address bar.

In the text box, write 7tutorials (or any other website address), correct it if necessary, and tap Insert. Then tap the .com button and the Enter button, and there you go.

More to Come

As you experiment with Tablet Input Panel, you'll see that it does very well at recognizing just about any handwriting and changing it to accurate text. Making corrections is easy, and Tablet Input Panel comes with built-in buttons that let you enter common symbols and web address components with just one tap.

As good as it is "out of the box," there are ways to make Tablet Input Panel even better, and to teach it the ways you write your letters. This is called personalizing, and I'll talk about this in the next tutorial. In the meantime, don't hesitate to check the articles recommended below.