Pen Computing Advice

Home Inspections and the Tablet PC (March 2003 issue)


Pen Computing gets many emails from readers asking advice on mobile computing issues. Recently we received an email asking advice on using a Tablet PC in home inspections. After exchanging a number of emails, we were able to point the reader in the right direction. Looking back, we thought that the information in the emails might be useful to other readers. However, rather than simply publish the emails, we decided to take some literary license and present an imaginary dialog based on the content of the emails between the reader and Pen Computing Magazine (PCM).

Reader: I'm a consulting engineer and I perform home inspections. Currently I use paper forms on which I make check marks and write handwritten remarks while performing a home inspection. I then transfer the information from the paper forms into an Access 2000 database that converts my checkmarks and written notes into an 18-page narrative report. My goal is to save time by switching to a Tablet PC so that I can input the information into my Access database in the field, thus eliminating the transfer process. Can you suggest which Tablet PC vendors I should check out?

PCM: Sure! It sounds as though good handwriting recognition is very important in your application, is that right?

Reader: Yes. I think I want a Tablet PC because I've been told that its handwriting recognition is the best around. During a home inspection I make many handwritten remarks that must be entered into my database. The recognizer must be able to convert my handwriting into text that can go directly into Access 2000. Is the Tablet PC the best product for this?

PCM: The handwriting recognizer in the Tablet PC is definitely the best available. It's a "fusion" (blend) of Microsoft's original development and the Calligrapher recognizer from Paragraph. However, the accuracy of the recognition depends very much on the user. Some users get 95% word accuracy (one word wrong in 20), while other users get 60% word accuracy (eight words wrong in 20), using exactly the same hardware and software. Often there's no obvious difference between the handwriting of the two users - it often looks equally bad or equally good. If you're in the 60% group, you'll spend a huge amount of time correcting every remark that you write. This is why Microsoft tends to de-emphasize handwriting recognition and emphasize "digital ink" in their publicity on the Tablet PC.

Reader: Can I train the recognizer so that it knows how I write my characters?

PCM: No. In order to simplify the Tablet PC user interface as much as possible, Microsoft decided not to include any handwriting training capability in Version 1 of the Tablet PC.

Reader: Can I enter my "home inspection vocabulary" (technical terms and abbreviations) into the Tablet PC recognizer's dictionary?

PCM: Yes, and doing so will definitely improve the recognition. However, entering the vocabulary is a slow, manual process. There isn't yet a user tool for importing an entire list of words into the user dictionary in one fell swoop.

Reader: How can I find out in advance how well my handwriting works with the Tablet PC recognizer?

PCM: The Tablet PC uses exactly the same recognizer as Office XP. That means that by upgrading your software from Office 2000 to Office XP, you can install the recognizer (which is not installed by default) and experiment with recognition without actually buying a Tablet PC.

Reader: But what do I use for a pen?

PCM: You can purchase a Wacom Graphire2 USB desktop digitizing tablet for $100 (see www.wacom.com). The Graphire2 actually contains the same digitizer (pen input) hardware that's in most Tablet PCs. You can connect it to the PC on which you're running Access and experience almost exactly the same handwriting recognition as in the Tablet PC. It's "almost" because while the recognizer is exactly the same, the user interface (what you see on the screen) won't be exactly the same as on the Tablet PC.

Reader: Hmmm. If I can use the handwriting recognizer that's in Office XP, and it works with Access XP (2002), do I actually need Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, i.e., a Tablet PC?

PCM: Actually, no! You just need a "pen tablet" running Windows XP Pro. (Windows 2000 should also work, but you're likely to get the best results by running Office XP on Windows XP.) There have been pen tablets on the market for more than 10 years, long before Microsoft "invented" the Tablet PC in late 1999. In fact, many of the Tablet PCs currently on the market are actually "pen tablets." For example, look at the five Tablet PCs on Fujitsu's website (www.fujitsupc.com). Only one of them (the Stylistic ST4000) is actually a Tablet PC - i.e., a computer with an active digitizer and no legacy ports, running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Three of the other four are pen tablets with passive (touch) digitizers running Windows 98SE, 2000 or XP. The last one is a Windows CE tablet, which is a totally different beast. All OEMs call their pen tablet products "Tablet PCs" (whether or not they actually are) because they want to take advantage of Microsoft's extensive publicity on the product category. Caveat emptor!

Reader: But with all the market focus on Tablet PCs rather than pen tablets, wouldn't I still be better off buying a "real" Tablet PC?

PCM: It depends. If you expect your home inspection application to be relatively stable for up to three years (the typical lifetime of these products), and you don't expect to add ink-related functionality such as annotating documents or sketching, then a pen tablet is a perfectly good solution. There's no need to make your business unnecessarily dependent on a Microsoft "Version 1" product - which is what the Tablet PC is today. Three years from now, when you're ready to replace your pen tablet, there's no question that a "real" Tablet PC will be the right choice. Reader: OK, I'm definitely leaning towards a Tablet PC. But good handwriting recognition isn't the only thing I need. Because I'm working in the field, not at a desk or in a hotel room, I think I may need a "rugged" Tablet PC. What's your advice regarding rugged pen computers?

PCM: There are three main vendors of rugged Tablet PCs and pen tablets in the USA. They are as follows:

WalkAbout Computer
(www.walkabout-comp.com) offers the Hammerhead XRT (configurable as either a Tablet PC or a pen tablet) and the Hammerhead 3 (a pen tablet).

Xplore Technologies
(xploretech.com) offers the iX104 (a Tablet PC), and the GeneSys series of pen tablets.

Getac
(www.getac.com) offers the CA25 and CA35 pen tablets.

All of these rugged computers are relatively similar. They're fully weather-sealed (MIL-STD environmental specs), have 10.4" or 12.1" TFT LCDs, run Pentium III 500-866 MHz CPUs, and weigh 5+ pounds with a full-size battery pack. It's this last specification that is the Achilles heel of these products. You're likely to find that carrying a 5+ pound computer in your arms during a two-hour home inspection is impractical - it's simply too heavy! Most Tablet PCs and many pen tablets are in the 3+ pound range. Also, in a single-unit sale, all of these rugged computers are likely to be $4,000 to $5,000 (versus $2,000 to $2,500 for a "commercial grade" computer). Rugged computers are intended for use where you truly need an indestructible product. One example is emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who may literally throw the computer into an ambulance when rushing to get a dying accident victim to the hospital in time to save his life.

The best alternative to a truly rugged computer is the use of what's often called a "harsh environment case" (HEC) on a commercial-grade computer. HECs are usually made from a kind of molded neoprene, with a zipper around the edge and a very thin plastic "lens" over the screen. A HEC completely encloses the computer, provides some degree of weatherproofing and shock-resistance, yet allows normal use of the pen. A HEC also typically includes hand straps and shoulder straps to make carrying the computer easier. HECs are unique to each model of computer, so they are always sold only by the computer vendor.

Reader: OK, you've convinced me. I don't really need a rugged computer. The cost and weight are significant negatives, so I'll go with a commercial grade product and a harsh environment case. But there's still one more key requirement. When doing a home inspection, quite a bit of my work is done outside or in very bright light, so I really must have a daylight-readable screen. Are any available?

PCM: Daylight readability is a significant problem. None (not even one!) of the initial commercial-grade Tablet PCs have a daylight readable screen. Mostly this is due to cost and lack of demand. There are two common methods of making a TFT LCD readable in daylight. The first requires using transflective technology, which is currently available only in an extremely limited range of sizes and resolutions, and which can add $200+ to the cost of the LCD. The second method is by treating (enhancing) the LCD with an anti-reflective (AR) coating or film, which can add $100+ to the cost of the LCD. None of the Tablet PC OEMs were willing to add this magnitude of cost to their products, mostly because there simply isn't any significant demand for outdoor readability from office-based information workers, the Tablet PC's primary target market.

All of the rugged Tablet PC and pen tablet vendors offer some form of daylight readable screen on one or more of their products, but we've already concluded that you really don't need a rugged computer.

Reader: I really must have daylight readability, so this definitely knocks out the current crop of Tablet PCs from consideration. Are there any pen tablets with daylight readable screens?

PCM: Yes. Most pen tablets are sold into vertical applications such as insurance, healthcare and sales automation, rather than traditional office-based productivity applications. People who use pen tablets work on their feet (like you), both indoors and outdoors, so there is a variety of daylight readable pen tablets available. The best place to start looking is at Fujitsu, since they have greater than a 50% share of the pen tablet market. They're a safe buy.

The Fujitsu Stylistic LT P-600F is a good example of a pen tablet with a transflective LCD. The LCD is an 8.4" SVGA, and the product weighs only 2.7 pounds. Transflective LCDs are particularly good when a significant proportion of the application must be done outdoors. A transflective LCD is by definition a compromise. Outdoors, some of the ambient light is reflected by the screen. As the ambient light gets brighter, the screen looks better (i.e., it looks best in direct sunlight). Indoors, however, only a fraction of the backlight is transmitted through the LCD, so the screen tends to look dim and low-contrast, with muted colors.

The Fujitsu Stylistic 3500S is a good example of a pen tablet with a "treated" transmissive LCD. The LCD is a 10.4" SVGA, and the product weighs only 3.2 pounds. Treated LCDs are excellent indoors, with full brightness, contrast and colors. Outdoors they're acceptable, since the AR treatment significantly reduces the reflection of ambient light from the screen. However, as the ambient light gets brighter, the screen gets progressively harder to read, until it's almost impossible to read in direct sunlight. Since it is almost always possible to shade the screen with your body, a tree, or some other object, a treated LCD is a good solution for a typical 80/20 indoor/outdoor application such as home inspection.

Reader: I like the larger screen of the Stylistic 3500S, and I'm willing to accept a half-pound more weight to get it. You're right, home inspection is typically an 80/20 indoors/outdoors application, so I agree that a treated LCD is a better solution for me than a transflective LCD. And I see that the Stylistic 3500S is available with a harsh environment case. It looks like that's my solution! Is there anything else I need to know?

PCM: One last detail. Remember when we were talking before about the handwriting recognition user interface with Access XP on Windows XP not being exactly the same as on a Tablet PC? Well, there's a just-announced new software product that may actually provide a better user interface than the Tablet PC! It's called "ritePen", from Pen & Internet, a division of Parascript. RitePen is ideally suited for use on the Stylistic 3500S. It allows you to write anywhere on the screen (not just in a defined area like on the Tablet PC), and it can send recognized text directly to your Access database input form. Because ritePen makes use of additional context-sensitive recognition, it may even improve the recognition accuracy further! Check it out at http://www.penandinternet.com/piweb/products/ritePen/ritepen_prodinfo.asp. You can even download a beta version and try it with your Wacom desktop tablet.

Reader: Thanks again for all your help!

Based in Silicon Valley, Geoff Walker is Pen Computing Magazine's Technology Editor and a consultant with Walker Mobile, LLC. Geoff has worked on the engineering and marketing of mobile computers since 1982 at GRiD Systems, Fujitsu Personal Systems (now Fujitsu PC) and Handspring. He can be contacted at geoff.walker@att.net.


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