Live HTC Flyer Review: Inking Experience

As an ink blogger, the feature I’ve been most enthusiastic about testing on the HTC Flyer is ink. The Flyer is designed for pen input in a way unlike other pen tablets before it. What I’ve found is the experience breaks out into quantity vs. quality. It’s easy to spill a lot of ink, but it ain’t always pretty.

[Click here for Part 1 of my live review “First Impact”, here for Part 3 “Video on the Go”, and here for my ongoing ink note-taking in Evernote.]

Pen is only for inking

Before I go any further, there’s one critical point about the Flyer’s pen input I should share first: the pen is for writing and drawing only. What that means is the pen cannot trigger any on-screen buttons, except its dedicated one on the bezel and the menu that pops up when that button is touched with the pen. Everything else it does on the screen is ink. This is vastly different from the Windows experience in which pen serves as cursor control, and capacitive tablets, like the iPad, in which a stylus is just a finger substitute. The Flyer treats the pen as a pen. That may not be the ideal solution, but the implementation is smart.

Screen size

I’m a big screen guy when it comes to inking. I started with a 10″ 4:3 slate, moved up to 14″ 16:10 convertible, and then back down a tad to 13.3″. I like a lot of writing space. The problem with that is I can’t exactly pocket one of those machines. The HTC Flyer with 7″ display gives up a lot of writing space, but is easy to carry in my gadget satchel that clips to my belt loops. Jotting notes on the go is almost too easy.

But that small screen forces me to write at a size smaller than I normally do. It also has me working closer to the edges with minimal space to rest my hand. Furthermore, when I do rest my hand, I must be mindful of the touch-sensitive bezel buttons, which are easily triggered if I pull the pen too far from the screen. My handwriting suffers as a result.

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Screen feel

The smooth screen on the Flyer makes it easy to flick through photos and push web pages around. It’s quite a fingerprint magnet, but the touch control is great. I’ve found it to be smoothly responsive. But the pen glides over it like I’m writing on glass, which is literally the case. The tip is hard and smooth. The screen is slick and glossy. The lack of drag allows my hand to fly, but the loose control results in sloppy lines.

Unsophisticated software

The Flyer’s software hits the mark on convenience with quick access to notes and screen markup via the pen. In terms of pen usage, the implementation here is great. Less impressive is the way ink is handled by the software. It is a drawing system, plain and simple. While the integration with Evernote allows for a degree of handwriting recognition (not to the level of a system that tracks line strokes), it only applies to search, not conversion to text.

Another piece missing is line smoothing. Any credit I normally get for the beauty of my handwriting, half belongs to the line smoothing system in Windows Tablet PC software (It’s “my Botox.”). Without it, well, as you can see for yourself in my samples from the Flyer, it’s pretty rough. Whatever problems the digitizer is giving me, I would say the unsophisticated software deserves equal weight for that. I don’t kid when I say Microsoft has a huge lead in pen input technology (that they may be squandering).

Touchy hardware

I know some of you won’t touch N-Trig digitizers, and my experience with it in the Flyer so far won’t sway you away from that. The detection range of the pen is a little tighter than I’m used to with Wacom dual digitizers. I’ve had to be more conscious about keeping the tip close to the screen or have my hand trigger the screen. When jotting notes, I commonly trigger the on-screen keyboard and touch-sensitive bezel buttons by accident.

On top of that, the pen got stuck one day, almost literally spilling ink whenever it came close to the screen and triggering its dedicated button without contact. I did manage to fix it by fully removing and reinserting the battery (the Flyer pen takes a AAAA, included). This did keep me from taking notes until I could stop and sit to do that.

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The pen itself

Other than the “leak”, I’ve enjoyed using the Flyer’s pen. It’s a bit thicker, which I like. I was concerned about the smooth metal finish and slightly stunted length, but it turns out the grip and length work fine for me. Hard for me to judge the accessibility of the highlighter and eraser buttons. They work for me, but I’ve had a lot of experience with side buttons. It could be easy or I could be used to it.

The only deficiency I would note is that, without a garage or tether, the pen needs a clip. If it’s to be held in a pocket, it needs a clip to help hold it there. I added a clip by fitting it with a cap, but it really should be built-in.

Simple is good

While it might seem like the negatives stack up against the Flyer’s inking experience, they really are minor in the larger scheme. The pen is limited in purpose, and the software focuses on notes and mark-up, but that adds up to ease of use and access. There is room for improvements, but the critical thing is HTC is headed in the right direction with their implementation of pen on the Flyer. If you want clean lines and cursor control, stick with a Windows tablet. But for ease of use and intuitive interaction, the Flyer nails it.