Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet Review: Working With The Stylus
Hardware-wise, the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet is similar to other Honeycomb tablets on the surface — same CPU, RAM, display resolution, and basic functionality — which is why there’s so much intense interest in one of the features that makes it stand out: the stylus.
This isn’t the first Android tablet to come with a pen, but is the first on a Honeycomb model in the U.S. It costs an extra $30, so is it worth adding to the ThinkPad experience? Read on to find out.
If you’ve ever used one of Lenovo’s convertible Windows-based ThinkPad tablet notebooks, the design of the stylus should be familiar. Given that Lenovo is an old hand at this, it’s no surprise that the metal stylus is comfortable to hold and use. It’s solid and just weighty enough to feel substantive and not like a toy. The red tip unscrews for inserting or replacing the AAAA (yep, they make them that small) battery and also has a notch for the included loop.
The reason for the battery is that the stylus and display actively communicate with each other. This technology, powered by NTrig, is superior to many capacitive stylus devices I’ve tried. Not just for the responsiveness, but also because you get a fine tip. Most other styli that work with these displays have a rounded, rubbery tip like this Kensington model. They’re a fine replacement for a fingertip, but don’t give as much precision as a narrow tip can.
Though the stylus isn’t standard with the tablet, there’s a port for it on the lower back. It slides in and locks securely but is easy to get out without looking. Just above the port is the notch for the loop, in case you fear losing the pen if it’s not attached.
With the stylus you can do anything on the ThinkPad that you can do with a finger — tap, drag, flick, etc. Due to the way the screen and the pen work together, users get all the benefit of a capacitive display (responsiveness, smooth scrolling, tapping, etc.) plus the benefits that come with pen input (drawing, precision tapping, handwriting). Plus, using the stylus keeps the finger smudges away.
Whenever I pulled out the stylus to work with the notes app I usually just kept it in my hand when I moved on to other things. It’s not at all cumbersome and I never noticed a difference between it and using my finger. The ease of tapping on links in web pages without having to be really precise or zoom in alone makes it a worthwhile accessory to me.
You can’t zoom or pull off other multitouch gestures with the stylus, unfortunately. Though it would be nice if you could using the button on the side.
Near the tip of the stylus is the Active button, which triggers functions you’d normally get if you tap and hold. For instance, if you press the button then tap on the Home screen, you’ll immediately go into the edit Home screens mode. This doesn’t work in every app, though.
MyScript Notes Mobile
To take best advantage of the stylus, Lenovo bundles the ThinkPad Tablet with MyScript Notes Mobile by VisionObjects. The idea here is that users can replace their paper notebook with this app, and this is reflected in the GUI. Thus you have spiral notebooks that open up on to blue-lined pages (yes, this is the only background). You don’t have to stay in the lines for the app to work, but I found myself doing so, anyway.
MyScript is pretty robust and one of the best examples of this kind of app I’ve seen. It can translate your handwriting into text as you go along (it will wait until you pause to do the translation), or you can switch modes and just scribble, then choose to translate the text later. When in scribble mode you can also do freehand drawing. You don’t have to translate your writing into text if you don’t want to — the app will save the page as an image.
If the app doesn’t quite get the words right when translating, you can cross out whole words or letters, add in, and even divide up words and sentences. It supports up to 27 languages and dialects and works with non-Western characters in languages like Japanese and Chinese.
With my handwriting — which is somewhat messy but not a tragedy — the app correctly translated my scribbles about 75% of the time. Even when I wrote more deliberately/carefully the system wasn’t perfect. Writing quickly didn’t decrease the accuracy very much. How well this app works will depend on the individual. If you’ve got very messy handwriting, it might not be very useful for you.
One big issue with writing on a tablet like it’s a notebook is how to hold your hand. MyScript has built-in Palm Rejection for both left and right-handed users that is supposed to detect when you’ve got a palm, or edge of a palm, on the display, and ignore it. This didn’t always work.
After writing I often noticed small marks at the bottom of the page under my palm. And if I put my hand on the screen before the stylus, the app took a few seconds to figure out which it should pay attention to. Also, the app can’t control what happens if your palm brushes something at the bottom of the screen, like the Notifications tray or the quick launch icon.
Two major things bugged me about this app beyond the palm thing. First, it only works in portrait mode, not landscape. Even though this does mimic a paper notebook, I would rather have the choice. Besides, using it in landscape mode would make it easier to avoid putting my palm on the actual screen and rest it on the tablet’s edge.
Also, I’d like the option of continuous scrolling on note pages. Since the farther down you move your hand the closer you are to activating something on the lower bar, I want to keep the blank space in my notebook in the center or near the top.
Exporting notes is easy, but you can only do so a page at a time and not a whole notebook. Pages with scribbles can only export as images. Pages with text can either export as text or as an image. Notes Mobile will send the image or text to any compatible application, including Gmail, messaging, printer share, etc. I exported both image and text to SpringPad and Evernote easily, though the text had some funky line breaks in it.
I could see using this app in situations where I really need write — such as taking notes — or when I need freeform drawings. Taking notes quickly works quite well, especially if you turn off the automatic translation and just go for scribbles. There’s no lag and the pen tip is almost as responsive as an ink pen. However, I’m not ready to give up my LiveScribe pen and paper for this just yet.
With the inclusion of the FlexT9 keyboard Lenovo tried to bring handwriting recognition to other apps as well. By default, the keyboard shows normal keys with the functionality you’d expect. I like that there’s easy access to numbers and symbols via tap and hold. And, like Swype, users can drag a finger or the stylus from letter to letter to form words.
On the lower right side is a Stylus icon. Tap that and now you have a free form space to write your words instead of typing. If you’re at all familiar with Graffiti on the old Palm OS or the handwriting area on the old Windows Mobile platform you’ll be comfortable with this. However, it works more like Windows Mobile than Graffiti in that you don’t always need to create letters in one specific way.
I found this mode frustrating and difficult to use. Though I was careful to print clearly, the engine often misinterpreted my words badly. Many times it wouldn’t even get close. And the behavior wasn’t consistent. Sometimes I could write a whole sentence and only see one mistake. Then the next sentence there would be tons of mistakes, rendering it unreadable. And no matter how often I wrote, deleted, and rewrote a word, the engine didn’t seem to learn.
The keyboard does come with extensive documentation that offers some advice on best ways to write tricky letters like t. That didn’t solve all of the issues, but it’s good that the help file exists.
Though you have plenty of space to write out words, users can also write letters on top of each other to minimize hand movement. The accuracy here was about the same as writing letters next to each other.
I wondered whether it was the pen or the keyboard causing the problem, so I downloaded the Graffiti for Android keyboard. Using that, I saw more accuracy and it was rare for the keyboard to interpret the wrong letter or word. So the pen is working just fine, it’s FlexT9 that needs some tweaks.
Stylus Use With Other Apps
As I said, the stylus works anywhere in Android, so it will work with other apps. However, what you can do with the stylus depends on the features of the app in question.
For instance, in DocumentsToGo there’s no function that allows users to draw or scribble on documents, so you can’t do that even with the stylus. However, ezPDF Reader does give users the ability to draw on a document, make annotations, add notes, etc. Then pen works very well for that.
If you download Evernote and Skitch, you can create handwritten notes and drawings, which are saved as images. Evernote doesn’t do handwriting recognition, but you can export text from MyScript Notes to Evernote, as I said.
In the future, there may be more apps that specifically take advantage of the stylus in the same way as MyScript. Lenovo’s App Shop is the likeliest place to find them, as the company says that all apps you find there have been tested to ensure that they work on the ThinkPad and IdeaPad K1 tablets.
The stylus is definitely a worthy addition to the ThinkPad. Since it doesn’t cost too much extra, it’s worth getting from the start. Though the FlexT9 keyboard isn’t as useful as it could be in the handwriting department, MyScript Notes goes a long way to making the ThinkPad a viable replacement for the notepad in your briefcase. And more apps that take advantage of the functionality are surely on the way.