New interface; new Office
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition looks just like Windows XP--almost. A few minor differences make it slightly easier to use with a tablet. For example, to get started, visit Windows' new control panel, called "Tablet and pen settings," to specify whether you're right- or left-handed, move menus to accommodate your writing style (to the left or right side of the interface), and calibrate your tablet pen, just as you would with a new handheld device. You can also change your desktop layout to either portrait or landscape (most tablet PCs also have a button that switches orientation on the fly).
In addition, Microsoft has released a free expansion pack for Office XP that takes advantage of the OS's Ink utility. You can write by hand in Microsoft Word comments, respond to Outlook e-mail with written notes, and jot notes on PowerPoint presentations. Unfortunately, Word and Outlook don't yet support handwriting recognition from Windows Tablet Edition, so you can't convert those comments to editable text, and nontablet e-mail recipients must view your scrawled responses as GIFs or attached HTML files. In addition, the XP expansion pack lets you convert notes into contacts, appointments, and tasks--again, only in handwritten form.
Annoyingly, the Windows Tablet Edition interface lacks a desktop button to minimize all open applications, as other versions of Windows do; it's been replaced by an icon in the taskbar that spawns Tablet Edition's handwriting input pad (more on this later). The missing desktop button is a major lapse since there's no way to quickly switch between open programs. There's no pen-based equivalent to Alt-Tab, so you'll have to click each individual window. We'd like to see a desktop button and a detachable application switcher, similar to the one in Mac OS 9 and its predecessors.
When it comes to everyday use, the Office expansion pack and Journal are the most likable Tablet Edition apps. If you take notes, Journal proves excellent and easy to use; you can choose different pen types (say, from a bright-red marker to a fine black chisel), colors, and styles; highlight and erase text; and even search your notes, as Journal uses handwriting recognition to log certain words and find them later. Journal also includes a text-correction tool that can find and replace misspelled words in your own handwriting--nice.
Journal works better than even traditional pen-and-paper note-taking, too, since you can use the stylus to rearrange written text, insert spaces, and export notes to e-mail. You can also send notes to nontablet users as MHTML documents (an Internet Explorer-compatible format) or as a TIFF image, and Microsoft says it will release a Journal viewer as a free download for desktop-bound folks. All that means no more transcribing handwritten notes to send out minutes, as long as you trust your handwriting. Journal also lets you convert your notes to text, but its handwriting-recognition quality depends strongly on your writing style, and it's not very reliable.
As for note-taking, it's alternately thrilling and irritating. The slick surface of most tablets deteriorates your handwriting, and with both of our test tablets, Windows' stroke recognition is slow. For example, with cursive, Windows often can't keep up but fills in parts of letters later--a disconcerting practice. Overall, however, it's liberating to use a notebook PC like a true paper notebook, especially if you prefer to avoid clattery typing noises in meetings or on the phone.
Shortcuts and long cuts
For faster operation, Windows Tablet PC Edition supports movements called Gestures that are the pen-based equivalent of keyboard shortcuts and mouse actions. For example, tap once to simulate a mouse click, twice to double-click, tap and hold to bring up the right-click menu, or hover your pen to show rollover effects and tool tips. You can also scribble over a word you've just written to make it disappear or use Gestures for Tab and Enter. Once you get the hang of Gestures, writing and navigation are much easier. Gestures are far from perfect, however; the hardest task to perform throughout Tablet Edition, in fact, is a simple double-tap.
Of course, you can't write everything--at some point, you'll need to enter a text URL or a login and a password, which is where the Tablet PC's input panel comes in. Bring up the input panel by clicking its corresponding system tray button or by wagging your pen over an area of your tablet screen (a Gesture called the in-air shake). The panel includes an onscreen keyboard, a free-form writing area that lets you scribble words while Windows converts them to text, and a character recognizer reminiscent of a handheld text-entry screen and that uses a hybridized form of Palm's Graffiti, according to Microsoft. You can also choose the Write Anywhere panel, which uses handwriting recognition to convert writing anywhere on the tablet screen into text.
The Write Anywhere feature works well, but the rest of the input panel will stop you cold. The handwriting recognition in the free-form writing area, while excellent, isn't up to par for truly speedy operation; the letter-by-letter keyboard tapping is agonizingly slow; and Windows' recognition of its hybrid Graffiti is abysmal. There's no way you'd want to use freehand writing or character recognition to enter, say, a password, which must be accurate. That leaves you with the slow tapping of the onscreen keyboard or forces you to use your tablet PC's keyboard (whether attached via cable or part of a convertible system).
In our tests, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition didn't crash on either the Acer TravelMate C102TI or the ViewSonic, but some operations did take a while. Microsoft plans to support Tablet Edition with its standard complement of Web resources and $35-per-incident calls, which normally prove sufficient, if ridiculously expensive.
The tablet-computing road has been wandered before but never with such an advanced OS at its core. Windows XP Tablet Edition, with the accompanying Office expansion pack, needs a few more features and tricks before it's perfect, including a way to convert notes to textual Outlook tasks. Also, its handwriting recognition will likely never be perfect, but it's the best complement for the current batch of tablets. If you're not afraid of the learning curve and are looking for a paperless life, write it down Tablet-style.
You can take some nifty notes with Tablet Edition's Journal application, but don't try to use the text input panel for anything urgent--it's dog slow.