Inking for field workers: Windows 8 tablets with Atom inside or bust

Inking for field workers: Windows 8 tablets with Atom inside or bust

Summary: Professionals planning on using a tablet for taking notes with a stylus only have one real option.


Tablets can be used for many tasks and taking handwritten notes is an important one for professionals in the field. Having a digital notepad can be a useful tool in many professions. 

Windows 8 is nudging OEMs to produce a wide range of tablets including those with pen support for both digital note-taking (inking) and creating art. These tablets range from those with powerful performance (Core processors) to those seeking a balance between battery life and performance (Atom processors).

Professionals planning on using a tablet all day for inking only have one real option. Powerful tablets such as the Surface Pro only get 5 hours or less out of a battery between charges, and that eliminates them from consideration for such endurance note-taking.

Tablets with an Atom processor such as the ThinkPad Tablet 2 (reviewed here) get over 8 hours of use on a single charge. This will get users through a whole day of meetings or other activities where inking is in progress.

It's all about OneNote

If you intend to use a tablet all day in the field, with taking handwritten notes on the slate a primary function, you'd better look at Windows 8 tablets with Atom inside.

There are tablets running other OSes that have pen support so Windows 8 is not the only choice for professional note-takers. The iPad can be used with a stylus as can some Android tablets.

Those tablets fall short for serious inking compared to Windows. That's due to the lack of full OneNote from Microsoft which in this writer's opinion is the only serious choice for serious ink note creation.

I used a tablet for years in my previous career as a geophysicist, and OneNote was vital to that usage. I took ink notes all day every day and OneNote made it all work.

There are four criteria that make inking practical:

The tablet must handle ink well

This points to Windows tablets. The touch styli used by iPads and most Android tablets pale in comparison to Windows in the ink handling department. You need an active digitizer to get good pen support and that means Windows. 

The ink notes must be searchable

This is one of the best features of OneNote. Ink notes don't have to be manually converted to digital text; OneNote does that in the background to make everything in all handwritten notes searchable. This is an incredible way to find exactly the note you are looking for no matter how far in the past it was written.

The battery must last all day under any circumstances

All day battery life can be found with Android tablets, iPads, and Atom-based Windows 8 tablets.

In the Tablet PC days, I got around the short battery life of that era (around 3 hours) by using tablets with user replaceable batteries. I had a spare in the bag and at some point in the day I had to swap out a dying battery. 

The short battery life of Windows 8 tablets based on Intel Core processors eliminate them from consideration for many field workers. They don't have swappable batteries like the old-school Tablet PCs and using a tablet for inking while tethered to an outlet is simply not practical.

Notes must be well organized

This is probably the most important of these criteria as field workers take a lot of notes and the advantage of inking over paper notes is proper organization. The notebook metaphor used in OneNote makes it a great filing system that is flexible enough to meet the particular needs of each user.

In my inking days I had a notebook for each client and a section for each individual project. This let me keep up with current projects with just a glance at the screen.

Atom-based Windows 8 tablets are the only real choice

When you put all four of the requirements for good inking, you have only one choice.

While OneNote is available for the iPad, the only full-featured version of it is on Windows 8. There are two versions of OneNote on Windows 8, a full Metro version and a desktop version. The desktop version works better for serious note-taking in my experience. It makes better use of the tablet screen and has all the toolbars handy for taking notes. Whichever version you prefer, both use the same OneNote database so you can switch between them at will.

Atom-based Windows 8 tablets are the only slates available that handle ink well and reliably last all day in the field. The Surface Pro has good pen support, but with a maximum 5 hours on the battery it is practically eliminated from the type of inking in the field I am referring to in this article.

There are a number of Windows 8 tablets with both pen support and Atom processors inside. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 I am using is a good one and if I was still working as a geophysicist I would probably be using one today.

If you intend to use a tablet all day in the field, with taking handwritten notes on the slate a primary function, you'd better look at Windows 8 tablets with Atom inside. Faster processors are nice unless they just make the battery die that much sooner.

If you are a field worker taking ink notes all day I would like to hear what you use and how you like it. Leave a comment and share your experience.

See also: 

ThinkPad Tablet 2 and accessories photo gallery

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2: First look

ThinkPad Tablet 2: Inking in Windows 8 (video)

Topics: Mobility, Tablets, Windows 8

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  • What do you think about Samsung note tabs/phabs

    don't you think they are better alternatives or these atom based really do a better job?
  • Yes

    For the reasons I mentioned in the article.
    • Funny stuff

      lol. Nothing like actually reading the article!

      Thanks for writing it James.

      I have been using a Asus VivoTab RT the last couple of months. It actually works great. Some limitations because of WinRT, but none for what I need it for, and it includes OneNote, Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. Only 5 point multi-touch, but it works well with a capacitive stylus. I had to buy the stylus though, well actually it came with a case I bought.

      But despite the supposed OS limitations, it uses as you know ARM based processors so I get 8hrs with just the tablet, and 16+ when attached to the included keyboard docking station.

      If I needed to use any full traditional Windows application of course WinRT/ARM would be out. But for the use cases I use/need this particular device for, it is perfect. It was also
    • For note taking

      I'd rather use my tablet for meeting. I have a Samsung Ativ and its pen-support is pretty darn good. OneNote rocks and with the Atom you have the choice of running x86 apps as well. With my tablet in hand I have my notes, Office 2013 and Office Communicator ready to tackle the day.
      • How's Performance?

        This was my vision as well. Have the Surface RT, and it's good, but a little pokey, and most importantly to James' point here doesn't have an Active Digitizer. I picked up a Dell Latitude 10 Atom tablet, which was supposed to the end-all. But the performance is pretty bad. The entire device will just stop responding for a few seconds at a time - specifically Outlook. I don't feel like Outlook, OneNote, and Citrix Desktop are a heavy load, but this hardware seems to be proving otherwise.

        Similarly, battery live isn't as great as promised. I'd love to live in metro apps, but the fact is Mail doesn't work, it doesn't support categories, follow-up flag dates, and smart/search folders.
  • I actually agree...

    Hello James,

    I had poo-pooed tablets as silly for a long time, having used iPads and Android based tablets. Then I had to upgrade an old Windows 7 based Samsung Series 7 Slate to Windows 8.

    What a breath of fresh air. The whole tablet thing suddenly made sense, I could take notes in a meeting in OneNote with inking and text recognition, then switch to dekstop apps for typing up the notes, once I got back to my desk and docked the Slate and work on the attached 24" display, with full sized keyboard and mouse.

    Unfortunately, I only had it a couple of days, and as you say, the battery life wasn't all that.

    I then looked around. I ended up buying a Samsung ATIV Smart-PC, with Atom processor. I get over 10 ours out of it most of the time. Plugged into the dock, it is fast enough for my Office needs - plus we mainly use Terminal Server, so any heavy lifting is done there. The S-Pen is a huge improvement over the "Gumminippeln" that you need to use with iPad and most Android devices.

    I miss a bit of extra power for some things, but it is enough for 98% of what I do. For the rest, I have an old Core i7 laptop at home and it feels spritelier than my Core i5 Windows 7 desktop at work.
  • Surface RT

    If you can put up with the chunky stylus used for the iPad and Android tablets and slower handwriting recognition, then the Surface RT tablet also has both versions of OneNote and great battery life.
    • But lacking elsewhere...

      I'd rather spend similar money for a Samsung ATIV Smart-PC with Atom processor S-Pen digitizer. That is very good and you also get full access to all desktop software, if you need it.

      I use mine docked to a monitor, keyboard and mouse in the office, then use it in pure tablet mode on the road. It isn't the most powerful of beasts, but it is quick enough for every day office work and supports our in-house ERP solution as well, which the Surface RT wouldn't.

      I have the feeling, that RT is a little lost at the moment, the hardware costs nearly the same as an Atom based system (the 10", 32GB ATIV ARM costs 604 Euros, the 11" 64GB ATIV Atom costs 640 Euros on, has similar battery life (or worse, considering some of the Atom based tablets have keyboard docks with additional batteries in them), yet can't run desktop software.

      I kept umming and ahhing over whether to get a Surface RT or not. I'm glad I went for an Atom based tablet in the end.

      I like the concept of ARM, but I still don't see its USP under Windows.
  • Thanks James for writing a postive article about Windows 8.

    Good to see that at least some of the Zdnet bloggers write articles that shows the brilliance of Windows 8. The so called competition (which are basically toy OS) is not really suited for serious business.
  • I agree.

    I don't own a Windows tablet, but when I finally decide to replace my Lenovo X61 notebook, I will likely replace it with an Atom powered hybrid. With portable devices, battery life is far more critical than virile, skull crushing, kneel-before-my-megaflops, processor power. Intel has made great strides with its Atom line, and my guess is that this is the technology that will wind up driving the nail in the Windows RT coffin.
  • I found Atom unacceptable

    I'm a long-time tablet fan, but I found the Atom's performance unacceptable. I tried the Atom version of the Samsung Ativ and felt like there was too much lag in the pen. Luckily, I am not too moblile, so battery life is not an overwhelming issue for me. I bought to Core i5 version of the Samsung Ativ and have been very happy with it.

    I would have loved to wait for the Surface Pro, but unfortunately my last tablet PC crapped out in late November, so I had to buy what was on the market at that time.
    • How much bloatware is on these - Samsung or Asus

      They might benefit from a format , nuking everything OEM and clean OS install.
      • Mine...

        was an Amazon Warehouse deal, so came refurbished. They had nuked the drive and it came with a base installation of Windows 8 and no Samsung crud installed. It seems responsive enough.
  • I Too Found Atom Unacceptable

    Luckily, I'm not a field note taker, but primarily "in office" or specific client meeting note taker. This makes the five hour battery life of the Surface Pro much more tolerable. The Samsung ATIV 500 exhibited to much lag while inking, and couldn't handle multiple Word and IE 10 windows open at the same time (five of each would bring it to a crawl). And don't get me started on the constant disconnect problem from the keyboard.

    One great use of the Surface Pro in your office is to leave it flat on your desk or typing tray; do all your work on a full size monitor, and pen notes in OneNote on the Surface Pro - very handy indeed.
  • I thought the keyboard was necessary

    Every surface ad shows the keyboard being clicked onto the tablet. I thought the keyboard was required, so I bought a Macbook Air instead. BTW, the Macbook Air is wonderful.
    • Keyboard

      is not essential, but it helps, if you have to enter a lot of text. I am happy with the hybrid ATIV. I can plug in the keyboard, or plug it into the dock, when I need to write a long piece of text or I can tap out the odd sentence or two on the on-screen keyboard whilst on the move - or use the handwriting recognition to write text onto the screen with the pen.
    • Then you miss pen input or add an external digitizer like Wacom and use pen

      that defeats the whole purpose of having an integrated digitizer/10point touch etc. Show me a MBA with those integrated, I am in.
      Ram U
    • Really, you thought the keyboard was necessary?

      Sounds more like a reason to mention Apple. "I was put off by the Surface because it required a keyboard, so I bought a MacBook Air that has one permanently attached". Doesn't make any sense.
      Fan Of Everything
  • If battery life is key then yes atom...

    But I have to agree some of the other posters about how slow atoms are. I have an archos 9 with a dual threaded atom @ 1.2ghz and while it is ok for music or a bit web browsing, any realy usefull software like mapping tools and mobile communications are unbearably slow.

    Now on the flip side, my asus ep121 slate with a core i5 @ 600mhz-1.8ghz does just fine. It will get 5~ hours or so while running win7.

    All that said, I don't think your being realistic about every day usage. There is no way you are using any tablet for 8 hours of non stop note taking. It simply isn't probable. And I seriously doubt any tablet battery could hold up to 8 continuos hours of processing stylus input.
    • Generation change...

      The Z2760 used in the newer tablets is much better than the previous generation - and the next generation, planned for the end of the year twice as fast again.

      I had used previous Atom based devices and was a little aprehensive about the ATIV, but it performed admirably for such a small and efficient processor.

      It won't win and races, but it is a good, solid workhorse for the office. The memory limit is the biggest problem, as dksmidtx said, give it half a dozen open Word documents and it slows to a crawl, because it needs to swap all the time.

      But if you don't need dozens of open documents at the same time, it is good enough. Thereagain, I have a Core i5 desktop at work, with 4GB RAM and my laptop runs rings around that, when doing graphics work, because it has 8GB. If you acknowledge its limits and need the long battery life, they are an excellent choice.

      If you need the extra horsepower, then you are better off looking at a Core i5 or i7 tablet, or a desktop.