As you flex your fingers in anticipation of tablet PCs such as the Acer TravelMate 100, remember one thing: the ball is in Microsoft's court. The company has retooled its Windows XP operating system to add some tablet-friendly features. How well those features perform will probably determine the success of future tablet PC releases. Some of the changes to XP are obvious, including a new game called InkBall, in which you guide balls into holes with hand-drawn strokes. Some changes are more subtle, such as a right-hand/left-hand setting, accessible though a new Tablet and Pen Settings Control Panel, which toggles the direction in which toolbar menus cascade.
Of course, XP Tablet Edition revolves around one major feature that'll make you either love or hate your new tablet PC: handwriting recognition. It's clear, based on a recent reviewer's workshop, that Microsoft has spent a lot of time fine-tuning the OS to make the most of PCs with pens. That said, Microsoft insists that you shouldn't buy a tablet PC specifically for handwriting recognition, which, from what we've seen and Microsoft itself admits, remains technologically flawed. Although our early look revealed the best handwriting recognition we've seen to date, XP's accuracy still depends strongly on your writing style. We've seen some people get nearly all of their words accurately translated, whereas others manage less than 10 percent.
Thankfully, XP's special tablet-oriented applications are designed to make handwriting recognition work as well as possible. A program called Windows Journal, for instance, allows you to select different pen tips, from a fine chisel to a marker, and simulates ink flow based on the pressure you exert on the screen. The harder you push with the stylus, the thicker the stroke. Even if you don't bother trying to convert your handwriting to text, you can still copy and paste your digital ink into different programs and format it. It's pretty cool to be able to embolden and italicise your own handwriting. In addition, a service pack, expected in time for the tablet PC launch this autumn, will add digital-ink compatibility to Microsoft’s Office suite.
Interestingly, the serious shortcomings of XP Tablet Edition's handwriting recognition became less significant after we used the TravelMate 100 for a couple of weeks. Certainly, we like being able to store handwritten notes, using so-called digital ink, and insert handwritten comments into Word documents and email, but in practice we rarely needed to convert writing into text. If you really need writing-to-text conversion on a tablet PC, you'll probably be disappointed. But if you just want to play around with better-than-average handwriting recognition, XP Tablet Edition should suffice.