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Writing On Glass

Scott McGrath | July 6th, 2015

Infinite Notebook

Before the age of touchscreen computers, smartphones and tablets, I dreamed of a simple computing device that could do just one thing, mimic pen and paper – an infinite virtual notebook contained within a single page. The modern Windows 8.1 tablet w/ Wacom digitizer is the closest we’ve come to that ideal, plus they are fully functioning PCs as well.

Once I knew such a thing existed, I wanted one. The questions was, as always, how much was I willing to spend?

Tablet One

Samsung Series 7 Slate

Specs: i5 2467M, 4gb ram, 64gb SSD, Windows 7, 11.6″ screen, weight: 2 pounds, price $1099, released in 2011

Is $1099 too much for a device used primarily as a digital notepad? YES! So I waited a couple years until I could find one on eBay for $300 in ok condition. I also bought a copy of Windows 8 and installed it immediately. I used the heck out of this tablet for taking notes. Since it’s a full Windows 8.1 PC, I also used it for games, web surfing, photo editing and writing code as well.

Pros:

  • Screen – It’s bright. The size is a little smaller than a legal pad. It doesn’t flex as I write or rest my hand on it. Great pen accuracy.
  • Pen – It’s the size and shape of a normal pen, and the eraser side works like an eraser.
  • CPU/RAM – Aside from the handwriting, it’s a decent pc. Add a keyboard. Attach a monitor. It’s as capable as a laptop.

Cons:

  • Battery life – It’s good for about 2-3 hours of usage. It’s a shame, because I could overlook all it’s other shortcomings, if the battery life were better.
  • Heat/Fan noise – This tablet could double as a hot plate. Because of that, the fan runs a lot.
  • No pen slot – There’s no pen holder, so you have to carry the delicate stylus around separately.

Tablet Two

Lenovo Thinkpad S1 Yoga (ultrabook/tablet hybrid)

Specs: i7 4600U, 8gb ram, 256gb SSD, Windows 8.1, 12.5″ screen, 3.6 pounds, price $1499, released in 2013

I was actually looking for an ultrabook when I bought this. I loved having a pen tablet, so the hybrid concept drew me in. I thought I could replace two devices with one. That plus a 7 hour battery life, are what sold me on this machine. I grabbed one on eBay for $750.

Pros:

  • Battery life – 7+ hours!
  • Pen slot – The pen is always tucked away in it’s slot and ready to go when you need it.
  • Hybrid – It’s a full ultrabook as well, so it’s as useful as any other computer. Since this post is about tablets, I won’t cover the specific pros/cons of the non-tablet features

Cons:

  • The size/weight: Hybrid is an interesting concept, but until the size/weight can be brought down even further, it’s not practical. I only ever use the screen for writing if my dedicated tablet is unavailable.
  • Pen accuracy: For whatever reason, the screen doesn’t capture pen strokes as accurately as the Samsung Slate. The larger screen size can make it difficult to avoid inadvertent scribble marks caused by my hand, wrist or arm touching the screen before the palm rejection kicks in as the pen gets close enough to the screen. There’s also a bit of screen flex when the pen is pressed down while writing. The first time I noticed it, I was afraid I was pressing too hard, but any pressure at all will cause it.
  • The Pen: The pen is short and thin. It’s uncomfortable to hold. It’s easy to accidentally press the stylus button. The eraser end does nothing.

Tablet Three

Thinkpad Tablet 2

Specs: Atom Z2760, 2gb ram, 64gb SSD, Windows 8.1, 1.3 pounds, price $799, released in 2012

This is my current note taking tablet. I found one on eBay for $150. It’s light. It’s small. It’s got great battery life. It’s almost exactly what I want.

Pros:

  • Battery life: 10 hours!!
  • Size/Weight: It feels like I’m carrying a normal notepad.
  • Charger: Standard micro USB. I never have to worry about forgetting my proprietary charger.
  • Quiet: No fan. No noise.
  • Pen slot: Like the Thinkpad S1 Yoga, the pen fits in a small slot and is always available to use.

Cons:

  • Pen accuracy: The screen suffers the same issues as the other Thinkpad. It doesn’t pick up the pen strokes as well as the Samsung Slate.
  • The pen: This has the exact same pen as the Thinkpad S1 Yoga. It’s small and uncomfortable to hold.

Now the Easy Part…

Once I had a tablet, I was set. I could start taking notes then. Right? Almost… The Windows Journal app comes pre-installed in Windows 8, but it’s not widely known or particularly good. Recently, Microsoft released a free version of OneNote, a popular note taking app with many features. Unfortunately, like of so many other MS products (ahem… Word), it’s bloated and overly complicated to use. All I want is a digital notepad. How hard is that?

My app of choice is Bamboo Paper for that very reason. It’s simple to use, has all the right features and it’s free (plus some Pro in-app purchases). In under a minute, I can wake my tablet, start Bamboo Paper, choose a notebook and start writing. I use it daily. Every note I’ve taken is just a few clicks away. It is essential to my workflow.