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Windows 10's Ink Feature Is More Toy Than Tool

With its Windows 10 Anniversary Update, Microsoft is shining a welcome spotlight on pen computing. It's too bad the much-hyped Windows Ink application treats your stylus more like a Crayola crayon than a Montblanc quill. Instead of providing cute ways to kill time — letting users make on-screen sketches or draw on top of screen shots — Microsoft should be adding strong pen-input to the entire interface and key apps such as Word and Excel.

The most important use for a stylus on your Windows 2-in-1 or tablet is in allowing you to work while standing. You're at a conference waiting in a long line and need to finish writing a document in Word or sending an important email in Outlook. How do you stay productive while you're unable to put a laptop on your lap?

If you want to work leaning against the back wall of a crowded convention center, you're still better off with a $2 steno pad than a $1,200 Surface Pro 4.

You could use your phone to write, but the screen is too small for serious document editing and you don't have all the same apps available there. You can try typing on your hybrid's virtual keyboard, but hunting and pecking for letters on a 2-pound, 12-inch device is annoying, because you probably need one hand to hold your system aloft. What you really need is to be able to scribble your words directly into your favorite application, using a pen.

People have been using real-world pen and paper to work while standing since the invention of pens, but PCs haven't caught up. If you want to work while walking around a jobsite or leaning against the back wall of a crowded convention center, you're still better off with a $2 steno pad than a $1,200 Surface Pro 4.

MORE: The Ultimate Guide to Windows 10

Instead of doing something serious to improve your ability to work while standing, on the apps you already use, Microsoft has created a bunch of new use cases for the pen. These are nice to have but won't change the game for most knowledge workers. Windows Ink lets you scribble onto sticky notes, a set of virtual post-its that recognize when you've written down a time-sensitive task like "get milk at 12 p.m." and offer to add it to your Cortana reminders. Ink also has Sketchpad and Screen Sketch, which let you draw with a pen, either on a blank, white screen or on top of a screen shot.

Most non-artists probably won't develop a sudden interest in computer drawing just because Microsoft preloaded two sketch apps.

The Windows Ink menu also has shortcuts for apps such as OneNote, which lets you take notes with a pen, and Edge browser, which allows you to take screenshots and scribble on them with the pen (much like Screen Sketch). Some users will make these new pen applications part of their daily routines, but most non-artists probably won't develop a sudden interest in computer drawing just because Microsoft preloaded two sketch apps. And most people certainly won't be able to convince the boss that they should write all their work reports in OneNote because it supports handwriting while Word does not.

The real problem rests not with Ink but with Microsoft's handwriting keyboard. If you want to use a pen to write into any application's text field, you need to scribble into a tiny, black bar that sticks to the bottom of the screen (or floats around annoyingly). Out of the box, Windows 10 doesn't provide a way to scribble handwriting directly into a page in Word, into the text field for your website's CMS, or into your favorite email app or site.

I found that the keyboard guessed my words correctly only about 75 percent of the time.

To use the handwriting keyboard, you have to write just a few words at a time, hope that Windows will properly guess what words you meant, and then pick one of the three or four suggestions that matches your phrase. The keyboard then inserts your text into the selected text field as ASCII characters, not as handwriting.

Perhaps it's because of my poor handwriting, but I found that the keyboard guessed my words correctly only about 75 percent of the time when I was writing very slowly and deliberately. When I was jotting down notes as quickly as I would on paper, the error rate was much higher.

Though you can write a phrase that's several words long and then insert it, you're better off writing and inserting one or two words at a time. If you write "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" and Windows thinks you meant "the quick braun fix jumped over the lazy dog," you have to rewrite the whole thing before inserting it.

Windows 10's handwriting keyboard makes me wistful for the handwriting zone on my old Palm III PDA from 1998. That ancient device also made you write in a small box below the actual document — in that case, below the screen. However, the Palm III had more accurate handwriting recognition because you would just write one letter at a time and you had to use a special form of handwriting called "Graffiti," which ensured that your "n" and your "m" or your "i" and your "l" would never confuse the system by looking the same.

The best solution so far to the ham-handed handwriting keyboard comes from Lenovo, not Microsoft. The ThinkPad maker has a free app called WriteIt, which allows you to scribble directly on top of any text field in the entire OS, whether it's the address bar in your browser or the document area in Word. However, as with the handwriting keyboard, you have to write a couple of words at a time and choose from suggestions that may or may not accurately interpret your handwriting. The only real benefit is that you're not stuck writing into a box at the bottom of the screen.

Microsoft, to make its pen truly useful, should empower you to write and edit entire documents in handwriting and then choose to convert them to ASCII after you're done and have time to make corrections. It should also do a much better job of learning from your handwriting quirks and using that information to get much closer to 100 percent accurate conversion of your characters. Until you can use a pen to write and edit complete documents in the same productivity apps that you use today, inking on Windows 10 is more of a toy than a tool.

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The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.