A wise man once said, “Words are trains / for moving past what really has no name.” Many of us spend our days working on these railroads, hammering away on keyboards mechanical and otherwise. But do you have to? Not really; a number of products promise to free you from the tyranny of the keyboard, allowing you to lay words down by speaking, writing with a pen, or using gestures.
Some of us, me included, find keyboards frustrating as we get older. Fingers get clumsier, wrists get achier, and the general decrepitude of the human frame of advancing years makes typing more difficult. Combine these issues with the persistent maladies that we humans are prone to and the keyboard can become a source of pain, not pleasure.
To reclaim the lost pleasure of identifying things thundering down the tracks around me, I spent over 20 hours testing a variety of different input methods that switch the tracks from the conventional keyboard. I tested the voice-recognition system Dragon Home 15, the pen input of the Microsoft Surface Pro 6, the Livescribe Aegir smart pen, the Wacom Bamboo Folio smartpad holder, and the hand-mounted Tap.
So, do any of these products really replace the keyboard for me? No. Each comes with benefits that make some things easier and more comfortable, but make other tasks more difficult. The dictation software I used was surprisingly effective, but talking to myself all day made me feel like a lunatic. I tested a desktop tablet that lets you write longhand on an E Ink screen, converting your scribbles into text on the computer screen. It had a huge amount of neo-Luddite, focused writing charm, but the handwriting-to-text conversion isn’t perfect. I used two devices that employ “smart pens” and found them great for scribblers and note–takers, but both were quite dependent on good penmanship: If you have a scrawly, illegible hand, they won’t be able to translate your spider scribbles into text.
While none of these products could completely replace my keyboard, they did provide interesting alternatives, and a change can be as good as a rest. Using speech recognition to dictate a paragraph, for instance, gave my aching wrists some time to recover. Switching to one of the pen-based tablets provided a much more focused way to write without interruptions, and importing work into the computer afterwards was pretty easy. We may still be tied to our computers, but these products provide alternative ways to enter text that can help spark the creativity that we crave. And, for those of us who try to ride the train called language for a living, that’s a useful platform to stand on.
We learn to speak long before we learn to write, so what could be easier than talking to your computer? That’s the idea behind Dragon Home 15, the latest version of the veteran voice-recognition software. The $150 program integrates with your computer to listen to your voice, captured through a Bluetooth headset or wired microphone, and convert that into text. I tested it with a Logitech H800 headset, but Dragon itself sells a number of recommended headsets.
Much like ourselves as small children, Dragon Home needs some work to get going with language. Although the product was pretty accurate out of the box, it seemed to struggle on some words: permit was variously interpreted as make it, connect and other words that don’t sound that similar to me, especially when the word was spoken on its own as an attempt to edit existing text, which is a rather clumsy process. That might be more to do with my increasingly mid-Atlantic accent, though. There was also a noticeable pause between speaking and text appearing on screen, a gap that sometimes broke my train of thought. Buy it for $150.
Many modern laptops come with a built-in alternative to the keyboard. Add the $70 Microsoft Surface Pen to the $899 Surface Pro 6 laptop running a Windows Ink–enabled program like Microsoft OneNote, and you get a new way to input text: scribbling on the screen. Think of it as a piece of digital paper that you can scrawl on. When you are done, you can convert your handwriting to cut-and-pasteable text by selecting it and choosing Ink to Text in the menu.
While the handwriting-to-text part of this process worked well, the writing part just didn’t feel right. The screen of the Surface Pro 6 is smooth and glossy, so the pen tip tended to skid and slip around on it, making me feel like a beginner on the ice rink, flailing around rather than making graceful turns and twists. I also found that the screen sometimes mistook my hand leaning on the screen for a finger touch, which set the screen scrolling, rather breaking the illusion of it being a piece of digital paper. So, it worked for note-taking, but it didn’t work for longer pieces. Buy it for $899.
The Aegir is the latest incarnation of the Livescribe smartpen, which uses a tiny camera to detect an invisible-to-the-eye dot pattern on special paper. It then uses those dots to figure out what you’re writing and digitally record the results. It’s the first Livescribe pen that looks more like a pen than a computer, with the shape and weight of a high-end ballpoint. You shouldn’t chew on the end of this one though: The pen costs $100 and has a micro USB port on one end for charging.
The Achilles heel of the Aegir is that it only works with the special paper from Livescribe. Use the pen on normal paper and it won’t record anything. The paper is available in several sizes from sticky notes to 8.5- by 11-inch notepads. I like the hardcover notepads, which are a good size and weight for coffee shop scribbles or inconspicuous meeting note-taking. Like a Moleskine notebook, they have a tough cover that can stand up to being carried around and shoved in a bag. It is possible to print your own paper, but then the dot patterns are more visible, making it difficult to use. The preprinted pads are the best option.
Once you have finished your scribbling, you import your handwriting into the Livescribe+ app, which is available for iOS and Android (Windows and Mac versions are coming soon). The pen syncs with the app automatically via Bluetooth when in range. In the app, you double-tap on the handwritten text, and it converts it into cut-and-pasteable text. The accuracy here depends on your handwriting: My scrawly lines befuddled the system somewhat until I slowed down and used separate letters. Even then, it seemed less accurate than the other products I tested that rely on text recognition. Buy it for $96.
Who’s the smartest folio case in town? The Wacom Bamboo Folio, that’s who. It’s a folderlike case that holds a letter-size paper pad, but with smarts built in. When you use the included pen, an array of electronics built into the Folio sense the movement and pressure of the pen and capture what you write. When you get home and fire up the Inkspace Plus software, it syncs your doodles and notes over Bluetooth to your smartphone or laptop. The Inkspace app can then convert the handwriting into text with a tap.
The Folio can use pretty much any paper you want, either single sheets or a notepad. Two sizes of the Folio are available that hold A4 or A5 notepads, and the smarts of the Bamboo can hold up to about 100 pages. One thing to note: You have to remember to turn the Folio on before you start writing, and to press the button when you start a new sheet, as the device doesn’t automatically turn on when you open it and can’t detect when you turn to a fresh page. The system only works with the included pen: Scribbles with other pens won’t be captured. The pen is pretty good, writing like a decent ballpoint. It doesn’t need batteries, as the Folio powers the pen wirelessly and itself has a built-in rechargeable battery.
I found that it worked pretty well: My scribbles were faithfully captured and synced over to the software, and the handwriting-to-text conversion was fairly accurate. You can only convert an entire page at a time, though, which means it will try to convert everything on the page, handwriting or not. Although it is more designed for doodlers and sketch artists, it works well for writers who want to do a first draft on paper without having to retype everything, as long as you have fairly tidy handwriting. Buy it for $130.
If a tablet had a brief but torrid fling with a Kindle and was left with the consequences a few months later, the result might look a bit like the Remarkable Tablet. The usual LCD screen has been replaced with an E Ink screen. With the included pen, you can write on it like it’s a piece of paper. It even feels like paper: The surface of the tablet is textured, so you get the raspy sensation and sound of pen on paper. It feels remarkably authentic and comfortable to those, like me, who were raised on analog paper.
A recent update to the Remarkable Tablet’s software (a custom version of Linux OS) added the ability to convert handwriting to text on the device itself: Tap on the Text icon at the top of the screen and it converts your scrawl to text.
That’s the theory, at least. It only works if you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network, as the system uses a conversion service running in the cloud to do the heavy lifting. I found that it did a decent job, but like the Bamboo Folio, it converts entire pages and sometimes confuses drawn diagrams for text. Like the other pen-based devices, it also works best if you write tidily and cleanly; messy notes and joined-up writing confuse it. Buy it for $650.
The Tap resembles a prop from an early ’90s cyberpunk movie. It’s a strange-looking device, resembling something like a high-tech knuckleduster that fits onto the hand, with a sensor on each finger and a Bluetooth connection to your phone or laptop. By tapping fingers in certain combinations, you can enter text, letter by letter. Tap the thumb and you get an A. The index finger gives you an E. Tap both thumb and index and you get an N. Tap the index finger twice and you get an exclamation point. Tap all of your fingers together and you get a space.
It takes some practice, but it is a surprisingly effective way to enter text once you become familiar with it. That’s made easier by the Tap Academy app, which trains you in the various combinations in stages. A number of simple games also help you practice. I didn’t find that the tap was any faster than using the keyboard; it was significantly slower, even with practice. But it can be more convenient, as you can use it on any surface. I used it while sitting on the bus, tapping text out on my knee to curious looks from my fellow passengers. It can also work as a pointing device: An optical sensor on the thumb emulates a mouse. Buy it for $120.