Based on some recent conversations I've had over the past few weeks, I'd like to clear up some confusion on mobile devices that have touch and pen capabilities as it relates to enterprise mobile forms software.. Since the general launch of Windows 8 about a year ago, the mobile device market has seen a new wave of Windows based machines upon the existing tablet market with iPads and Android devices. Each device has a myriad of features but I'd like to focus on just a few that pertain to electronic form data capture. In particular, I'll focus on those features that enable interaction directly on the screen itself - touch and pen-based input. The objective of this entry is to hopefully bring out the facts and inform for purchase decisions, not to convey one or the other as better.
The digitizer is the hardware component over the entire screen that intercepts inputs at a location on the screen and relays that to the software to be interpreted for some action. There are many different types of digitizers that have evolved over the years - each with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Most modern tablets and smartphones are 'touch-enabled', and some newer laptops have screens that capture touch. In general, the latest touch devices can handle between 5 and 10 "points" (i.e. fingers) and use a "capacitive digitizer" in the device screen. Handling multiple points enables useful gestures such as pinch to zoom and swapping apps with multi-touch swipes. The capacitive digitizer relies on the disturbance of a finger's natural electrical conductivity on an electrostatic field over the plane of the digitizer. In other words, a human touch is required requires human touch to register a point and so non-conductive materials won't work here - gloves, fingernails, pencils, etc. To circumvent this limitation, a number of products use materials that conduct electricity between the skin and the screen - gloves with special fingertips, a stylus that doesn't require touching the screen, etc.
Major advantages of Multi-Touch are:
- No fumbling for an extra accessory.
- Multi-touch gestures make actions like zooming in and out very easy and intuitive.
- Interacting with screen objects similar to interacting with the real world.
- Touch has actual tactile feedback.
Some Windows based tablets (Tablet PCs) will also have a special pen input for capturing "ink". The key term for this technology is "active digitizer". Most active digitizer technologies are produced by Wacom, so the devices may be marketed as "Wacom-enabled". Active digitizers require the use of a special pen that emits an electrical field which is detected by the active digitizer screen. As the electrical field created by the pen doesn't require actual contact with the screen, "in-air packets" or hovering is possible (similar to using a mouse to hover over items on the screen without actually clicking.)
Major advantages of the Pen are:
- Accuracy - similar to using a mouse, as the Pen hovers over the screen, a visual "cursor" indicates the exact location. When the screen is touched, the tip of the Pen indicates the point where a point is registered.
- Precision - in contrast to using a mouse or touch, the Pen has a very high sampling rate at a very high resolution (lines per inch). This is critical for improved handwriting recognition.
- Pressure and Angle capture - these are some of the more subtle characteristics involving Pen ink. The Surface Pro has a pressure sensitivity of 1024 levels from the very slightest contact with the screen to a firm press of the Pen against the glass. The angle of the Pen can also captured.
- Eraser and Right click - most active digitizer Pens can be flipped around and automatically detected by the screen digitizer to be in 'eraser' mode. (If your active digitizer pen doesn't do this, try another active digitizer pen that has an eraser - chances are, your active digitizer screen will still recognize the eraser. Just use an application that actually erases.) Most active digitizer Pens also have a button on the side of the pen to trigger a right click when the Pen contacts the screen.
- Palm Rejection - the active digitizer will only detect points from an active digitizer pen so resting the palm (as natural handwriting may require) does not interfere or create unintended points. Most modern Tablet PCs with a Pen will turn off the capacitive touch digitizer when the Pen is in range of the screen. It might also be mentioned here that the Pen can be used while wearing gloves.
Is the Pen relevant to electronic form data capture?
With the convenience and advantages of touch, there isn't any doubt that touch is here to stay. However, pen technology has been around for more than a decade and still offers advantages for form filling applications. The Tablet PCs from a decade ago might be analogous to a car with a manual transmission - there's a learning curve but once mastered, there's a close connection between car and driver that specialty vehicles require to perform in various scenarios. A touch only device might be analogous to a car with an automatic transmission - you turn the car on and simply drive. Modern Tablet PCs blend the best of both here - touch for simplicity and pen for the task at hand.