A friend asked which handwriting engine was best. The answer is complicated. Microsoft, Apple, and Samsung are the top three manufactures of retail devices with handwriting recognition built-in to the devices’ operating systems. There are plenty of other companies that offer stylus based writing solutions, but this post will focus on the ones I have countless hours of experience with.
The learning curve from tapping, to comfortable writing, can be steep. The tools feel deceptively familiar to the analouge versions. The similarities can cause a lot of frustration when attempting to transition. Your mind wants it to feel like paper and pen, but you are not writing. You are controlling a word processor, on a glass computer, with a plastic stick.
Your muscle memory will probably engage and cause the entire experience to feel wrong. The only solution I’ve found is to keep at it. Reaserch suggests that you are looking at anywhere from twenty to forty hours before it feels “normal” and that is a lot of writing. To get there, I used the pen for everything. No matter how slow and cumbersome it felt.
There are numerous benefits to be had from writing with a stlyus if you can get past the ackward phase. Perfect erasing, layers, predictive text, spelling and grammar tools, unlimited colors, numerous ink styles, the list is extensive. Perhaps the most unexpected benefit is the increased productivity. I wouldn’t dream of thumb typing a post like this on my phone, but I enjoy writing on it. Once your muscle memory is tuned to glass, it is a surprisingly fast form of computer input and control.
To answer the original question, the best digital handwriting engine is the one that you’ll use. If you are an Apple person, it is unlikely that uprooting your digital life’s baggage and hauling it over to Android Town will be a wholy positive experience. There is a lot of nuance to learn. Adding a new OS could be a lot to deal with all at once.
One key to success is to work with alternate apps that support your system. Apple’s Scribble engine requires developers to include its APIs in their code. Microsoft’s Word lacks the new function on Apple devices. However, Apple’s own Pages app is able to edit Word documents and fully supports Scribble. Searching in your app store is a quick way to find the best app for your situation.
Another tip, power matters. Reading my quick form of handwriting is hard work. Processing power gets you a shorter wait between recognizing your input on the on-screen writing pad and it’s appearance as typed text in your app. It also allows for a more accurate translation. Systems that include dedicated AI solutions provide real-time prediction of your next words for a tap based speed boost.
All three solutions work really well after you learn them. Like anything else, they also have strengths and weaknesses. Scribble is the newest solution and it shows. It isn’t fully compatible with loads of third party apps yet, and some of the gestures are difficult to execute. It is improving with every update and devs are incorporating it into apps quickly. Microsoft has recently added support to Outlook and Teams.
Apple being Apple, is going for a more elegantly integrated presentation. Rather than popping a keyboard overlay on top of your app to ink in, you write in-line with the on screen text. The lack of a clearly defined space to write in can feel off in some apps. When it is done right, like in the afore mentioned Pages, it is a fantastic experience.
The handwriting recognition is good, it easily keeps up with my mix of cursive and print on my 3rd gen iPad Pro. The Apple Pencil feels nice in your hand and on the screen. Apple’s powerful and light weight devices make them excellent choices for pen based interaction. I especially enjoy writing on the new 6th Gen iPad Mini.
Microsoft has been including handwriting as a form of input in their operating systems since Windows XP. Their founder believed that writing with a stylus was the future of computer input. In my opinion Microsoft’s handwriting recognition is the best, overall with some caveats, of course.
When the operating system is running on suitable hardware, it’s uncannily accurate. It easily understands text I wrote in haste and can hardly read myself. Unfortunately, many people’s experiences with Windows handwriting are limited to underpowered tablets. If your Windows tablet has less than four gigabytes of RAM expect to experience performance issues while using the ink recognizer. I find that Microsoft’s own Surface line is the standard for pen computing.
Microsoft detects if you touch the on screen keyboard icon in the task tray with your finger, or a pen, and automatically presents the correct option. It can be configured to allow in-line writing like Scribble. There are numerous integrations with both 1st and 3rd party apps. You can customize the input panel’s color and the font your handwriting is converted to. In most cases you can even choose your own custom stylus.
Like all things Microsoft, the need to include options for every type of hardware and each user’s personal preferences makes for a complicated solution. You will need to spend some time setting up before you start penning your Memoirs.
Samsung’s approach has matured nicely over the years. The first Galaxy Note’s giant screen lent itself to a pleasant writing experience. The new Galaxy Fold 3 and it’s optional S-Pen is the current pinnacle of what is possible with a digital pen and screen as far as actual productivity is concerned.
Samsung’s recognition has really ramped up as of late. It nips at Microsoft’s heels in accuracy. It’s a native function of Samsung’s keyboard, so it works in all applications. Even some that it shouldn’t, but that is another story.
Samsung’s writing panel takes the cake with its plethora of quick access buttons to make editing a cinch. What makes their solution the one I use most is portability. I hear that squeezing an Apple or Microsoft tablet into your jeans pocket is a no go.
No matter who’s digital handwriting tools you prefer, the technology has reached a milestone.The point where devices have become powerful and light enough to deliver on their original pitch has been realized. If you gave the stylus a go “a while back” and had a negative experience, it’s a good time to consider sticking a toe in the screen writing pool again.