Dark stories, tales of whimsy and random brain droppings.

Is the Stylus Mightier than the Keyboard?

I have this weird obsession.
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Only one, you say? Sure. Just one.

I’ve been using laptops on the daily since 1993 or so when I was selling them for a clone dealer. Eurocom or something like that. When I moved in to the systems and professional services discipline of IT, a laptop was part of the running kit. So was a cellphone, a PalmPilot and a pager. With my mp3 player to round out the utility belt, I was Batman.

And over my shoulder was the 75 pound laptop. It was probably only 7, but still…

You couldn’t really use a laptop on your lap for long periods of time because of the heat, but you could still manage it. More often than not, I’d balance the thing on whatever corner I could and hoped I had enough juice in the battery. The charging brick also weighed about 50 pounds.

It always felt like there had to be a better way. And thus was born my fascination with lightweight devices. And moving to touch and stylus interfaces seemed the right way to go.

The Tablet PC
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My first foray into this realm was a laptop with a hinge that would allow it to fold into a slate. The Dells and Lenovos did the full 360 degree fold-over and the HPs rotated on a single hinge and folded on to the keyboard. Pros and cons to both approaches and both are still in use today.

The cons were obvious:

  • It was still a heavy laptop and impractical/impossible to hold with one hand.
  • You could either have a hot fast processor or long (yet still quite warm) battery-life. No middle ground.
  • Digitizers still kinda sucked for both touch and pen.
  • Windows XP Tablet Edition was really the only game in town. And it sucked. Hard.

“Oh, and one more thing.”
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Thankfully, the iPad came along and distracted me. I moved back to a Lenovo laptop for real work and tried to find a way to make an iPad be a productivity tool. The best you could get at the time was a keyboard (and that was fine). Just one more bluetooth thing to charge and some extra bulk that drained all the sexiness out of the device. The early iPads were exceptional media consumption devices. The effort to turn them into work devices didn’t pay off. It was one more device to cart around. Like an even nerdier Batman.

The iPad is the device you LOVE;
the laptop is the device you NEED.

Then our wunderkid Steve-o pulled the MacBook Air out of the manila envelop and finally I had a lightweight computer that was fun to use and actually useful. Except it really wasn’t what I needed either. I love Macs and MacOS for all the things they do; and in today’s cloudy/webby world, the device matters less and less. But my job is about Windows and (haters gonna hate) Macs do not have the software that I need in my computing life. Like iPads, the compromise and gymnastic effort required to make my Mac work in a Windows world simply isn’t worth it.

To be honest, I feel the same way about Linux. I’m a rabid operating system nerd and am constantly playing with various distros. But for real work, I use Windows.

What does RT stand for anyway?
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So you can imagine when Windows 8 came out, I was giddy with anticipation and BAM, I had myself a Microsoft Surface RT. It was Windows… It was fast… It had great battery-life… It had no storage… It had no apps…

Aaannddd…. It sucked too.

Windows ME, Windows Vista and Windows 8.
Y’all wuz terrible.

The best device experience I had with Windows 8 was on a Dell Venue Pro 8. It was the size of an e-reader and it ran Windows. The touch interface made sense. Then the phone makers decided to embiggen their devices and made the 8” tablet a dinosaur. Apple, Google and Samsung basically killed the e-reader and put Windows 8 out of its misery.

Why was 6 afraid of 7? ​​​Because 7, 8, 9.
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And here we are with Windows 10. It’s a Microsoft OS that finally understands where touch and pen belong.

  • I installed it on a laptop and as a straight-up version of Windows. I was totally happy. CHECK
  • I upgraded the old Dell 8” tablet to Windows 10. Worked. CHECK

The first real device I tried that was lightweight, powerful and designed for Windows 10 was the Dell Latitude 5285 Detachable 2-in-1. Like the Microsoft Surface line, it’s basically a slate with a very thin attachable keyboard. It’s under 3 pounds and was easy to cart around. Without the charger, no less.

I finally had what I wanted– a real Windows computer that could act like a laptop and a slate at the same time. A computer that treated touch and a stylus as first class citizens.

PLOT TWIST!


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Yet, I still wanted a laptop because text is still a thing. The detachable laptop form-factor is great at everything except for being used on a lap. The thin keyboard didn’t have enough weight, rigidity and balance to be used on anything but a hard surface. And it turns out, I type a lot. While touch and stylus have significantly reduced my mouse and touchpad usage, my primary input stream is through the keyboard.

For me, it’s simple:

TOUCH is for consumption, TYPING is for creation, and the STYLUS is for annotation.

Finally, BLISS

And that’s why my current laptop seems to fit the bill and tick all the boxes. I’m packing a 3.5 pound Dell Latitude 7390 Convertible 2-in-1.

In what seems like weird techno-poetry, I’ve come full circle to the device form-factor I used 15 years ago. The laptop has a fully articulated 360 degree hinge where it folds into a slate. But this time, it’s light, powerful, has great battery life, runs the stellar Windows 10 and doesn’t suck. Not one little bit.

Most of the time, I use it as a laptop. When I need to sign documents, cradle for presentations, or just want to write cursively in OneNote, I put it into slate mode. When I’m watching or sharing video, I fold it into a tent.

As my father-in-law said to my teenage daughters’ boyfriends, “Are you Mister Right or Mister Right Now?”

My laptop is definitely “Mister Right Now”.

Post Script:

Yes, the newer iPads are awesome and the keyboard and pencil things are fantastic. Mouse support is on the way. All good things and certainly raises the question as to what a computer really is. But, until the software catches up with the platform, it’s always going to be too much compromise for me. The iPad for me, and many people, is a companion device. It doesn’t (yet) obviate the need for a Real Computer.

Post Post Script:

Windows 10X is on the way and the dual-screen form-factor feels very much like a remarkable evolution of the convertible laptop. Laptop, tablet, slate, and… book?

It looks like it’ll be a Jack of All Trades, but will it be a Master of Anything?

Dunno. We’ll see.

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