When the designers at IBM invented that little blue pointing device that sticks up between the "G" and "H" keys on a laptop computer keyboard, it was widely considered an efficient solution to a persistent PC problem.
It's certainly true that IBM's Accupoint, which is now standard equipment on almost all makers' laptops, was an ingenious innovation. Until that little pointer came along, nobody had yet produced a good solution to the mouse problem on portable computers.
The dilemma is that the laptops, whether Mac or Wintel, run the same operating system and applications software that desktop computers use. But a desktop computer, by definition, has the top of the desk handy, which makes it easy to use a mouse. This is a lot harder to do when there's no desktop to roll the mouse on.
That little pointer met the need. It took almost no space, added no weight, and didn't require any surface. Once you got the hang of the thing, it was almost as fast as using a desktop mouse.
Still, we've never really liked it much. The pointer is tiring to use. It's not as accurate as a mouse, so you often miss the spot on the screen you want to click. It pulls your fingers just far enough off the home keys that it interrupts the flow of typing. And since most laptop makers now put the two mouse buttons just below the space bar at the bottom of the keyboard, we are constantly clicking the mouse button by accident when we type, with all sorts of strange results.
We've spent many years looking for an alternative form of laptop mouse. We've tried trackballs that click onto the side of the machine; they work beautifully. We've tried a wireless mouse that you can wave around in the air to move the cursor; this didn't work quite as well. We've even hooked up a normal desktop mouse and rolled it on our thigh, which doesn't work at all.
Recently, we've been testing an ingenious new device that replaces the mouse on a laptop (or a desktop) PC, but also offers other useful features as well. The Handwriter, from Communication Intelligence Corp. (on the Internet at www.cic.com), replaces the mouse with a plastic pen and a small plastic writing tablet, about the size of a stenographer's notebook.
You connect this little tablet to the PC, move the (wireless) pen around it, and the cursor on your computer follows. The pen has a couple of small mouse buttons you can click, or you can just forget the buttons and "click" by tapping the tip of the pen on the tablet.
This turned out to be a rather nice mouse substitute. It was fairly easy to master, and remarkably accurate; we can hit any spot on the screen or select any line of text with this thing. The problem, for laptop use, is that you have to put that tablet someplace. We managed to use it successfully on an airplane, with the PC on the tray table and the tablet on our lap.
The Handwriter, though, is a lot more than just a point-and-click mouse substitute. It also serves as an "input device." That is, you can "write" on the plastic tablet, and the words or drawing you make can be inserted into any Windows document. The Handwriter lets you scratch out diagrams, simple maps, hand-drawn charts or pictures, etc., and insert any of these things into a document on the computer.
The most obvious use of this feature which we have used with great success is that you can get your own signature into your computer, and "paste" it onto the bottom of a letter. Then you can fax a signed letter anywhere, without ever printing it onto paper.
Finally, the Handwriter has a text-conversion feature: you write a note on the tablet with that wireless pen, and it is supposed to show up as text in a word-processing program. As with most other text-recognition software we've tried, we found the Handwriter made so many mistakes that it was much easier just to type in text with the keyboard.
Still, as a mouse substitute or a drawing tool, this little gadget makes a handy extension to the power of a laptop computer.
T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at email@example.com and Brit Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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