Pen computing

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About this article

This article includes basic information about pen computing and outlines several ways that it can be used to support teaching, learning, and working. It is intended for instructors, staff, and students.

What's pen computing?

Pen computing refers to the use of a pen-shaped instrument or stylus, instead of a keyboard or mouse, to interact with a computing device. Initially, pens were used on touch-sensitive surfaces to accomplish basic tasks. The mouse cursor would follow the tip of the pen and the device would recognize simple pen taps and gestures. Pens could also interact with specific programs that allowed users to draw, paint, or write freehand (e.g., Adobe Photoshop). For computers without touch-sensitive screens, graphics tablets that enabled pen input could be attached. This technology evolved to include multi-touch or the ability of the touch-sensitive surface to sense more than one contact. Multi-touch surfaces support more complex gestures such as pinching to zoom out. Watch the first two videos in the pen computing playlist to see professional graphics tablets in action.

Companies like Wacom, Apple, and SMART Technologies consumerized pen computing, incorporating it into products within reach of many. If you own an iPad, you already have a multi-touch device that accepts stylus input from pen-enabled apps (e.g., Penultimate, Notability), allowing you take notes, doodle, sketch, and otherwise draw freehand. If you own a laptop without a touch-sensitive screen, Wacom offers affordable graphics tablets that can be plugged into your laptop. You can also use one of a number of SMART Technologies' surfaces (e.g., interactive whiteboard, SMART podium) and their SMART Notebook software to capture your digital ink. Watch the last three videos in the pen computing playlist to see examples of these consumer-friendly applications.

What pen should I buy?

Wacom graphics tablets come with a stylus included, although you can buy other pens for these tablets if you wish. SMART Technologies' interactive whiteboards and other devices also come with their own styli. The Apple iPad mini and Samsung Tab 2 7.0 do not come with pens. As with any writing implement, you want to pick a pen that is comfortable for you. Most pens do the same thing, but they vary in terms of price, weight, length, diameter, and the tip size, shape, and material. Pay special attention to the feel of the pen in your hand the way the tip travels across the screen. Pens have tips made from a variety of different materials which can feel very different moving across the screen. Here are several pens for iPad and Tab 2 tablets that TLT has tested. If you need more information or would like to try a stylus before you purchase one, contact Norb Thomes, TLT Systems and Services Coordinator, or Ken Graetz, Director of TLT.

  • Wacom Bamboo Stylus Solo - This is a basic, popular and very usable stylus. The Bamboo pen and others of the same design (e.g., Griffin, Kensington) are commonly found in big box stores that sell tablets, such as Target, Walmart, and Best Buy. Look for them in the electronics section.
  • Studio Neat Cosmonaut. If you like the feel of big Crayons, this is the stylus for you. It works quite well, has a fairly rigid tip, is a bit heavier than other pens, and is more difficult to lose.
  • Adonit Jot Pro. This pen has the finest and hardest tip of all we tested. It works well for writing and comes close to the feel of a real pen or pencil. The plastic disc on the tip of the pen is somewhat fragile and can get lost if you aren't careful. This stylus doubles as a real ink pen, which is pretty handy.
  • Sensu Brush. This pen is very cool. It has a reversible tip with a paint brush on one end and a traditional rubber tip on the other. The paint brush looks great, but remember that drawing and painting apps do not sense the fibers of the brush. The outcome will be the same as if you used a rubber tip, but you might enjoy the sensation of the brush and you will definitely get attention using it.

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