Posey's Tips & Tricks

Taking a Fresh Look at the Surface Pen

Microsoft's digital inking device has finally outgrown its awkward start to become a truly effortless productivity tool.

Throughout its history, I have long thought of the Surface Pen as being a lot like my first computer.

Maybe I'm showing my age here, but when I was a kid, I got my start on an old RadioShack Color Computer 2. The Color Computer 2 was a great computer that suffered from terrible software. The machine was actually quite capable, but you would never know it by looking at the software that was commercially available. However, some of the user magazines that were available at the time provided source code every month for programs that were almost always far superior to anything that you could get in the store.

The Surface Pen's history really isn't all that different from that of the Color Computer. It is a capable device, but the lack of (and sometimes buggy) software support has often caused the pen to be thought of as little more than a novelty.

It seems, however, that the Surface Pen is getting a new lease on life. I recently had to purchase a Surface Book 2 because I needed it for a project that I was working on. Unlike my Surface Pro, the Surface Book 2 device did not include a Surface Pen, I went ahead and bought a pen, because I needed it for this particular project.

In all honesty, I took the fact that a $3,000 Surface Book 2 device did not include a pen as a sign that Microsoft was beginning to give up on the Surface Pen and was slowly phasing it out. In reality, however, I could not have been more wrong. Microsoft has recently redesigned the Surface Pen, and has also provided far better support for the pen in both Windows 10 and in Office.

In case you are wondering, the newly redesigned Surface Pen can detect over 4,000 different levels of pressure on the tip. Writing with it feels far more natural than what I experienced with the previous pen.

So what about software support? After all, lack of software support was probably the biggest thing holding people back from using the pen more often.

Within Windows 10, you can now use the Surface Pen with any text field. Well, sort of. Let's pretend that you want to use the Surface Pen to write in the Cortana interface. In that situation, you would simply tap the Cortana search box a couple of times with the pen. Upon doing so, a new window opens. You can write whatever you want in the window, and Windows will use character recognition to figure out what you have written. Those characters are then automatically inserted into the Cortana text box.

I found Windows 10's handwriting recognition to be quite good. My handwriting is terrible. I have broken my wrists (as well as several fingers) on multiple occasions, and those injuries have definitely impacted my handwriting. Even so, Windows does not seem to have any trouble interpreting what I write.

The best handwriting feature that is natively included in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update is called Sticky Notes. I absolutely love the Sticky Notes feature. When you launch Sticky Notes, Windows displays what looks like a Post-it note onscreen. Initially, the Sticky Notes reminded me of one of the gadgets from Windows Vista, except that you can write on the note. However, there is far more to Sticky Notes than meets the eye.

When you write a note to yourself, Windows tries to give you information that could be helpful based on what you have written. For example, the first time that I tried out Sticky Notes, I wrote down an address. Immediately after writing the address, my ink turned blue. This is Windows' way of letting you know that it has information for you. Tapping on my handwritten note caused Windows to reveal a map of the area and an option to get directions to the address that I had written. Similarly, I used Sticky Notes to write down a flight number, and Windows gave me information about the status of my flight. Like I said, I love the Sticky Notes feature.

So what about Office? Admittedly, I haven't had a lot of time to play around with inking in Office. What I can tell you, however, is that you can open up Word 2016 and start inking without having to do anything special. You don't have to pick any menu options or add an "ink box" to your document. Just start writing. This is exactly how inking should be -- effortless.

The one thing that is still lacking with regard to support for the Surface Pen is the native ability to mark up .PDF documents. People send me .PDF files all the time that I have to sign and send back. It would be great to be able to digitally sign the documents using the Surface Pen, rather than printing out the document, signing it and then scanning the document. I have recently found a couple of good apps in the Windows Store that will allow you to mark up a .PDF (some are even free), but Windows does not have the ability natively.

In retrospect, inking has come a long way. Not only has OS-level support for the Surface Pen improved, but there are some really great third-party inking apps available in the Windows Store. It is worth taking some time to see what is available.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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