Windows 7 Feature Focus
Tablet PC and Windows Touch

While Apple gets all the credit for multi-touch technologies in its iPhone and iPad products, the truth is that Microsoft has been innovating with alternative user interfaces for PCs for decades. It began with pen-based Windows controls but really picked up steam with the company's Tablet PC initiative. Through this set of technologies, which grew to include new form factors like the Ultra-Mobile PC as well as new input techniques such as touch and multi-touch, Microsoft has evolved Windows over the years to support a wide range of usage scenarios that go well beyond traditional mouse and keyboard controls.

In this feature focus, I'll highlight two of these technologies, Tablet PC, which includes pen-based navigation, input, and handwriting technologies, and Windows Touch, which extends this support to include touch- and multi-touch-based gestures.

Tablet PC

In Windows 7, using the system?s integrated Tablet PC functionality is virtually identical to the way it worked in Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and in Windows Vista, but naturally with a few enhancements. Windows Journal, Sticky Notes, and the Tablet PC Input Panel (TIP) all make it over with some functional improvements, as does the Snipping Tool, a favorite Tablet PC download that Microsoft used to provide separately. Here's a rundown of what's changed in this release.

Configuring Tablet PC Features

Before using your Tablet PC or tablet-equipped PC with a stylus or other pointing device, you should probably take the time to configure the Tablet PC functionality that?s built into Windows 7. If you have Tablet hardware, you?ll see a few items in the shell that aren?t available on non-Tablet hardware, including a handy way to select multiple items with a pen, a few new tray notification icons that appear over time, and the same reordering of Control Panel items that one sees when using Windows 7 with a notebook computer. With the exception of that last item, you?ll examine these features throughout this chapter.

Tablet PC features are configured via the Control Panel, through two separate locations, Tablet PC Settings and Pen and Touch, both of which are available in Hardware and Sound. If you're used to how these features are configured in Windows Vista, you'll need to get reoriented because Microsoft has moved items around fairly dramatically. So spend some time in these interfaces and make sure everything is configured as you'd prefer.

 

Tablet PC Input Panel (TIP)

Back in the original version of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, the Tablet PC Input Panel, or TIP, was typically docked to the bottom of the screen, just above the taskbar, and you toggled its display by clicking a TIP icon next to the Start button. In Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, Microsoft enhanced the TIP by enabling it to pop up in place, where you needed it. That is, if you wanted to input some text into the address bar of an Internet Explorer window, for example, you could tap the address bar with the pen and the TIP would appear in a floating window right under the tap point. That way, you wouldn?t have to move the pen up and down across the entire screen in order to enter text or other characters.

That said, the TIP could still be manually launched by clicking that special icon next to the Start Menu; and the TIP in Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 was a pretty big bugger, occupying a large swath of onscreen real estate.

These issues are now fixed in Windows 7. Instead of a special taskbar button, the TIP is now always accessible, but mostly hidden, on the edge of the screen. Only a small portion of the TIP is visible by default. When you mouse over it (using either mouse or pen/stylus), the TIP peeks out just a bit more. To activate the TIP, simply click it with the pen or stylus. The TIP will then appear in the center of the screen.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
An activated TIP is a happy TIP.

Compared to the TIP in previous versions of Windows, the Windows 7 TIP offers very similar functionality with a slightly reworked user interface. The Quick Launch icons for the Writing Pad (the default) and Touch Keyboard modes have been moved to the top of the window, next to the Tools and Help menus. (And the Character Pad interface from Windows Vista has been unceremoniously made less accessible: You get to it by tapping Tools and then Write character by character.)

Microsoft has also added new "Show me" buttons to the top right of the TIP button that help you learn how to correct mistyped text, delete text, split text and join text. Each of these triggers a mini video showing you how its done.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
Not sure how it's done? TIP will show you the way.

The TIP?s three different modes are shown here:

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
The TIP can work like a continuous writing pad, a character-by-character writing pad, or an onscreen keyboard.

Secret: In the previous version of Microsoft?s Tablet PC operating system, the TIP included dedicated buttons for Web shortcuts such as http://, www., and so on. These can now be accessed through the Web button, which expands to show these and other related options. Likewise, the Sym button expands to show various symbols (!, @, #, and so on), while the Num button expands to show numbers. The Web button expands automatically when you select the address bar in Internet Explorer.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
When you tap the Web button, a new menu of Web-oriented shortcuts appears.

And while Windows 7 does enable handwriting recognition personalization by default so that the system learns your handwriting style as it goes, you could and probably should take the time to engage in a little handwriting recognition training if you think you?re going to be using a pen to interact with Windows 7 regularly. You can open the Handwriting Personalization tool right in the TIP: Click Tools, Personalize handwriting recognition to launch the Handwriting Personalization tool.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
Make it your own by teaching Windows 7 how you write.

Flicks and Gestures

Flicks, called "gestures" in other pen-based systems, are special quick movements you can make with a Tablet PC stylus over the digitizer to navigate quickly or launch shortcuts for commonly needed functionality such as copy and paste. With a flick, you literally flick the pen in a certain way to cause an action.

There are two types of flicks: navigational and editing. Navigational flicks include such things as scroll up, scroll down, back, and forward. Editing flicks include cut, copy, paste, delete, and undo. Flicks occur when you flick the pen in any of eight directions: up, down, left, right, and the diagonal positions between each.

Password Hiding on Logon with Pen

In the Windows XP Tablet PC Editions, you could log on to the PC using a stylus and the TIP in onscreen keyboard mode: All you had to do was tap your password with the stylus. The problem was that each key in the onscreen keyboard would be highlighted as you tapped, so someone looking over your shoulder could steal your password relatively easily.

In Windows 7, Microsoft has implemented a small but important security change: As you tap the onscreen keyboard on the TIP during logon, the keys are no longer highlighted. Your password is safe?or at least as safe as it can be?from prying eyes, although it?s a little disconcerting to tap the virtual keyboard and not get any feedback at all.

Secret: Microsoft also uses this technique whenever you need to enter a password in a secure Web page.

Shell Changes for Tablet PC Users

One thing you?ll probably notice right away is that Windows 7 displays a new user interface element by default when it detects Tablet PC hardware on your system. It?s a small check box that?s available next to virtually every shell item, including the desktop?s Recycle Bin and every icon in Computer and the other Explorers that appears when you move the mouse cursor over the item. (It also works in any shell view style.) In addition, it?s available in the Start Menu.

This check box makes it easier to select multiple items in the shell using a pen. Otherwise, you?d have to drag a selection box around, which can be difficult with a pen.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
Windows 7 offers a fairly elegant way to multi-select items with a pen.

One of the more disconcerting changes that will affect most users with Tablet PC hardware is that menu items in Explorer and various applications expand to the left of the mouse cursor, instead of to the right, as is usually the case.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
Righties will see pop-up menus on the left on Tablet PCs, which can be somewhat disconcerting.

This effect is visible only when you?ve configured the system?s Tablet PC functionality for right-handed use. (If you configured it for left-handed use, the menus appear on the right as usual with other Windows 7 PCs.) This is because users would otherwise cover up the menu with their hand while tapping around with the stylus. By having the menu pop up on the left, Microsoft can ensure that your hand won?t cover what you need to see.

Windows Touch

Building on the Tablet PC and touch capabilities in previous versions of Windows, Windows 7 is the first to offer pervasive multi-touch functionality courtesy of Windows Touch. That means that, with the proper computing hardware, such as a touch compatible desktop computer like HP's excellent TouchSmart line of products (Figure 4-76), or touch-compatible Tablet PCs, you can actually interact with Windows 7 almost entirely using just your fingers. It's a liberating experience.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
The HP TouchSmart PC touched off a new generation of touch-compatible PCs.

Touch support is pervasive throughout Windows 7, a fully integrated way of interacting with the system, much like the keyboard and mouse have been for the past few decades. Once you get the hang of the basics, you can pretty much use Windows Touch as your only interface to the system if you'd like, assuming you are using a touch-compatible screen. The Windows 7 touch interface is so natural and so obvious, that you'll be up and running in no time at all.

Touch-compatible PCs operate much like Tablet PCs and Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs). That is, the system can be navigated with a keyboard and mouse, as usual, but if you actually tap the screen with one or more fingers, you'll see a new mouse cursor, which looks a bit like a small star, appear as you tap the screen.

Windows 7 also makes some minor changes to the default UI when it is installed on touch-compatible hardware. For example, the size of onscreen elements is changed from the default Smaller (100 percent) setting to Medium (125 percent) so that window controls, buttons, and other UI objects are a bit larger and, thus, finger-friendly. (You can change this setting from the Display control panel.)

Tapping the screen to select items works just like clicking the mouse button. To right-click, hold down your finger on the screen for a few seconds. When a graphical circle appears around your fingertip, let go. Then, the expected right-click menu appears.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
You can right-click a touch screen by holding down your finger on the screen.

Every Windows 7 application can be accessed via touch, and indeed some of them have been dramatically updated to take advantage of unique Windows Touch functionality. For example, in Paint, you can paint with your finger, which is of course fun. But you can also use multi-touch to paint with two fingers simultaneously.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
Paint becomes Finger Paint with Windows Touch.

Other applications, like Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer, support finger flicks, which let you navigate back and forth from view to view by flicking your finger. In IE, for example, you can emulate the Back command by flicking your finger to the right within IE. To go Forward, flick to the left.

Windows Media Center is another application that is uniquely suitable for Windows Touch because of its overly-large buttons and other UI controls. Windows Media Player, too, is designed for touch access.

And it's no mistake that taskbar buttons are large and square in Windows 7: They're touch friendly. To trigger a taskbar button Jump List, just tap the button and, while holding down, swoop upwards. As you can see here, the Jump List will spring to life. (You can emulate this with a mouse too, if you're looking for unique new ways to use a mouse in Windows 7.)

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
Jump Lists can be activated via a finger swoop too.

Aero Peek is designed for touch, too: On a touch-enabled screen, it's twice as wide as usual to accommodate your finger tip.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Tablet PC and Touch
Aero Peek gets bigger so you can activate it with your chubby fingers.

 

Command Gesture What It Does
Click Tap Selects an object
Double-click Double tap Opens selected object
Right-click Press and hold (or, press and tap with second finger) Emulates a right-click
Drag Touch object and slide finger across screen Operates like selecting and dragging with a mouse
Scroll Drag up or down inside of document area of window Works like using the scrollbars
Zoom in Pinch two fingers together Zooms in on the current view
Zoom out Pinch two fingers apart Zooms out in the current view
Return to default zoom Two-finger tap Returns the view to the default zoom
Rotate Touch two spots and spin fingers Rotates current view (Supported applications, like Paint, only.)
Navigate back Flick right Emulates Back command
Navigate forward Flick left Emulates Forward command

Users of multi-touch compatible PCs should be on the lookout for the free Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7, a collection of fun games and applications:

Microsoft Blackboard, an intricate game of physics in which you solve a puzzle by creating a fanciful machine on a blackboard.

Microsoft Garden Pond, a tranquil game that takes place in serene Japanese water gardens.

Microsoft Rebound, a game in which you use your fingertips to control Tesla spheres with an electrical field between them to catapult a metal game ball into your opponent's goal.

Microsoft Surface Globe, a program that you can use to explore the earth as a flat 2-D map or as an immersive 3-D experience.

Microsoft Surface Collage, a program that you can use to explore and interact with your photos and arrange them as a desktop background.

Microsoft Surface Lagoon, a screen saver and interactive water simulation, complete with a meditative rock arrangement and playful, shy fish.

Note: Portions of this article were adapted from Windows 7 Secrets Chapter 18 (Using Tablet PCs and Ultra-Mobile PCs) and Chapter 4 (What's New in the Windows 7 User Experience). --Paul