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How to read and write on a computer
―and enjoy it

Chances are that you read quite a bit on your computer but you don’t enjoy it much, not like you do reading a book anyway. Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news about that. The good news is that you can enjoy reading on a computer even more than you do a book. The bad news is that you probably need a new computer.

The trouble with reading on most computers is that the monitor is sitting on a desk along with a keyboard, a mouse, a whole bunch of wires, a printer and other paraphernalia, while you are sitting up in a straight chair addressing all of the above, whereas a book is just a book, a light little thing with no wires and you can curl up with it on the sofa, in an easy chair or even in bed. There’s the problem in a nutshell.

Slate computers, small, light, wireless computers, without a keyboard exist but for a variety of reasons which I’ll touch on do not yet have a very good sales record. But this will change in the next few years. You heard it here first. I read avidly on my slate computer, a great deal more than most people and nearly this entire site has been developed without using a keyboard.  So I’m not just spouting off opinion; well, yes I am, but it’s informed opinion. Most of the time when I use my computer I am either in bed, lying on my window-seat, settled comfortably on a couch or ensconced in a nice easy chair, roughly in order of preference.

You may not know just what a slate computer is. There are basically two types: the most common today looks just about like a portable computer except that the screen is mounted on the back of the keyboard in the normal way, but it twists in such a way that the keyboard can fold behind the screen, where it is not used. The true slate computer looks to be just a screen into which you can plug a keyboard when and if you want to. I don’t, ever. This kind of computer is lighter than the kind with a built in keyboard.

These computers optionally have a docking station which essentially enables you to a convert it into a desktop computer if for some reason you need to work at a desk. Implicit it in my discussion here is that your computer is not being used for let us say computer programming or other arcane uses such as CAD or accounting, which is probably more comfortable to do at desk. My assumption is that you’re largely using your computer in a mobile fashion for reading on the Internet or reading e-books, for writing, for e-mail, taking notes, viewing digital pictures and videos and other similar uses.  For these uses the keyboard is redundant and is included with slate computers mainly because people are habituated to keying things into computers and because the handwriting recognition and speech dictation that are really the intended ways to get information into slate computers is not foolproof. Yet it is now very, very close. And getting better very quickly. Only a few years ago I bought some speech recognition software to try out on my standard portable. It was abominable, unusable in fact, yet today handwriting and speech recognition is simply a part of the operating system and functions quite well for most uses.

The slate computer I use now is about eight by twelve, ¾ of an inch thick and weighs 3lbs with the battery. It has a 12.3in. diagonal screen, and is just a little bigger and only slightly heavier than most hardcover books (though actually lighter than some books I’ve read). You can hold it portrait mode which is best for reading books or browsing the Internet and you can hold it landscape mode if you want to watch a full screen movie or a video clip or just to read a very wide web site (though I find that most of the stuff on each side of the text stream on a web site is usually stuff you want to avoid anyway). They also make smaller tablets that are perhaps 8in. diagonally and weighs only about 2lbs, roughly the size of a soft cover book. Some tablets have indoor-outdoor screens that you could use even at the beach, though they cost a little more.

Today, using no third party software, only the Microsoft’s Windows operating system for Tablet PCs, handwriting recognition is just about foolproof and in some ways even better than ordinary handwriting because it uses a dictionary to try to determine what you have just written. So if you really don’t know how to spell a word you just take a stab at it and nine times out of ten it will correct the spelling on the fly for you if you have it wrong. You write in script though you could use block letters if you chose to.  You can write very badly and it will still recognize what you are writing. I use handwriting for small emails, appointments and notes but it is too hard on your hand and wrist to use handwriting to write anything that’s very long. Though it didn’t seem to bother Wordsworth, it does bother me.

Speech recognition, which is not now as far advanced as handwriting recognition, is what you use for writing longer pieces. Unlike handwriting, dictation involves a certain amount of training, both you training the computer, and the computer training you. But once this is done, and initially it takes about a half an hour (you read stories to it), you’re pretty good to go even if you have a deep South Carolina accent, and unless you get a tonsillectomy or suddenly become a nine year old boy and your voice changes back, that’s the end of it. Oddly enough, the way dictation works best is to speak whole phrases at a time in your natural way of speaking rather than to try to elaborate each word separately as though speaking to a young child. Used in this fashion it is surprisingly good at distinguishing between let’s say, “ to”, “too” and “two”, and other homonyms. There are times when it makes mistakes of course but when using Microsoft Word you just select the offending word with a right click and then it shows you all the alternatives that it might be. The one you want is usually in the list and you just tap it. That’s it.

There are limitations of course: from a practical point of view you can’t use speech recognition in a conference room to take notes, though there, handwriting on your slate computer is more like traditional note taking and would be less disturbing to others than keying into your portable. You can later automatically convert the script notes into ASCII text automatically if you wish.  Dictating would probably not work well in an open office either, partly because you get a lot of stray noises and also because most people are naturally self conscious about dictating in the hearing of others. But if you have your own office or you’re alone at home it is very, very convenient; you can just wander around the house and do as you please while actually accomplishing something.

Another significant dictation problem is that it works quite well in Microsoft Word but not so well in text boxes or other “foreign” writing programs, for example a wiki. Microsoft Word though is quite smart about certain things: it will notice whether you use two spaces after a sentence or just one and then do it for you automatically; it will capitalize the first letter of a sentence automatically; and it will use appropriate spacing between words and tighten up periods to the last word in a sentence.

So far I’ve touched mainly on the liabilities of slate computers. But they have significant benefits as well. When reading or writing you can change your position, lie on one side or another, sit up or lie back as you do with a book. In many ways they’re actually better than reading a book: You don’t have to keep cracking the spine when you reach a new page of a brand new book to keep the page from falling back on its neighbor. Another thing is that they provide their own light, you don’t have to constantly shift around so that the book is always facing what light you have. It will remember the page you last read, eliminating bookmarks or turning over the corner of the page.  You can also search for a word or phrase that you might be interested in. There is a built in dictionary, and if what you are reading refers to something you never heard of before, or you’re looking for a synonym, you can just look it up in the dictionary or, for more esoteric phrases, simply drag it into your Google toolbar and find out probably everything you want to know about it.

As to dictation, you’ll find that speaking is actually a more natural way to write and yields more readable copy than keying. When keying you first have to rehearse speech in your head anyway; dictating is the same. Editing with speech is a snap too, even easier than using a mouse and keyboard, just stroke the word or phrase or sentence that you don’t want with the stylus and say what you do want; the replacement is made automatically. And because you can speak so much faster than you can key—at least I can—you don’t hesitate to improve some phrase that’s a little awkward.

Online books, like slate computers, are just not quite there: first of all there’s not enough of them, and the ones there are usually aren’t the ones you want to read anyway. All that’s about to change. You may have heard of Google’s agreement with Harvard, the University of Michigan, and several other major schools and libraries, to digitize all their books, millions of books. Yes, there are lawsuits pending, on copyright issues (you probably won’t be able to read copyrighted material in its entirety, but you will be able to search for phrases, see text that surrounds it, and then easily buy it if you like). But it is inconceivable to me that ultimately the entire written knowledge of man will not be available on the Internet. It will come to pass, and you can mark my words that someday in the not too distant future if media is not on the Internet it just will not seem to exist. When was the last time you went to the library?

As to watching film or digital clips of TV shows it is quite remarkable how convenient it is to do on the slate even though it’s pretty small. You simply prop it up about twelve to 18in. from your eyes and it’s just as clear and crisp as a big TV that is 12ft. away from you. And if you simply have to have the big screen, as I write there is hardware and software under development that will permit your computer to wirelessly send the movie on your PC to your (probably 42in.) TV.

There is yet another advantage to slate computers: you can draw pictures with them.  This may not be of interest to everyone but if you have an artistic bent and you’re making a web site, you quickly realize that you cannot in a practical sense use a mouse to draw with.  But you can use a pen-type stylus, which feels quite natural.  In fact there are quite sophisticated programs that even enable one to create digital “oil paintings”, in this way, in addition to the many regular “drawing” programs that exist.

So hang onto your hat, a fresh wind is blowing, and soon you will be able to lose your keyboard. 

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