Skritter Input Device Roundup: Updated 2012 Edition
I first wrote our input device roundup back in November of 2010, nearly 2 years ago! In the intervening time, input device choices for Skritter have changed substantially. Most notably, we have added support for iOS devices, but laptop touchpads, and writing tablets have advanced as well and we felt it was time to re-test to once again find out which device works best with Skritter.
Unlike the previous test in which I was able to time myself writing a certain number of prompts, the iOS app doesn't have Scratchpad support, so I instead decided on a simpler, albeit more subjective, test: I just studied the first section on Integrated Chinese 3rd Edition with each of the devices for ten minutes and reported on my impressions.
I tested a Macbook Air trackpad (with multitouch support), a netbook trackpad, a standard Microsft laser mouse, a Wacom Bamboo writing tablet, a Monoprice writing tablet, an HTC Incredible running Android 2.3, a 4th generation iPod Touch, an iPad 3, and a Tablet PC. See the results at the end.
Unlike the first input device review, we weren't able to be as exacting about the time required to complete prompts. This was due to the fact that the iOS client doesn't have scratchpad support. So instead, I chose to invert the test, using each platform for 10 uninterrupted minutes on the first section of Integrated Chinese 3rd Edition. The purpose in limiting the time was to provide ample opportunity for me to adjust to the device while providing minimal to no content anxiety (I already knew the material).I did go into the test with a slight bias towards the Wacom Bamboo tablets. However, the results of the test actually made me reconsider my brand loyalty. Let's get started:
MacBook Air Multi-touch trackpad
Apple produces some of the best computer hardware available. The MacBook Air is no exception: it's beautifully designed, expensive, and sports a multi-touch trackpad that affords three different methods of Skritter input. Unlike traditional touchpads (such as the one on the netbook reviewed below), the MacBook Pro doesn't have a button on its trackpad--the entire pad is a button. Supposedly you have three options for using the trackpad:
- Press down to click, then drag with that finger pressed down to write a stroke.
- Press down with one finger, then lightly move with a second finger.
- Double-tap the pad with one finger, and then lightly move with that finger.
Results: I tested method #1 and quickly abandoned all hope of doing 10 minutes of practice. I wasn't able to get method #2 to work at all, and so I was left with method #3. The trackpad is constructed of a plastic that slows your figure down. Normally this is a desireable trait: you don't want to careen off into another window and press something accidentally after all. But when writing characters, I found myself writing tiny verions of each stroke and relying on Skritter's handwriting recognition to make heads or tails of the input. The writing was physically difficult, the scale of the writing was way off, and it was seriously taxing for my fingers. I thought that perhaps the newest generation of Mac multi-touch trackpads may have improved the Skritter experience, but I was proven completely wrong. It's just as hard and just as unpleasant. For anyone serious about learning characters quickly or efficiently, don't use a trackpad.
There is a potential fix to the MacBook problem: purchase a Pogo Sketch stylus and Inklet to turn your MacBook trackpad into a sort of writing tablet. We haven't tried this one, but a user writes in to say that "the experience is pretty good, but not perfect ... a very portable solution".
Asus Eee PC Trackpad
As a point of comparison, I wanted to see what the Skritter experience would be like on both a premium (MacBook Air) and budget (Eee PC) notebook. Apart from their size and weight, the two notebooks couldn't be more different. The Air is performant, modern, and elegant, the netbook is slow, 2 years old, and stodgy. The results were therefore pretty surprising!
Results: for a little notebook that costs ~$250, I didn't have high expectations. I have all but stopped using it for web browsing because it is slow, unresponsive, and the screen is so small it feels like you are looking at webpages through a keyhole. Despite all of this, I think I actually prefer the netbook to the Air for Skrittering. The key action on the netbook trackpad is more satisfying, the trackpad surface is more conducive to gliding your finger, and the flash window fits neatly onto the screen. It's still a trackpad, which is just to say that it's not a terribly pleasant way to learn, but it sure is economical. If all you want to do is Skritter, don't buy a Macbook; for the cost of one MacBook Air, I could have 4 of these netbooks.
Microsoft Laser Mouse
Probably the most commonly used input device for any computer is the mouse, and the mouse I tested was incredibly basic. It sports relatively low sensitivity, a simple two-button design, and a standard scroll wheel.
Results: The mouse was surprisingly comfortable and quick, especially compared with the Mac and Netbook trackpads and Android device. I was flying through the characters in a semi-cursive blur for most of the time. While the mouse didn't feel as natural as the Android or iOS devices, for standard every day practicing, the mouse seems perfectly viable. The one thing that I found troubling about the mouse is the amount of strain it put on my write and finger. Because you have to hold he button and move the mouse at the same time, folks who suffer from RSI symptoms will probably prefer anything but the mouse for daily practice.
HTC Incredible Running Android 2.3
With the release of our iOS version and Adobe's recent abandonment of Flash, the quality of the Android experience has been falling off, and it was very noticeable on my older, slower phone. When purchased back in late 2010, the HTC incredible cost $500 from Verizon. It's somewhat antiquated at this point but is excellent for exactly that reason: many of our customers have older Android devices and we thought it would be helpfult to have a point of comparison.
Results: there is no getting around the direct comparison to the iPhone app (here tested on an iPod Touch) and the results aren't favorable for the Android. It's frustratingly slow, the writing doesn't work in real time, the interface isn't optimized for a mobile experience, buttons outside of the toolbar are all but unclickable, the zoom leaves graphics pixelated, none of the animations are fast enough to run in real time, advancing takes a second or more, and I wasn't able to get sound to play. Despite ALL of these significant drawbacks, after a minute or two of learning to anticipate the lag, I still preferred the writing experience to the Mac trackpad. Not only is it more natural to write with your finger, all delays considered, I think the Mac trackpad and Android are about as fast.
Monoprice Writing Tablet
Ever since we started Skritter people have been tantalizing us with stories of small, cheaper Chinese tablets not available here in the States. Several months back, we heard from a forum member who had tried a tablet that seemed to match the description of these Chinese tablets, but this one was available in the US. Needless to say, we rushed out and bought it immediately. We have tested a lot of weird input devices in the pursuit of the best input device for Skritter, so we were pretty skeptical of a writing tablet that only cost $20 and was made by an off-brand.
Results: The tablet itself met our expectations: it's more cheaply made than the entry level Wacom devices, it doesn't feel as smooth to write, and the pen it uses has a battery in it, which makes your fingers work hard as you try to write and counterbalance the weight. Despite these drawbacks, I was able to write just as fast as with the Wacom, and the writing experience was very comparable to the Wacom. The tablet has a massive advantage over the trackpads and mouse in that you are actually writing and training muscle memory. While there is a disconnect between writing on a tablet and seeing the strokes appear on a monitor, it was far and away a more pleasurable Skrittering experience to actually write the way I would on paper and whip through Skritter prompts.
Note: the Monoprice tablet does have Mac drivers and won't work without them installed.
Wacom Bamboo Writing Tables
Wacom tablets are the premium solution for those of us wanting a tablet for more than just Skrittering. We actually used a Wacom writing tablet to build Skritter's stroke recognition, and until the iOS came out, it was the first device we recommended to our users as an alternative to mice. We personally own four Wacom tablets in the Skritter HQ (Scott has a Medium Bamboo, Nick has an antique Graphire and a modern Bamboo, and I have the small modern version). In terms of build quality and ease of use, they are the best we've tried. On some platforms and browsers, your Skritter writing looks nicer due to pressure-sensitivity support.
Results: the Bamboo is an excellent way to Skritter. Even though I prefer the iOS interface, the Wacom is the closest to actually writing you can come without ditching a computer and just reverting to pencil and paper. The one issue I found was that compared to other forms of input, it was pretty twitchy, which sometimes made it hard to get small or intricate strokes correct on the first try. I suspect this is just a result of me being used to the iOS interface, however.
Fourth Generation iPod Touch
The iPod Touch is essentially a less powerful and de-phoned iPhone. It has a thinner profile, but an equal number of onscreen pixels. I picked up an 8GB model from Newegg for $200, which makes it slightly cheaper than the netbook, but markedly more expensive than the mouse or even the Wacom tablet. Due to the cost, I wouldn't recommend getting one just to use Skritter, but if you have or want to get an iPod or iPhone it's an excellent device to practice on.
Results: entering characters into the iPod Touch isn't as perfect as I might like due to the smaller size of the screen and the necessity of holding it in place (if you don't write with the thumb of the hand you are holding with). Depending on your preferred writing style, this could be the perfect device to Skritter on. It's responsive, accurate, and best of all, it uses your finger as the stylus. In my original input device review I named the tablet PC the best input device, but in this round it's clearly an iOS device. Writing is like cutting warm butter with a steak knife. It's like cutting tin foil with scissors. It's like tearing shrink wrap off a new electronic gadget. It's that good. The only downside is that due to it's slightly less powerful hardware, it does stutter from time to time, but it's a minor inconvenience.
iPad 3 (The New iPad)
As far as tablets and mobile computing goes, the iPad is currently the king. It's sleek, it's expensive, and it has significantly faster hardware than an iPod or iPhone. In it's newest incarnation, the big selling point is the Retina screen, which gives it excellent clarity and color depth. While Skritter is built to take advantage of Retina displays on smaller devices, there isn't an iPad-specific layout when I wrote this.
Results: if you hadn't guessed already, the iPad is the king not just of tablet computers, but of Skritter input devices. Though less expensive than an upper-end Wacom tablet or Lenovo Tablet PC, it also has a kingly entry price of $500. The advantage of writing on an iPad versus the iPod/iPhone is the screen real estate. You get to draw bigger, there isn't a single performance hiccup due to the faster hardware, and you get to notice all the UI nuances which are lost at the smaller sizes. Although it can be a pain to hold the iPad and it does get warm when being used, it's the clear champion of this input device round.
Cost aside, the Tablet PC is one of the best input devices I tested. You write directly on the screen, and it feels just like writing on a piece of paper: you put the stylus down and you get writing. (Note that there are also Wacom tablets with screens, which may be even better--if you have experience with one, let us know.)
Results: With the tablet PC I was able to write almost as fast as with the Wacom tablets and iPad, and it was a lot of fun. If there were any real problems with the Tablet PC I suspect they arose from the particular computer I was using, which was more than three years old and quite slow by modern standards. I had to press harder on the Tablet PC surface than on the Monoprice or Wacom tablets, and the computer seemed to be having a little trouble keeping up. That said, a bunch of Windows updates had just been installed, so that might well have been causing the slowness.
Conclusion and Recommendations
So, at the end of the day, what do we recommend for use with Skritter? Well, it depends upon your circumstances.
If you want to write quickly and naturally and money is no object, the obvious winner is the iPad. It allows you to write with your finger or stylus at a size that allows you to more easily sketch the most complex characters with ease. It is immersive, immediate, and just plain fun.
For those of us that don't have $500 to drop on a cool new way to write characters on Skritter, the Wacom tablet is the clear answer. They start at $50, they allow for natural handwriting, and they work with any notebook or desktop computer. In our experience, they don't wear out quickly, and can also be used for sketching/drawing in programs like Photoshop.
That leaves trackpads and mice for the birds, which is where they belong. Not only is it time consuming and potentially harmful for your wrist and hand to use either one for long stretches, it can be hard to translate the movements you end up learning into reproducing the characters in the real world.