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Enabling and Customizing Pen and Touch Features

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For years, touching a PC screen did nothing except leave a greasy smudge on the glass. That's still the case if you have a desktop or notebook PC with a conventional display—Windows 7 cannot magically turn your old LCD into a touch screen. But if your hardware includes a display that can recognize the touch of a pen or a finger, you can input text and manage windows, icons, and other on-screen objects directly.

For basic program management and web browsing, you can use a finger or the Tablet PC pen as a mouse, opening programs, selecting menu options, moving scroll bars, and clicking hyperlinks by pointing, dragging, and tapping. If your PC includes a pen, you can use it to enter handwritten notes directly on the screen, using pen-aware applications such as Windows Journal (included with Windows 7) or Microsoft Office OneNote. You can add handwritten annotations to Microsoft Office Word documents and Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheets and share the marked-up files—even if your coworker is using a conventional PC. You can send handwritten notes to other people via e-mail or Windows Live Messenger, or you can convert those scribbled notes to text and then insert the converted text into other documents.

The full range of features available to you depends on your hardware. Widely available options included two basic categories of PC designs:

  • Touch-enabled PCs These are typically all-in-one devices that integrate the motherboard, memory, and storage in the same housing as the display. You can use a keyboard or mouse for conventional computing tasks or hide those input devices and control media playback and other functions using touch.

  • Tablet PCs These are notebook computers that include the capability to enter and edit data using a pen and a specially digitized screen. Tablet PC hardware typically uses one of two configurations. Slate designs do not include a built-in keyboard (although they can accept an external keyboard or mouse) and are intended for use primarily with a pen. Convertible designs resemble a conventional notebook, with a keyboard and pointing device; by rotating the screen on a hinge and folding it over the keyboard, you can switch the PC into a position that allows you to work with the pen in a more natural fashion. From a software point of view, there is no difference between the two designs.

The history of PC design suggests that these form factors will be joined in the future by new designs that take advantage of touch features for special-purpose applications. For example, it's easy to imagine a small touch-enabled device, powered by Windows 7, that is designed to sit on a living room table and control Media Center functions on a big-screen TV.

Inside Out: What makes a touch or tablet screen special?

The difference between a standard LCD display and one that is able to accept direct input from a pen or finger is an extra layer of technology called a digitizer. The specific implementations of this technology vary, depending on the intended application, and can typically be divided into two broad classes. An active digitizer responds only to a specific type of input device, such as a pen or stylus, which contains electronic components that transmit electromagnetic information to the sensor behind the LCD. This arrangement allows the digitizer to respond to input even if the point of the stylus is merely hovering over the screen; it also allows Windows to record different degrees of pressure with very high precision (to make thick and thin ink strokes, for example). A passive digitizer, which is typically used in dedicated devices such as ATMs and check-in kiosks at airports, is less precise and responds to any kind of pressure, including the press of a finger. Hybrid designs combine both types of digitizer technologies to allow handwriting input and simplified touch navigation.

If you have an older computer that supports pen or single-touch input only, you will not be able to enable the multitouch features in Windows 7. In fact, even some PC designs that bill themselves as multitouch might not provide you access to the new touch features in Windows 7. If in doubt, look for the logo indicating that the computer has passed Microsoft's stringent compatibility tests for touch support. Finally, if your computer has a touchpad that is capable of accepting multitouch input, prepare to be at least a little disappointed. These features are supplied by device manufacturers only and are not supported by the Windows Touch subsystem in Windows 7.

If you purchase a new PC with Windows 7, any drivers and utilities required to enable touch and pen input will already be installed by the PC maker. If you upgrade to Windows 7 or perform a clean install, you might need to visit the hardware manufacturer's website to download and install required drivers. To check the status of pen and touch support, open Control Panel, click System (under the System And Security heading), and look at the last line under the System heading. The system whose properties are shown here includes support for the full range of pen and multitouch features.

To see the full range of hardware settings, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the options under the Pen And Touch heading in Control Panel options.

For a touch-enabled PC, the most important options are available on the Touch tab of the Pen And Touch dialog box, which is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Use the settings in this dialog box to enable or disable touch input and to customize its behavior.

The check boxes at the top of this dialog box allow you to enable or disable touch and multitouch input. The Touch Actions section in the center includes options for customizing the touch behaviors that correspond to common mouse actions. Select either entry from the list and then click or tap Settings to change the way it works. These options are especially useful if you need to increase or decrease the sensitivity of the response to a double-tap action.

The check box in the Touch Pointer section at the bottom is normally not selected. When this option is enabled, touching the screen displays a large, transparent pointer in the shape of a mouse. Click either of the virtual buttons on this virtual mouse to simulate a click or right-click.

Inside Out: Right-click with one or two fingers

On a PC with limited touch support, you can simulate a right-click by pressing the screen and holding your finger until you see a large circle. When you remove your finger from the screen, the shortcut menu appears just as if you had clicked the right mouse button. On a PC that supports multitouch features, you have an additional choice to simulate a right-click: touch the screen with your index finger, and then tap with the middle finger.

The Pen Options tab of the Pen And Touch dialog box, shown in Figure 2, offers a similar set of options for Tablet PCs.

Figure 2. The options in this dialog box allow you to fine-tune the behavior of the pen when it's used as a pointing device.

Table 1 lists the four pen actions and the possible adjustments you can make by selecting the pen action and then clicking Settings.

Table 1. Settings for Pen Actions
Pen ActionSettings
Single-tap (click)Settings cannot be adjusted.
Double-tap (double-click)Use the Speed control to define the maximum pause that can occur between the two taps that make up a double-tap; use the Spatial Tolerance slider to define the distance that can separate the two taps that make up a double-tap.
Press and hold (right-click)Use the Speed and Duration sliders to define the amount of time you need to press and hold the pen against the screen to emulate a right-click.
Start Input Panel gestureBy default, this setting is disabled; select the check box to enable and then define the extent of the side-to-side movement you need to make with the pen to open the Input Panel.

Some pens with buttons have a combination button that acts as a right-click if pushed one way and as an eraser if pressed differently. The Pen Options tab includes a setting for whether to use the top of the pen as an eraser. You can select this setting independently of the setting to use the pen button as a right-click equivalent.

Inside Out: Adjusting for left-handed use

Are you left-handed? If so, you're probably accustomed to a world where everything seems to have been designed backwards. In the case of a PC with pen or touch support, the operating system assumes you'll tap the screen or manipulate the pen with your right hand, and thus it displays shortcut menus and ScreenTips to the left of wherever you're tapping, sliding, or writing. On the Other tab of the Tablet PC Settings dialog box, adjust the Handedness option, as shown here, so that Windows can more accurately recognize your "backwards" handwriting. This option adjusts the default position of menus and ScreenTips so that they fly out to the right, where they aren't covered by your hand. This option affects the touch pointer as well.

1. Calibrating the Screen

Many PCs that support pen and touch input require you to go through a calibration step on first use; you can repeat the calibration process any time if you notice that your taps aren't working as expected.

When you use an active digitizer, accurately mapping the relationship between pen and screen is essential. The precision with which you can control the pointer's location with the pen depends in part on how you hold the pen and your posture in relation to your tablet. If the digitizer is off by even a few pixels, tapping the screen to click a button or select a menu option might not produce the expected result. Calibrating a touch screen is less crucial, because most touch operations don't involve precision activities, but it's still a good practice.

You'll find the calibration options in the Tablet PC Settings dialog box. On the Display tab, tap Calibrate. If your PC supports both pen and touch input, you'll need to calibrate each input mode separately.

The calibration process displays a series of between 4 and 16 on-screen targets in the form of crosshairs; tap the center of each target in turn, and then save the calibration data when prompted. Calibration has to be performed separately for both Landscape and Portrait orientations, and if you use the screen upside-down in either orientation (denoted as Secondary Portrait and Secondary Landscape), you have to run through the calibration procedure for those orientations as well.

2. Changing Orientation

Tablet PCs are designed so that you can change the screen orientation from landscape to portrait (and back to landscape) without rebooting. This versatility is especially important in convertible Tablet PCs, where you might work in landscape orientation for part of your day, using the keyboard and built-in pointing device to create and edit a spreadsheet, and then switch into portrait mode to take handwritten notes at a meeting. Most convertible PCs change screen orientation automatically when you pivot the screen on its hinge; to change orientation manually, right-click the desktop and select Screen Resolution from the shortcut menu, make a selection from the drop-down Orientation list, and then click or tap Apply or OK.

This change in orientation happens almost instantaneously.

If opening this dialog box seems like a cumbersome way to change orientation, you're right. It's much easier to use the Screen Orientation options in Windows Mobility Center (Windows logo key+X). To change the predetermined sequence of orientations, click the Display tab of the Tablet PC Settings dialog box, and then tap or click Go To Orientation. This option allows you to enter up to four orientations in the numbered boxes, as shown in Figure 3. (If you want to cycle between two orientations, set options 3 and 4 to None). Windows switches to the next item in this sequence each time you tap the Rotate Screen button in Windows Mobility Center. If you have a hardware button that is dedicated to this function, it respects your settings here as well.

Figure 3. The order you assign in this dialog box determines how the screen responds when you tap the Rotate Screen button.

3. Redefining Tablet PC Buttons

Tablet buttons allow access to some common functions when a keyboard is unavailable. Typically, these buttons are built into the computer's case, in the bezel alongside the display, within easy reach of your hands when using the computer as a tablet. It's common to find a Security button, for example, which has the same effect when pressed as does the Ctrl+Alt+Delete combination on a conventional keyboard.

Each Tablet PC design is different, but many hardware designers include buttons that you can customize to perform any of a long list of actions, including standard keyboard commands (Down Arrow, Up Arrow, and Enter, for example) or running an application. To customize them, open the Tablet PC Settings dialog box from Control Panel and tap the Buttons tab. Figure 4 shows the available settings for a Dell Latitude XT Tablet PC with six customizable buttons.

Figure 4. If your Tablet PC includes support for customizable hardware buttons, this tab will be visible. The images shown here are specific to this model.

By default, the tablet buttons perform the same actions for all screen orientations; however, you can assign different actions to the buttons for different orientations. Using the buttons for actions associated with the keyboard is most helpful when you're using the tablet with pen input only. When browsing the web, for instance, you might find it helpful to redefine the Up Arrow and Down Arrow buttons so that they emulate the Mouse Wheel Up and Mouse Wheel Down actions instead. Having quick access to these actions is not nearly as helpful on a convertible Tablet PC when the full keyboard is available, nor is it necessary if touch input is available. For that configuration, consider defining the tablet buttons to launch applications you use frequently.

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