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Electronic Class Notebook? 25

Kennric writes "I'd like to describe a device I have been wishing for, an electronic class notebook. I know a lot of Slashdotters are college students, how often do you use a laptop for schoolwork? Wouldn't I be great to be able to take notes by hand, draw diagrams, doodle in the margins, and save it electronically?"

"How about a web-pad like device, with a screen you can write on with a stylus? It would store each 'page' as a vector image, your writing would show on the screen just as if you were writing on paper. Such a device would have several useful features, you could 'highlight' sections for cross-referencing or searching later. Mark your homework assignmments with an electronic tag, and a small gui interface tucked along the bottom margin (or wherever) could be used to display anything marked as 'homework' (or equations, or comments, or whatever) on one page. Date and time stamping would be trivial. You could organise like crazy, download notes from your friend's pad, maybe someday directly from an electronic 'blackboard' where the professor is drawing something hideously complicated.

This device, as I picture it, would entirely replace a paper notebook. You could draw, write, tag, and so on, in a limited selection of colors (16, 32?) so that images would be small. Remember, there is no interpretation of what you write - no OCR or handwriting recognition, just what you write, saved and organised. (Though some sort of OCR or grafiti type recognition may be available to apply to notes if you want to try and export them to some word processing format.)

Logic requirments would be minimal, a few microdrives or future high-capacity memory would store the images incrementally as you write A backlit display would be nice but not necessary. A standard communications inteface (or three, USB, ethernet, infrared) would allow connecting to other notebooks or a PC. Thats all you would need, but I am sure a thousand note and academic type applications could be written for such a device. (Calculator, mp3 player, running as an overlay to your page of notes.)

I'd love to hear other ideas, comments, etc, on such a device. Would it sell? Would it be useful, is the idea practical?

If you have the means to manufacture such a thing, please take my idea and run - just send me one when they go into production.

Thanks all."
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Electronic Class Notebook?

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  • First of all, toys are cool. But I am getting tired of juggling laptop, palmtop, pager, cellphone, etc. This would mean one more device to buy, learn, synch, recharge, misplace, dropkick, etc. What we need is more general purpose devices that have the flexibility of a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook.
  • by jerrytcow ( 66962 ) on Tuesday January 02, 2001 @11:03AM (#536643) Homepage
    The first apple newton I bought (the 120 in '93 I think) could do much of what you're descibing. It could save handwritten notes as they were drawn - without the OCR conversion.

    It was much smaller than what you are suggesting, though. It sounds like you want something the size of a sheet of paper - and now you're talking about lugging something around that's as big as a laptop but with almost none of the functionality. That was part of the Newton's problem. It was much bigger than a Palm - to big to fit in your pocket, but didn't have the utility of a laptop to make it worth lugging around.

  • by Pauly ( 382 ) on Tuesday January 02, 2001 @11:18AM (#536644)
    I've often wanted something like this for general business use as well. Laptops are such over-priced over-kill for most people and how they use PC's.

    Furthermore, it has always struck me as insane the amount of document printing required to share ideas in every technology company in which I have worked. Printers should be the nemesis of PC's, not the preferred peripheral. It's 2001 people, time to quit killing trees for your expense (and book) reports.

    I would not leave out the handwriting recognition. Instead I would have it be an optional feature to be enabled only when desired. Any dedicated real estate used for that function would be reclaimed when that function is not needed.

    Also, don't underestimate some sort of local area communication. Infrared is nice, but not that reliable. Blue tooth will be nice if it ever materializes. Imagine walking into a meeting (or mid-term) and having everyone in attendance simply click a single icon and to hold all the notes/diagrams/pictures that you need to share.

    It may be a pipe dream, but I hope it isn't!

  • There was the crosspad [] which seems to have disappeared. They promise a 2.0 version, but I haven't seen it. I did use one of these once. It was OK, if not overly simplistic and limited in storage capacity.

    I personally would like to see the crosspad crossbred with a Palm Pilot!

  • I believe the fancy pen maker, Cross, made some sort of electronic pad-like device. I think I saw it listed in my PC Warehouse catalog a few times. It was made to look like a standard yellow legal pad, but it also had some buttons and what appeared to be a small LCD at the bottom. I think the idea was that it would store your scratchings and then you could transmit them to your PC for further work.
  • In the industry they're called pen computers []. Most pen computers are Palm-like devices, although some are clipboard-sized (other names are "clipboard computer" or "pen tablet"). Telxon [], Norand [], Microslate [], and Fujitsu [] make some. There also are notebook-like convertibles which hide or remove the keyboard, such as the Clio [].
  • Well, I've managed to keep my notes electronically using current devices.

    It works for everything but a math class.

    I have been purchasing low-cost laptops -- my first one was an Epson 486/66 for $1150 about 5 years ago, followed by a closeout Sony VAIO F250 when the Epson died last semester for about the same price.

    What I've done is created a nice MS Word style sheet and toolbar. This does everything but doodles. I haven't found a good solution for that.

    I think that a good first step would be an application that would run on any standard PC laptop for the purpose of taking notes. Letting somebody with a laptop take notes is a much less intensive project than trying to get the software and hardware both right.

    I did some work with this, but I haven't exactly gotten anywhere with it, mostly because of a lack of time. I mostly had the interface and some implementation code.
  • OK, after this I'm gonna quit talking to myself.

    It appears that what I wanted above has been made by Seiko. Check out the Smartpad [].

  • There a thing in a comp magazine I have that tracks pen movement as you right, I forget which MAg though...
  • by LinuxBean ( 1697 ) on Tuesday January 02, 2001 @01:27PM (#536651)
    I use a 8.5x11 Crosspad from Cross Pen Computing group to take notes in all my classes.

    Although they are discontinued there is linux software to download the files and convert them to postscript. (A google search will suffice)

    The new Crosspad2 is in beta testing now (I know at Case Western) and it should be out pretty soon.
    I have seen one in use and it comes with a USB (in addition to serial) port plus a holder for the pen (unlike the original crosspad). It also has multiple "memory" notebooks for multiple classes/meetings.

    It really comes in handy and I have all my notes catergorized on my computer and I have been able to get rid of annoying notebook paper.
  • by Mike Miller ( 28248 ) <> on Tuesday January 02, 2001 @01:50PM (#536652) Homepage
    When I was in college (OK, it's been a few years) I started out with a Dos-based 286 Toshiba laptop. No graphics, just text. This worked fairly well for taking notes, and then I'd move them over to my desktop 386 to edit/print/view them. This worked OK, but if the class had a lot of drawings, it was a serious problem. Note, remember with non-WYSIWYG editors, ascii-art was an option.

    After a year and a half of that, I got an Apple powerbook Duo 210. (68030, 8MB ram MacOS 7.?, 16-greyscale 640x400 <4lb). No floppy, no expansion ports or much of anything. But with a copy of an integrated wordprocessor/spreadsheet/drawing program (either clairsworks or MS-Works, I forget which I was using) I was able to do all kinds of stuff very quickly, and because it was light and small I could take it many more places and get stuff done.

    I used it for doing my physics labs writeups in the lab. I used it for a lot of English and other non CS non-Computer Engineering courses. For those it worked really well.

    If I was to do it today:

    • Good desktop machine. Get a nice desktop for your dorm/apartment. Plenty of ram, processor power and a really good monitor/keboard/mouse (remember how much typing you'll be doing on it at 2am!)
    • Very lightweight underpowered notebook. You don't need to be able to play quake III on your notebook (that's what the desktop is for). Get something used, like an IBM Thinkpad. Doesn't even need to be the same OS. Remember the laptop is just a text/drawing editor. Nothing more, so don't waste money on it in case something goes wrong...
    • I'd normally say that the full size WinCE machines like the Vadem Clio or the IBM z50 would be good, but they tend to be terribly expensive.
    • Attach some post-its to the laptop on the wrist-rest areas. Then have a pen handy to jot down quick diagrams that the professor is erasing too quickly.
    • Alternatively to a underpowered laptop, if you have mostly text, you could even use a Palmpilot with a keyboard!
    • Get a good way of syncing files from the laptop to the desktop. There are a variety of ways of doing this. Network/Samba/FTP copies, The windows 'briefcase' or even CVS (my personal favorite). Figure out what works for you, and then use it consistently.
    • Figure out how to connect it to the campus network so you can print using the printers on campus. (I didn't even have a printer of my own for the last three years of college. It wasn't useful)
    • Back up your desktop machine's data :-)

    The only alternatives to a two machine system that I've seen so far is the IBM Thinkpad A21p. And it runs around $4K and weighs in at 7.6lb. Don't ask about battery life. The +15in screen eats them alive. :-)

    Finally: Don't even try to use it in a math class or other highly symbolic class. Machines are optimized for text, and just don't deal well with inputting differential equations. It does seem a bit odd that Computer Engineers would have the hardest time using a computer to take notes, but that is what I've found. History, philosophy, even chemistry were fine, but all the nifty diagrams and charts made notetaking in upper division CS, CpE and EE classes substantially more difficult.

    - Mike

  • The new Crosspad2 is in beta testing now (I know at Case Western) and it should be out pretty soon.

    Looks interesting, though Cross themselves don't seem too interested in the Crosspad. I searched for more information and they mention a couple options; a serial cable and a leather cover.

  • Finally: Don't even try to use it in a math class or other highly symbolic class. Machines are optimized for text, and just don't deal well with inputting differential equations. It does seem a bit odd that Computer Engineers would have the hardest time using a computer to take notes, but that is what I've found. History, philosophy, even chemistry were fine, but all the nifty diagrams and charts made notetaking in upper division CS, CpE and EE classes substantially more difficult.

    Hm. It won't be the cheapest thing on the block, but if you're willing to stick (so far as I know) to a standard Windows install and maybe a Pentium-class machine, you could try something akin to Mathematica or Maple. Those symbolic math [:)] programs allow you to store/save your work, and they'll help (if needed) with some of the math itself, too.

    They'll also help with some of the graphing, iterating, etc. that you'd do with a normal calculator (*coughTI89cough*).

  • - I also can't close my tags, apparantly. :)
  • Maybe you mean Pen Computing magazine? Look at the "Telxon" link above.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    As a college student, I found myself downloading professors' online notes, usually in pdf or postscript (or even powerpoint). What I really wanted was an application so I could take digital notes over the online notes (either with a stylus or typed), as I would had I printed out the notes and scribbled on them in class. I originally envisioned the app on a notebook, but I suppose it would work as well or better on a webpad.

    I suppose developing the app would be fairly trivial, but I was too lazy to start development while I was in school (and now that I'm out, why bother?). Just a simple program to record penstrokes/typed text as bitmaps overlaid on the online notes and to associate the bitmaps with each corresponding page of notes.

    Oh yeah, to top it off, maybe have the app record the audio portion of the lecture and timestamp each page of notes to correspond with what's being said during the lecture. And of course net access (wireless or in-class ethernet) for quick access to online notes or anything else while bored in class, but I guess that's part of the webpad, not the app.

    Anyone want to add anything else?

    As if this will get read. I hate being AC because you're always moderated way down. I don't like registering for NYT to read articles, and I don't like registering for /. just so people will read my posts.

  • I'd like one. I've thought about making one myself. Handwriting is key! I don't like to type so I don't carry the laptop to class. In fact there are a bunch of posts that say laptops can do this. That's nice but not within the specs. The Palm is too small to take notes on but I wouldn't mind writing grafiti to get my notes into the computer.
  • There is loads of programs for the Palm which allow you to take notes in image format, you just really need one of those. I use one called Handwrite3 which lets me take notes quicker than I can grafiti.

    But what you really need is a bigger screen, Imagine a palmOS based webpad with an A5 or A4 sized screen, Perfect.
  • The problem with doing that (I had Matlab on the Mac, and access to Mathematica and MathCad on other platforms) is twofold:
    1. You can't type symbolic stuff fast enough. Unless their interfaces have significantly changed, you just can't get in the data as fast as writing all the squggly bits placed correctly next to each other fast enough.
    2. The notes that you take are designed to show you how to solve the problems with the intermediary steps. Dumping them into Maple is great in that it will solve them for you, but you don't get the intermedary stuff that you need to actually understand how to do it on the test ;-)
    Don't get me wrong, those symbolic math programs are some of the coolest things since sliced bread, but they weren't designed for taking notes (well, MathCad might not be too bad if you had the interface really down). But then again, publishing programs like latex and FrameMaker do a great job with formatting complex equations. But again, the input rate is a dangerous issue.

    - Mike

  • The specs for the A21p list a 4hr battery life. The specs for my A20p listed the same, and I definately get 4 hours out of it. And with the Ultrabay 2k battery, you could probably get a lot more.

    In any case, I have no problem playing DVDs off battery for 2.5 hours (might be able to do longer, but I ran out of DVD).

    You are correct that it is huge and expensive... but its battery life is among the best I've seen.
  • I won a Jornada in an HP-sponsored contest and it's been _really_ helpful. Some of my friends also take notes on Palms. Compared to a full-size notebook, it's less conspicuous - a concern especially when many of your classmates don't have access to the same technology. Teachers might also be disturbed by too overt use of technology (you may be playing Hearts, for all they know! =) ). So a PDA's small enough to not attract a lot of attention. Besides, some labs don't allow user-owned computers inside, although PDAs are OK.

    Handwriting recognition - enhanced with programs like Transcriber, which I use on my Jornada - are a great plus, especially since touch-typing is difficult when the keyboard is much smaller than normal keyboards. I don't have room in my budget for one of those fancy folding or flexible keyboards, and tapping the tiny keys on my screen can be difficult when I'm trying to pay attention to the teacher. Being able to look at the board or at the teacher during the lecture really helps me comprehend the notes I'm taking. =)

    I can sketch on my screen, and I carry around pad paper for the more complicated figures, labelling them with [Fig N] and referencing them in my notes.

    After the day's classes, I usually go over my notes, tidying them up and formatting them for sharing on our groupware system. We use LearnLoop ( []) to share our files - it's a cool system. =)

    Using a PDA to take notes makes more sense to me than typing my notes up after class, although the latter would help me review better. =) Sure, data entry's a bit slower, but being able to edit my notes - I take notes in a rather non-linear fashion =) - is one of the things I really like about using my PDA.

  • I think I first saw this design in the movie "2001". Look at the tablets being carried around by the astronauts. HAL seemed to interface to them, although they weren't used much as a computer control -- probably mostly due to people's lack of experience with computer interfaces at the time, and HAL's audio interface was easier for movie presentation purposes. The wireless fullscreen video is still a little awkward to do.
  • Isn't this exactly the type of device, "A computer notebook" that Gates showed at Comdex last November in his KeyNote? I think it's still avialable at the Comdex website. One of the key features that it possessed was a very high sampling rate with real-time anti-aliasing which also provided the ability to search, format, etc... Looked exactly like what you are describing...
  • No kidding. I assumed it was in the same class at the T20 laptops that we have around here that are good for about an hour.

    - Mike

  • ummm I have had my palm confiscated too many times in class (still in school) but am still saving up for a laptop to annoy teachers with :-)
    The palm is not really adequate for taking notes in class altho I haven't seen the M100's feature of being able to draw pics in the middle of memos.
    I did see on tv a while back a "all in one" sketch-pad, handwriting recog, mobile phone -everything but it was based @ the school market *shrugs* and I can't remember nething about it.
    If anything did come out over there in the US of A it will be atleast 2 years be4 it comes over here to ickle UK
    cya u all

"The pyramid is opening!" "Which one?" "The one with the ever-widening hole in it!" -- The Firesign Theatre