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The Writers Workbench: The Digital Pen is Mightier Than the Digital Sword

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We've heard about the Electronic Office. And how digital files will replace paper. Well, while the former has happened, the latter hasn't. For one thing, paper - for many reasons - is just too convenient. For another, pens are just too handy. But...what if you could combine the two concepts. And come up with a digital pen?

Taking notes and writing away from a computer keyboard is as easy as it gets. Take out a note pad, jot down your thoughts, and you have it. Sit in a coffee shop, write out your screenplay, and there it is. No need to carry a computer around, even a light notebook. Anywhere you are, simply write in down. Sit in a meeting and take notes.

The problem is that when you return home, you have to decipher everything - and retype it. All. The writer's bane.

That's where a digital pen comes in. .

• Dane-Elect zPen

To see this column complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," visit the WGA website.


At its most basic, a digital pen collects the images of what you write, saves it as a graphic file in the pen (which is basically like any USB flash drive), and you plug that pen into your computer. Then you simply transfer everything to your system.

In theory, you manually use a digital pen to write whatever you want, wherever you are, and then have a digital file to use on your computer. Easy! Wonderful!

Alas, theory and reality aren't always related. Many digital pens require special paper - which not only means you have to carry that paper with you and are limited to its format, but it's expensive. Moreover, transferring over the material can be a complex process. And the killer - since what you've saved is a graphic image - you can't edit a graphic file, it has to be converted. But converting this graphic image into text you can edit often turns out a disaster. And if you dare venture beyond text to also make drawings or figures...close your eyes and pray

What first stands out with the zPen is that it uses regular paper - any paper, even a spiral binder - and the pen itself uses regular ink. When you run out, you simply buy a normal refill at any stationary store. This means the zPen can be used under any conditions and inexpensively.

It's not all that easy, of course. But for a digital pen, it comes close.

First, the basics -

The zZpen comes with a receiver that you clip on to the top of whatever paper you use. As the pen moves across the paper, it transmits its position. All this information is stored in the pen itself. Later, like any Flash thumb drive, you snap off the cap of the pen and plug it into a USB port on your computer, and the material is transferred to your hard drive. Note: it's transferred as a graphic file. In essence, what you've written or drawn is a "picture." This can then be converted to text for editing. More about this later.)

The receiver has lights that flash to tell you when the pen is charging, what the battery condition is, the pause status and more. It's slightly confusing, but referencing the Quick Start guide explains everything.

The Flash memory on the pen is 1 gigabyte, which allows you to store thousands of documents. (Being a Flash drive, you can also put photos or music files on it, though it's not likely most people will use it this way.)

You have to charge the zPen for six hours before first use. The product doesn't come with a paper manual, but a quick start guide is included, and the full manual is stored as a PDF file on the pen, which you can access when you first plug it in.

Writing with the zPen is basically as simple as - well, writing. When you snap the receiver on whatever paper you're using, that creates a new "virtual page." As you write, that material is being added to the page.. If you want to create a new "virtual page," you simply snap the receiver's clip open, and then reattach it to your paper. (Basically, this is the same as creating a new document.) As mentioned, this material is all saved on your zPen. Note that files are saved in a proprietary ".eli" format, which you can read with the included Pen&Ink Viewer. More on that viewer in a moment...

You aren't limited to writing text, you can craw pictures, doodle, anything. There's no need to immediately transfer any of this to your computer as soon as you finish writing. You can create as many documents as you want and hold them for as long as you wish before transferring things over.

When you do want to transfer your documents, just plug the zPen into a USB port. A "Welcome" window pops up with boxes and links to helpful start-up information, including access to manuals and the installation of the separate MyScript Notes program.

One quibble here. The "Welcome" window is always on top, and can't be minimized. As a result, it blocks whatever is behind it on your monitor, like seeing the manuals and installation, which can only be accessed with a bit of maneuvering. Happily, you rarely need the "Welcome" window.

The zPen comes with two programs.

The first and main one is called the Pen&Ink Viewer. No installation is required. It's built into the zPen and will launch on any computer you plug your zZpen into. It's multiplatform and works on Windows and Mac, and even some Linux systems. The Pen&Ink Viewer is what allows you to read the aforementioned propriety ".eli" files that you've saved on the zPen.

The other program is called MyScript Notes. You use this for converting the proprietary .epi graphic files to text, a process that's known as handwriting recognition or OCR (optical character recognition). Once converted into text files, you can use MyScriptNotes as a limited-feature word processor (Of course, you can also use your regular full-feature word processor.) As mentioned above, you install MyScript Notes after plugging in your zPen - it isn't integrated into the zZpen but must be separately installed on whatever computer you're working on.

The Pen&Ink Viewer is used for looking at your saved files. It's very easy and basic. There is a "page" area with thumbnail views of each page, and a "writing" area to see the document in full.

[Insert zPen margin lines.jpg]

In the writing area, you can create "lined paper" and lined margins if you like, so that it looks like traditional school paper. Additionally, there is a technical-style view, with criss-crossing horizontal and vertical lines.

Among other features, you can save pages as PDF files or email a page directly as PDF. However there are a few minor quirks. When creating a PDF file, it's saved on the zPen. If you want it on your hard disk, you have to transfer it over. Also, when directly emailing a PDF, it sets the name by default as "document.pdf." My preference therefore would be to avoid the emailing feature and save the file first with a more distinctive name, and then send it as as an attachment.

Incidentally, on the Welcome screen, there is mention of a Search utility feature that's upcoming for the Pen&Ink Viewer, but not available at the time of review.

The Pen&Ink Viewer allows you to set the time for your documents. However, it may not work as precisely described by the manual. You're told to remove the zZpen before clicking OK, but with USB it's best not to remove a device while it's still active. So despite what the manual says, shut everything down first, and then remove the zPen.

One other quibble. There is nothing in the manual about handwriting recognition (OCR) and conversion. You have to read about it in the Welcome screen, and it's only cursory. This is worth mentioning since handwriting recognition and conversion are the features that help distinguish the zPen and make it particularly useful for writers.

The core ability of a digital pen is to capture what you write and create a file from that. But, as noted, that's only a graphic file, which means you can't do anything with - no editing, no nothing. But once you've converted a graphic file to text, then suddenly you have a normal text document for full editing. And that may be where the zPen shines.

The heart of this OCR process is the MyScript Notes program. Here's where you perform the conversion, and the program also provides many text features.

There are two windows in MyScript Notes. On the left is the Conversion window (where you'll see the original document you want to convert). And on the right is the Correction window with the results.

The description of how all this conversion works might sound like mumbo-jumbo. But it's actually fairly easy - in fact, you can convert without dealing with any options. If you do ignore them, your conversion might not come out as good as you'd prefer. But know that you can do it - and it might turn out fine.. (And if it doesn't, just start again.)

One important note - when converting an .epi document that you've saved on the zPen, you have to have the zPen connected. Otherwise, when you select File/Open in MyScript Notes, there'll be nothing for it to open.

Once you've opened the file you want to work with, you should begin by creating a "Recognition Profile" You'll likely just keep the default settings, except for one thing -- for the version I received, the default was English (U.K.), so I changed to U.S.

Each time you convert, you'll likely want to check the "Global Conversion Settings." It's very easy. (In fact, you can check a box so that the options pop up every time you convert something.) The settings are nothing more than telling the program some basic information - whether you're converting a full document or specific pages. What the content type is (all caps, printing or cursive handwriting). And the content type. (This is whether you're converting "rich text" or text combined with shapes.)

Rich text, by the way, is nothing more a basic document type (.rtf) that all word processors can read. It just has fewer proprietary formatting options.

Before you convert, the program allows you to rotate a page (or just a section) if perhaps you've written sideways. Similarly, you can convert a specific area of a page (or, conversely, eliminate an area from being converted). This didn't work the first time I tried it, but shut down, however, it worked perfectly every time since.

The program also has an Ink Editor, which lets you make changes in the graphic file. Basically, it's like the Windows Paint feature. You can "erase" anything extraneous, or even add in new information, like a highlighter.

Finally, when you're ready to convert your document, all you need do is click the "Start" icon. It's that simple. As mentioned, you can just to this step immediately - it's just that you're more protected for an accurate conversion if you do run through the options.

Handwriting recognition (OCR) is often a toss of the dice, but MyScript Notes did an absolutely beautiful job. My handwriting is hardly elegant (the polite term for often an indecipherable scrawl), but the OCR engine remarkably had minimal mistakes in text mode, and was even almost as good in the less-aggressive text/image mode.

In addition, it did an extremely strong job converting the shapes and drawings I tested. On the few instances when the drawings that resulted were incorrect -

-- the program offers an "Alternate Shape Selector" that lets you to make other choices, which effectively fixed the graphics that had been converted incorrectly.

The converted documents shows up in the Correction window, where you have two tabs for editing your material. Of the two, the Rich Text screen has more text editing options. The other, its Graphic & Text screen has limited editing options for text, but more choices for working with shapes.

All conversions are saved on the zPen. If you want the file on your hard disk, however, you can export it as a Word (RTF) file, as a text editor note, or be sent directly as email.

If you choose to export the file as Word document, it will open in Wordpad, saved as in RTF format (as described above), and a folder named "MyScript Documents" will automatically be created in My Documents on your hard drive. Of course, once it's on your hard disk, you can move the file anywhere you like - or re-save the file as a full Word document. Oddly, all exported Word documents show up using the Arial font - but you can later change that. The advantage of the Word export feature is that it both give you full access to the file on your computer, and it lets you work on the document with a full-featured word processor.

It's worth noting two other features in MyScript Notes. One is a dictionary that lets you enter often-used words the software might not recognize when it does conversions.

The other is the MyScript Trainer, which is designed to condition the program to recognize your handwriting better. Unfortunately, I couldn't get it to work. The window was so huge that I couldn't access the "Click Next..." button. The company suggested changing the resolution on my system, but I figured that if that's what it took to get the feature to work, it was too poorly designed for my taste and therefore not worth using, even if ultimately it worked properly.

Not everyone has a need for a digital pen, of course. But there are probably occasions when the ability to handwrite notes and even scripts anywhere - and then be able to work with them on your computer without having to re-type everything would be beneficial.

If you have a lot of notes, or a long document, or lengthy notes from a meeting, that's when a digital pen might most often be used.

Whether a digital pen fits your needs is one matter. Whether the zPen works is another. And it works wonderfully . It's not just that it does a very good job at all levels -- digitizing and the handwriting conversion, most notably - but the fact that it lets you use whatever paper you want (even notebooks) and regular ink makes the zPen far more economical than many other digital pen options.

The zPen retails for $110 at the time of writing, though Amazon has it for $90. So, it's not inexpensive. But again, there's no at added expense of proprietary paper or ink.

There are a few quirks here and there that didn't work perfectly, although nothing problematic. The Global Conversion setting, for example, didn't hold its settings at first, though subsequently has worked fine.

Perhaps my biggest complaint is that it would be very helpful to have a case to hold the zPen, the receiver and USB cord.

But overall, if you have a use for a digital pen, the zPen is seriously worth considering.

"The Writers Workbench" appears in full monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here to visit the WGA website.