Inkwell is the name of the handwriting recognition system that Apple built into Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar). To use Inkwell you need a graphics tablet and a Mac running Mac OS X 10.2 or higher.

Inkwell has 2 main modes:

  • In the first the system will only attempt to interpret drawings done with the stylus in the "Inkpad" a utility window (that you can hide and show easily) that floats over all others. You write in this area, and the system recognises your writing. When you are finished, clicking the send button in this window sends the recognised text to the frontmost application.
  • In the second mode it will attempt to interpret any stylus movement. When it thinks you are starting to write, a semitransparent yellow overlay appears under the area you are writing on. This overlay has guide lines to help you to write straight. When you have finished writing the text is automatically sent to the frontmost application.

Can it really read ?

Inkwell does not require you to use a special alphabet like some palmtops, however you do need to write each letter separately or it will get confused. For example if I write "much" in cursive it will usually mangle the c and the h together to form a d. Other than that it does a pretty good job on my notoriously bad handwriting. On the downside it does not seem to be possible to teach it to recognise your handwriting, although you can augment its dictionary with words that you use frequently and that it does not know about.

What you can and cannot do

  • write plain text :The nice thing about it is that you can use it with any application from the humble TextEdit to your wordprocessor and even in the terminal.
  • writing code : This doesn't work well. To assist the OCR part, Inkpad uses a dictionary, which means it likes it when you write real words. Programming languages of course are full of names that aren't real words, such as printf, atoi etc... and make heavier use of symbols that are easy to mix up, such as C,(,[,{ and of sequences of characters that would be meaningless elsewhere. If you were to write "i+s", Inkwell will almost certainly think that you wanted to write "its". Inkwell is a tool for writing text, not a general purpose input system.
  • be 100% correct : This is almost certainly never going to happen, but coupled with a spell checker, I find it usable for tasks such as wordprocessing. This of course isn't an option for writing code and makes it downright dangerous for inputing commands into the terminal. For example the gesture for return is very similar to a 9, so I wouldn't use Inkwell to do a rm -rf on a path starting with /9.
  • Use keyboard shorcuts: The buttons on a stylus are programmable so it is entirely possible to program a button to be the command key and then write the letter for a shortcut. I wouldn't recommend it though, as for reasons given above, Inkwell is much happier with words than with single characters. A number of simple commands have been assigned what Apple calls gestures, drawing these special characters will perform the designated operation (such as cut, copy, paste, select all ...).

At the end of the day, Inkwell is a nice touch, with the added benefit that using a graphics tablet and stylus is much less likely to cause RSI ( ever heard of someone getting RSI from using a pencil? ).

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