CrossPad captures written notes

With the introduction of the CrossPad, the A.T. Cross Co., long known for its fine pens, has secured a place for penmanship in the Computer Age.

The purpose of this portable device is to log freehand writing and translate it into text that can be read by a PC. We found the CrossPad easy to use and very effective, but it takes a long time and a great deal of effort to train the handwriting recognition software.

The CrossPad comes in three parts: the CrossPad unit itself; the Cross Digital Pen; and IBM Corp.'s Ink Manager software, which provides character and handwriting recognition. Government officials will find the CrossPad to be a great help to electronically capture and preserve meeting notes that are part of the official public record.

While the CrossPad is not perfect, it gave us better than 90 percent accuracy when converting handwriting to PC-readable text.

The CrossPad is a little larger than a standard legal pad, and a standard pad rests on top of the unit as you write. The digital pen uses regular ink, so you take notes just as you normally would; however, the pen has a transmitter that sends information back to the CrossPad, which translates that information into electronic information. When you're finished with a written page of notes, simply press a button on the CrossPad to create a new electronic page.

Setting up the CrossPad is simple. Out of the box, you get everything you need, including four AAA batteries for the unit and a single AAAA battery for the pen. You receive two pads in the package: One is a standard legal pad, while the other is the Orientation Guide training pad. Also included is a special serial transfer cable and the IBM software.

The Orientation Guide walks you step by step through the use of the CrossPad and the Ink Manager software. The guide leads the user through a well-paced series of tutorials on the pad's controls and the installation of the IBM software. The guide also walks users through handwriting recognition training for the software. All in all, Cross has done a good job of integrating setup and training.

Once the CrossPad is set up, users face the grueling process of training the IBM software to recognize their handwriting. In addition to two basic training tutorials that are part of the Orientation Guide, Cross provides four advanced training sets focused on upper-case letters, digits, symbols and characters. Taking all these training sets is very time-consuming. Although the writing involved is minor, the processing time can last more than an hour for each exercise. While you can do other work during the processing, be prepared to block out a couple of days to finish all the training.

Even then, the handwriting recognition may not meet your expectations. Handwriting styles differ, and if you can't decipher your own chicken scratch, don't expect the computer to do so.

After all the training was finished, Ink Manager got more than 90 percent of our test words correct, but it needed our help. The biggest drawback is the dictionary that comes with the software. Although it has more than 30,000 words, the system had trouble with normal words such as "fruity" as well as more complex words such as "Fortran," "pop-mail" and "MS-DOS." However, you can add words to the dictionary, which improves recognition dramatically.

In addition to taking notes, the CrossPad lets you set keywords and bookmarks as you write, enabling you to search your notes later or prepare them for archiving.

Cross and IBM recently announced a smaller and lighter version called the CrossPad XP that is available to government buyers. IBM also announced a software developer's kit to create forms for the CrossPad.

Overall, the CrossPad is an ingenious invention that admirably logs your handwriting and presents it as images on your computer screen. However, we recommend that Cross and IBM work on the software's dictionary if they want to push this product onto more conference room tables.

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