It's Wednesday morning, June 2, so it must be time for some new tablet power toys (as some of you have already guessed). As totally amazing as it may seem, last year's Does Your Code Think in Ink? contest actually generated some software submissions (about 70 or so), and months after people gave up even asking to see any of them, we now have the top three available for download.
Due to some legal wrangling and ownership issues, the downloads don't seem to be headed to the Microsoft power toy download page any time soon. And that's the bad bit. The 3 power toys are available from the PC Magazine website (http://www.pcmag.com/tabletpcpowertoys), but that means you have to go through some privacy-sucking registration forms to access the downloads, and I'm very unhappy with that. I don't feel like I have to divulge 3 pages of personal information (from hair color to my dog's favorite snack brand), and then clear over a dozen checkboxes so I don't get spammed with every imaginable PC Magazine newsletter. Not cool!
Once you give away all your personal secrets, you can download the grand prize winner and two runners up. But is it really worth it? Here's a short recap, with hopefully working direct download links.
The grand prize winner is the MyOwnFont tool, the application that can create a TrueType font from your own handwriting, as seen on TV. Or Channel 9, to be exact, where Susan Cameron first publicly showed it off about two weeks ago.
Just like Susan showed in her demo, it's pretty easy to use the tool. You handwrite the whole alphabet, letter by letter, upper and lower case variants, and a number of special symbols to complete the character set. Then you can play with line, character, and word spacing to make things look pretty. Finally you name the font, put in author information, and compile it into a .ttf file. At that point you have a standard TrueType font file, which can be used in anything from Word to your e-mail client.
Of course, the so-called "cool" application of this tool is to "completely personalize" your tablet. Essentially, you create a custom Windows theme that uses your new chicken scratch font all over the place. You go into your Display Properties (through Control Panel or by right-clicking your desktop and choosing Properties), pick the Appearance tab, click the Advanced button, and then proceed item by item, changing the font (for those items that have that option) to your new handwritten one. Once you're done, you can go to the Themes tab, and save your new theme.
Of course, once you apply it, it looks cool for all of about two seconds. After that, you start realizing that having tiny little handwriting in menus, on the desktop, in dialog boxes, and everywhere else gets pretty hard to read. I guess you could market it as a security feature - even I can't read most of the text at that point - and it's my own handwriting - so anybody trying to look over your shoulder will quickly get a mind-numbing headache and run away screaming.
In the end, kids will love it, because they like to personalize everything, even if it makes it unusable in the process. Adults might conservatively use the new font for signatures and such. It really looks like a lot more fun that it really ends up being, and doesn't hold much practical value. Mind you, this is the grand prize winner. Out of 70 submissions. Anybody out there ever think of productivity power toys?
Next up, but going steeply downhill, we have the PowerPaint tool. What a name - I so want to type PowerPoint. Didn't Microsoft lawyers at least wince at that?
Worse yet, this application is a total travesty. It supposedly "lets you apply paint strokes to create unique animated images". How, I have no idea. All the controls behave as if my stylus was not calibrated, and need to be clicked just a tad above from where they are on the screen. I even re-calibrated, but the pointer dot still needs to be higher than the control. And the Help and File buttons won't work with the mouse at all - only a misaligned pen seems to activate them. I mean, the Tablet PC has enough issues with pen and screen calibration as it is - we don't need developers to artificially create more problems!
The help file is rudimentary, and still doesn't explain to me what sort of file format I am saving as - the Save As dialog box doesn't offer any choices either. You have layers, and you can draw, and some brushes, and so forth. Yawn! The only possible redeeming feature is that the paint color can change depending on pressure. Wow, astounding. Of course, this only works when you first launch the application. Once you choose a different brush, the "max" and "min" pressure colors lock to the same value, and for the life of me, I have not been able to find the offset point where I can click or double-click to unlock the two.
I am still not sure whether to laugh or cry over this monstrosity. I think cry - it also makes my system run slowly (my 1.5 MHz Toshiba M200 with a gig of memory!) when it's open, even though the CPU doesn't spike. Just everything becomes jerky until I quit it. The interface is relatively neat looking, but that doesn't matter, if it doesn't work properly. Right now, if you want a fun, free, fast, and stable painting application, go download the brilliant ArtRage instead.
Here's what I don't get. The article says:
"PC Magazine editors, including editor-in-chief Michael J. Miller, judged the PowerToys on four criteria, each on a scale of from 1 to 10: usefulness to the greatest number of users, innovative pen use, cool factor, and user interface/usability."
Given that, what really happened here? PC Magazine editors can't judge to save their lives? (Well, yes, that's not news.) The rest of the 70 entries was so horrifically bad that PowerPaint managed to be in the top three? Both?! What exactly does that say about the caliber of some of these Tablet PC developers? Was everybody so enamored by the vision of some quick cash, that they churned out all this sub-par software? Or were the really good entries quietly whisked away to Redmond where they are being stuffed as features into the next ink-friendly version of Windows?
Come on, Microsoft, think about it - if you show the public that this is the cream of the ink developer crop, what sort of faith is the public supposed to have in the tablet platform? It just looks bad.
If it weren't for this last runner up, I'd be really dejected right about now. Scott Hanselman saves the day! His Web Search Power Tool may not be pretty or glamorous, but is exactly what I want from a power tool - it's actually useful.
The tool is extremely pragmatic - a simple floating window with a writing area and a button. You write some text, click the button, and it opens up a browser window with search results for whatever you wrote. Options include a choice of four search engines and making it not float above other windows. It's simple, and it works. Thanks, Scott, you made my day!
So there you have it, that's the best of the best, whatever that means. Actually, it's pretty disheartening, if you ask me. You get fun but gimmicky, promising but horrific, and simple but effective - great choices, right? Download at your own peril.