I've been spending a lot of time with Tablet PCs over the past couple of weeks, with mixed results. Although the devices have proved to be genuinely useful--I've edited about half a book on them--the experience hasn't been exactly problem–free. Of the six evaluation units that I've used, two had serious hardware problems and five had software problems serious enough to hang applications or in some cases require a reboot. I even experienced data loss in one case, which Microsoft and a hardware vendor are now investigating.

Nevertheless, I remain enthusiastic about the Tablet PC form factor. Why? I've found that my book-editing and writing productivity has significantly increased. One major reason for this increase in productivity is that the tablet form factor is ideal for voice input. In fact, I'm dictating this commentary into a Tablet PC!

Speech-recognition technology is built into Windows XP, but it's rarely used on conventional notebook and desktop PCs. Admittedly, the feature isn't well integrated into the XP UI. More important, though, most people are reluctant to give voice input a try if they have a keyboard right in front of them. Voice input requires a two-way training process: You train the computer to recognize your voice, and simultaneously you learn how to speak more clearly and distinctly--which takes time

If you're willing to spend that time, you'll find that speech recognition is a truly useful technology. I'm finding that it's a valuable alternative to the stylus for entering more than a few words at a time. The Tablet PC form factor helps: I can talk into a headset while holding the unit in my lap with a stylus ready for editing. And I can work this way in places where a keyboard is inconvenient--for example, at the moment, I'm on one end of a comfortable sofa in my living room.

Of course, voice input isn't for everyone. If you work in a bullpen, ambient noise might frustrate your input efforts, and you can expect odd looks from your coworkers as you talk to your computer. Even with training, you'll experience recognition errors. (My device originally translated the first sentence of this paragraph as "Of course voices and fervor one.") I asked my wife, a pediatrician, to try dictating a document, and she simply didn't have the patience for it--a pity, because she's a "hunt and peck" typist who can talk quite a bit faster than she types.

After you get past the learning curve, voice input can offer significant advantages. In combination with Voice over IP (VoIP)--which has cut my business phone bill by about 50 percent--I believe voice input represents the first radically new and genuinely useful PC feature in years.

If you're using--or even have tried--speech input, VoIP, or other voice applications, I'd like to hear about it. You can reach me at jruley@ainet.com.