An increasing number of touch-screen PCs and tablets work with a digital pen. These are more accurate than the capacitive styluses that let you write and draw on any touch-screen, and also let you rest your hand on the screen without that being seen as a touch input (so-called 'palm rejection' technology).
But ink doesn't need a pen in Windows: you can draw into many 'ink enabled' applications with your finger on a touch-screen PC. You can even write on-screen with your finger using the handwriting panel, although you may need to turn this on. Open Settings/Devices and choose the Pen & Windows Ink section; under Handwriting turn on 'Write in the handwriting panel with your fingertip'. Then tap the icon for the touch keyboard in the taskbar (if you don't see it, right-click on the taskbar and turn it on) and change the keyboard type to handwriting.
If you're using a pen, and you don't have a keyboard connected to your PC, tapping the pen in any field where you can type — whether that's a Word document, the address bar in File Explorer or a browser, or the Cortana search bar — automatically opens the handwriting panel.
Whether you're using your finger or a pen, you can write words, or draw a line through a word to delete it if it's not correctly recognised. If the word isn't recognised, you can usually pick the correct word from the list of suggestions at the top of the panel; if just one letter is wrong, tap it to select it and then write it again. If there's an extra space in the middle of the word, draw an arc over the top of the two words to join them together; if you need to break two words up, draw a vertical line between them. Touch or tap the Enter button to send what you've written to the active window on-screen.
If Windows keeps getting your handwriting wrong, go back to the Pen & Ink settings and choose 'Improve recognition'. You can either teach Windows the letters it gets wrong most often or give a full handwriting sample if it gets everything wrong. You can do that for multiple languages (because handwriting works in multiple languages).
The rather pointless Windows Ink Workspace (the pen icon you see on the taskbar if you have a pen connected to your PC) has links to Sticky Notes, Sketchpad, Screen Sketch and any apps you've used recently that support ink, as well as a canned search in the Windows Store. Screen Sketch captures the screen so you can scribble over it — handy for marking up bug reports before you send them to the Feedback Hub — and Sketchpad is a very simple sheet of digital paper for sketching on, complete with an on-screen ruler you can draw on.
You can also scribble over screen clips you make in the Snipping Tool (and the Snip and Sketch tool that replaces it in the 1809 Windows release); at some point, hopefully Microsoft will pick one of these and put all the features there. Similarly, you can draw on a web page in Edge (tap the pen icon or press Ctrl-Shift-M); this is rather better integrated because you can save the resulting note into OneNote, the reading list or favourites list in Edge or share it as an image via the Share charm.
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Ink is a little more useful in Sticky Notes: scribble a date and you can tap on it to set a reminder; write down a phone number and you can tap to call it with Skype; write an address and tap it to get directions in the Maps app; record a flight number to see the flight details (and tap a second time to see the live status in Bing). These 'insights' work variably well — you need to write quite neatly and get the numbers close together for the flight numbers, but they work for any flight number worldwide, not just US flights — and you know what's been recognised because the ink turns blue. The next version of the Microsoft To Do app adds ink as well; you can write tasks straight into the list, and draw a line through them or a tick next to them to mark them as done.
Ink also works nicely in the Maps app; you can use the pen to draw a route and get either turn-by-turn directions or the distance you'll be travelling. In Paint 3D, you can use a pen to draw quite roughly around the edges of something you want to cut out, and the app does an excellent job of cutting it out precisely. You can write into any email app using the handwriting panel; with the Windows Mail app you can also insert a drawing canvas (choose Draw on the toolbar when you're writing a message) and make a quick sketch that gets sent as an image.
OneNote has had excellent ink support for years, including converting handwriting to text, working out maths equations written in ink, as well as neatening up shapes that you draw. To get the best inking tools in the rest of Office you need to have an Office 365 subscription. In Office 2013 and 2016, all you can do is draw ink and shapes, highlight text (even that doesn't work in PowerPoint) and select or erase your ink. With Office 365 however, you get the same customisable pens as in OneNote (including special effects like rainbow ink and pencil shading) and some very useful inking features. You can draw shapes in PowerPoint, Word, Excel and Visio and they turn into standard shapes (not just simple shapes like circles, but more complex hearts, clouds or stars) or write maths equations in Word and PowerPoint.
PowerPoint can also convert what you write on a slide into text, and you can use the pen to draw straight lines or line up objects; that means you can draw a slide with the pen the way you'd sketch it out on paper and get a live slide with fields to put your content into.
In Word you can edit a document the way you would with pen and paper, but when you draw a circle around text it gets selected and when you draw a line through a word it gets deleted. You can use gestures to join and split words, make room on the page to write a couple of words in or draw in a line to start a new paragraph. It all feels very natural — as if you were marking up a paper document, but you end up with all your changes made instead of having to sit down at the keyboard later.
Once you turn ink into text, you can't tell it was ever written. If you want to keep the look of your handwriting, use the free Microsoft Font Maker app to make a font of your handwriting by drawing each letter, number and punctuation symbol with your pen, writing some sentences to show how you space words and then tweaking the size of the letters and the space between words and characters.
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Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.