I'm not sure if this is completely appropriate, but I thought I'd ask here.

I'm in the market for a tablet computer. Unfortunately, my (mathematical) needs are very different from the needs of the sorts of people who usually review these things. Namely, I want the tablet that is best for preparing lecture notes and taking notes in seminars. It seems like most of the reviewers on "computer" websites are either looking for toys (like the iPad) or tools for creating art. I just want the most efficient way to create a multi-page handwritten pdf. Does anyone have any recommendations?

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    $\begingroup$ I just voted to close this question as "no longer relevant". The reason I did it is because it seems to be attracting a lot of spam. I am unsure if the question is appropriate for MO although I found some of the answers informative. I doubt that the signal to noise ratio will justify keeping it open. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2011 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ I don't have enough rep to really make a vote to close or keep open, but if I did I would vote for this to stay open. Most of the mathematicians I know are not on the cutting edge of technology (myself included), and so don't yet have a tablet. I was thrilled to see this post and I hope that as tablet technology changes mathematicians can keep coming on to recommend which option seems best. In 6 months the options might look very different and if this is closed I won't be able to see any new recommendations or see if the old recommendations had problems that didn't manifest till later. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2011 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Felipe : I don't have a strong opinion as to whether this thread should stay open, but the spam all appears to be coming from the same person (albeit with two different accounts). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2011 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ Also not yet officially voting, but I think, and a rough look over the answers seems to confirm this, there is not that much to be said on the choice of a tablet computer (in particular, hardware-wise) specifically for a mathematician/for the needs described. So, even without additional incentive, I'd say one could close this. $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Commented Jul 1, 2011 at 16:09

6 Answers 6


Clifford Johnson has two nice posts about this (concerning the iPad) on his blog:




A thinkpad running Linux and Denis Auroux's Xournal program works well for me. Not cheap though...

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    $\begingroup$ This is what Lauren Williams uses. She often lectures from it, annotated her slides as she goes. You can see footage at msri.org/communications/vmath/VMathVideos/VideoInfo/3569/…. As a collaborator of Lauren's, I can tell you that the notes she takes on it are also very readable and useful. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2010 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ Is " Auroux' " really the correct way to make a noun ending in X possessive in English? $\endgroup$
    – JBL
    Commented Sep 1, 2010 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ Nope, that was a typo. $\endgroup$
    – user1504
    Commented Sep 1, 2010 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ @David: It is worth noting, however, that Lauren has exceptional access to technical support. $\endgroup$
    – S. Carnahan
    Commented Sep 2, 2010 at 1:14
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    $\begingroup$ I second xournal. If a thinkpad is a bit expensive, using an ordinary laptop with a graphics tablet works fine for me - both for taking notes and for lecturing. I find that I quickly got used to the hand-eye separation and whilst it might not be up to doing calligraphy, it's certainly find for what I use it for. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2010 at 6:58

I recently got an HP tm2 -- very affordable (compared to Thinkpads, Latitudes and motion computing slates), good specs, wacom digitizer+multitouch, 5h+ regular battery life.

Productivity is great using Xournal under linux (kubuntu, almost flawless hardware support). Xournal runs on windows, too, btw.

During a conference recently Xournal was brilliant -- infinite paper with infinite zoom, free rearranging, shape recognition etc. makes it easy to keep good notes (except that, well, it's still my handwriting...). The battery life of the tm2 lasted an entire conference day (with dimmed screen and wifi off).

You might want to check out the gottabemobile blog. It is an good source on mobile computing, with a lot of reviews on note taking software for tablet pcs and the iPad.

Generally speaking, pressure sensitive touch technology (like wacom or n-trig) gives better results for handwriting. But some iPad apps have features to compensate for that.

Being on a budget, a graphics tablet is a very good alternative for taking notes. I used to use one extensively before, especially for online whiteboards (like scriblink and dabbelboard) during phone conversations.


Just about any tablet PC ought to work for this. I used a Thinkpad X61 Tablet for several years, and after it broke I bought a Thinkpad X200 Tablet. A typical Windows tablet comes with software called "Windows Journal" which works well for taking notes, and can print to PDF using PDFCreator. I also purchased a program called PDF Annotator, which lets me hand-write notes on top of any existing PDF file.

When I was first considering buying a tablet, I had trouble deciding between the slate type and the convertibles that come with a keyboard and a swivel screen. I decided on a convertible, and I'm very glad that I made this decision -- my tablet also functions perfectly well as a standard laptop, and I keep it in laptop mode about 90% of the time. A straight-up tablet with no keyboard would be almost as expensive, and would be considerably less useful.


To address part of your question, the iPad is far more than a toy for mathematicians, especially for reading mathematical articles. Goodreader is the best means of reading and annotating PDFs I’ve ever seen; in particular, the usual size of LaTeX articles fits very well on the screen, with a little zooming, even in portrait mode. I’ve virtually eliminated my use of my printer, both for reading others’ articles and correcting my own XeLaTeX output.

Be very sure to test a PDF reader on real articles before it’s too late; even Adobe renders the Computer Modern font unacceptably on-screen, though with decidedly different results in different situations and platforms, and Okular on Linux is virtually unreadable at 100% zoom.

For note-taking, I’m not a big fan of raw handwritten text (disclaimer: I worked at Apple during the Newton days, and at Palm); I expected to have to buy a hardware keyboard for my iPad, but haven’t needed to yet.


Apple Tablet Custom Mods : There is a company which takes Apple laptops and custom modifies them into tablet computers. You end up with a full OSX computer which is also a tablet computer, without the limitations of the iPad.


There are people who've also undertaken this modification on their own


and you can probably buy an old 500-700 MHz iBook for less than 300$US and get it modified.

I agree with you that the iPad is not set up to be a serious tool and the need to type on a virtual keyboard makes it less useful than even the Palm or Graffiti software from almost 15 years ago.

If you really want to make a PDF of handwritten notes, likes the collection of Edsger Dijkstra's handwritten computer science notes at the University of Texas (for example, http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/ewd10xx/EWD1036.PDF ), the best way to do that is to actually hand-write your notes on paper and then scan them in at a later time.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I don't want to type (I can do that on a laptop). I want to write and draw figures with a pen. I also don't care about handwriting recognition. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2010 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ Did you read the question about taking lecture notes? mathoverflow.net/questions/12638/… I land squarely on the side of taking lecture notes, and in good detail. $\endgroup$
    – user8952
    Commented Sep 1, 2010 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ Apparently the itablet mentioned in this answer did not really work and the project was halted. Too bad. I would have loved that. I need a tablet, but can't bring myself to ever buy a PC. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 28, 2011 at 0:37

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