The Curious Case of the Vanishing SMARTboard Tools

If you’ve ever used a SMARTboard you’re probably already aware of the Floating Tools. This is an extra toolbar that sits on the side of the screen. It was always there, even if you were not connected to a SMARTboard, although you could hide/show it via the icon in the system tray.

With version 11 of SMART Notebook, SMART brought in SMART Ink. This was a new way of capturing annotations on the board. Although it didn’t work very well initially, later patches did make it slightly easier to use.

A small admission here, I rarely the floating tools and Smart Ink. Most of the time I had it hidden or turned off. If I wanted to annotate on something I would capture it with the camera and bring it into Notebook for annotation. But I do know schools, and corporate users, who really liked the feature.

Old floating tools

The floating tools themselves haven’t changed for years. But with the arrival of SMART Notebook version 15.1 there’s been a big change. And not much is being said about it.

The Floating Toolbar at the side of the screen has gone, and been replaced with a circular menu, which looks a lot similar to the Promethean ActivInspire Floating Tools. Mousing over any of the options pops up a new menu that controls that feature. Floating toolsThe interesting change is that this Floating Toolbar now does not display all the time. It will only appear when your computer is connected to a SMARTboard. Not just any interactive whiteboard, an actual proper SMART branded board or screen. And it’s this change that’s been affecting users.

A good friend of mine was delivering SMARTboard training last week to a client who had been sold some BENQ interactive touch screens by a SMART reseller. They’d paid for their Smart Advantage Licence so they could run SMART Notebook. They weren’t that interested in the Notebook side of things, what they really used the boards for was annotating on top of documents, web pages etc. For that they really wanted the Floating Tools and Smart Ink. But, because they did not have a SMART branded screen, the toolbar was deactivated. This means they don’t have the features they thought they were buying.

This has sparked a bit of a debate amongst us as SMART trainers. We’re not sure that the resellers, and following on from that the customers buying interactive screens are aware of this change.

When SMART Notebook was bundled with your SMARTboard purchase, things were simpler. The board gave you the licence to use the SMART software. The licence did not allow you to run it on other boards. In fact, some of us who’ve been using Smart for a long time probably remember the watermarks you got on a notebook page when a board was not connected.

In recent years things have changed. SMART are now selling Notebook as an extra – on an annual licence. The SMART Advantage Licence came in with version 14 and trying to get to the bottom of how it works is a bit of a minefield. As a single user I can’t just go to the SMART website and buy a single-user licence, I have to go to one of the many SMART resellers and get a quote. It’s a bit of a mess.

So the issue is this. Schools are being sold non-SMART screens and being told that as long as they buy a SMART Advantage licence then they can run SMART software. But the SMART software now looks for a SMARTboard and disables a major feature (floating tools / Smart Ink) if it doesn’t find one. If you’re paying for a licence for the software you would expect to get everything right? It’s like buying Microsoft Office and finding that Microsoft Ink now only works if you have a Surface tablet.

Even more problematic would be a school that was running Notebook 14 or 15.0 and has just upgraded to v15.1. If they’ve been sold a non-SMART screen then tools they had access to pre-update have now vanished.

Is this working as intended?

A question I have is this. If you have a SMART board, have installed 15.1 but don’t pay for an Advantage licence, can you still access the floating tools? I’m guessing SMART will say that the tools are part of the SMART drivers, the customer is not buying them as part of the licence, but they come as part of the SMARTboard. Can anyone confirm?

Talking to a few resellers, I’m not sure they all understand this change. And I don’t think customers buying the boards are being informed. Obviously SMART want you to buy their own brand of hardware. But they also now want to sell software. It’s all very confusing.

So what do you do if you have no floating tools?

If you really want to annotate over your desktop then there are a few options available to you.

  1. Use Transparent Background. In Notebook click on the Full Screen button and there’s an option to get a transparent page background. This makes Notebook transparent so you can see the desktop behind it, and annotate/draw on top of it.
  2. Use the camera tool. Click on the camera tool, capture the part of the screen you want to annotate and then draw over it in Notebook.
  3. Use third party annotation software. For example Prowise have a free annotation tool which you can download here.
  4. Rollback to an earlier version of SMART Notebook.
  5. Use Microsoft Ink if you want to annotate on Microsoft Office documents. In an Office app such as Word, click on Review then Start Inking to turn it on.
  6. Use other IWB software. Buy a licence for ActivInspire or try browser-based software such as Prowise Connect.
  7. Buy a SMART-branded screen! You’ll get all the features!

If you know of other good desktop annotation software that works the same as the floating tools, then post them in the comments.

I’d better clarify here – I don’t think SMART are doing anything dodgy or dishonest. It’s their software and they’re entitled to add/remove features as well as promote their own screens above other brands. But I do think their already complicated licensing system has got even more confusing for the end-users.

As I said earlier, I rarely use the floating tools, so for me they’re no loss. But for other users it’s more of an issue. If you are thinking of buying new interactive screens, then do be aware of this. Paying for a SMART licence on a non-SMART screen will not give you everything an actual SMART user will get. This may or may not be a problem, but do keep it in mind.

Update #1 16th Oct from Steljes:

“The floating toolbar and SMART Ink was only ever and remains designed to work when used on a SMART Interactive device. This would never be supported to work on any 3rd panel. All users of Notebook on a 3rd party panel would always be advised to install the software without the product drivers. This is not a change with 15.1 but has been the case previously. The new SMART Ink jogwheel replaced the old floating toolbar In version 15.1. this was a product development with additional features to enhance ease of use for any SMART Interactive display user SMART Notebook software is available for sale with 3rd party displays and messaging has been communicated clearly to all resellers on what tools will work on a SMART panel vs a third party panel.”

Update #2 16th Oct from Joe Coplen at SMART:

I’m the Program Manager for SMART drivers and SMART Ink. Thanks for taking an interest in our products. SMART Notebook itself supports inking natively and will work with any interactive product that supports touch or pen input. Many other applications, such as Microsoft Office, support inking natively as well. You are correct that SMART Ink is part of our driver package, and not a feature of SMART Notebook. We include the drivers package with SMART Notebook installs as a convenience. SMART Ink is a feature of SMART interactive hardware (interactive flat panels, interactive whiteboards, Podium) that allows users to ink on top of applications that don’t otherwise support inking.

Floating Tools was part of the drivers package, but itself was not part of SMART Ink. Since the Floating Tools toolbar always showed shortcuts to pens, it caused confusion among users who saw them and didn’t understand why they could select pens, but not write on SMART Ink overlays when they weren’t connected to a SMART product. One of the design goals of SMART Ink 3.x was to make inking interactions on the panel more natural, so SMART Ink evolved to only display its new toolbars when connected to a SMART interactive product. SMART interactive products that include active pen trays will take this even further and only display the toolbars when you’ve picked up a pen from the pen tray.   We want the Ink toolbars to be there when you need them and gone when you don’t.

Floating Tools utility outside of pen shortcuts as a launch pad for features like Screen Shade or Spotlight diminished over the years as Windows and Mac introduced the ability to pin application shortcuts to the taskbar and dock. In light of these OS features, which we encourage teachers to use, it made sense for us to return that screen real estate to users. Floating Tools has been retired starting with the SMART drivers 12.3 release, which was bundled with Notebook 15.1. Drivers and SMART Ink are available standalone at no cost to everyone with a SMART interactive hardware product and installing the new package for Windows or Mac will remove Floating Tools and upgrade them to the new SMART Ink experience. Visit for the links to install Drivers 12.3 with Ink 3.1.

To sum up, we’ve upgraded the SMART Ink experience to provide users of our interactive hardware a more natural, more intuitive experience. Along the way, we’ve also tried to make things more predictable for everyone by removing Floating Tools which didn’t provide users with a consistent experience.

I’m happy to discuss further – you can find me on Google+ ( or Twitter (

So if you’re paying for a Notebook licence on a third party board, you shouldn’t expect to get the floating tools, or SMART Ink.

The important message is: if you want all the features of a SMARTboard, you will need to buy a SMARTboard.


Author: Danny Nicholson

Danny is an author, Science teacher, ICT Consultant, PGCE lecturer and computing / interactive whiteboard trainer. He has delivered training courses across the UK, in Europe, and in Canada. Please get in touch with your training requests.

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  1. I think if they’re going to sell the software separately then removing features is only going to hurt their sales, although their expensive touchscreens are no doubt doing that already.

  2. I’m not an expert, so I hope what I’m sharing is completely accurate. I have had a SmartBoard for a few years now. When the newest version was released, I tried to update the Notebook software as I routinely have done. But, it tells me the update isn’t available for my board. This is the first update where this has been an issue.

  3. In my school in Hamburg/Germany we have a lot of whiteboards of mixed brands and also a lot of Windows tablets. On all these devices we can use Smart Notebook 14 or newer, since we have a site licence. However, we are only allowed to use Smart Notebook 14 or above. Even with Notebook 14 it was never possible to use the floating tools or Smart ink with third party hardware. Because of this we use a freeware tool called Chalk Box as a replacement (even on our Smart Boards, so that all interactive displays can be used the same way). Chalk Box works with all kinds of interactive displays. It works similarly to the floating tools before the introduction of Smart Ink, but has more features. Chalk Box can be downloaded here:

  4. Thanks Tobias – I hadn’t seen Chalkbox before. Will bookmark that!


  1. Beware SMART's Floating Tools, Notebook 15.1, and non-SMART hardware - […] The Curious Case of the Vanishing SMARTboard Tools […]

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