Tablet PC, Take Two

By Eric Grevstad | Posted December 08, 2003

At Microsoft's Tablet PC launch event in New York just over a year ago, one of the featured celebrities was actor Rob Lowe, shown happily using a Tablet PC to manage his solo projects after leaving "The West Wing."

Today, neither Lowe's new show nor Tablet PCs have set the world on fire — the former has been pulled from NBC's sweeps schedule, and the latter have managed maybe 500,000 sales or something under 5 percent of the mobile market, dragged down by everything from heavy hardware and brief battery life to scanty software support and disappointing handwriting recognition.

Tablet PCs still carry a hefty price premium, too: While it's now possible to buy a conventional notebook — well equipped with a big 14.1- or 15-inch display and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive — for $1,000, smaller-screened Tablet PCs usually cost at least twice that.

But Microsoft still says it sees the wirelessly connected, carry-it-anywhere, handy-pen-input platform as destined to replace the traditional notebook over the next four or five years. To that end, chairman Bill Gates kicked off his annual Fall Comdex trade-show keynote in Las Vegas this week by showing off the improved Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004 — just as several of Microsoft's hardware partners introduced their second-generation Tablet PC computers.

The disconnect is that while the new systems are shipping either now or next month, the revised operating system — which Microsoft says will be a free upgrade for owners of existing Tablet PCs, as well as preinstalled on new models — won't arrive until sometime in the first half of 2004. The software giant, however, says it'll be worth waiting for, and that the new Microsoft Office 2003 and OneNote application will help tide software-hungry Tablet PC users over until the new OS arrives.

Getting It Write
OneNote 2003 — priced at $199 with a $100 mail-in rebate for licensed users of Office 97 and later — offers more note-taking, -searching, and -organizing functionality than the simple Windows Journal inking utility that comes with Win XP Tablet PC Edition, including the ability to mix ink with structured text, Web content, and voice notes. Meanwhile, the Office 2003 editions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint let users annotate documents with ink without having to turn them into static Journal pages, while Outlook 2003 makes sending handwritten e-mails more convenient, with "most recently used" lists to pick recipients quickly.

Nevertheless, the platform won't come into its own until Tablet PC Edition 2004 arrives (probably in May or June), promising to make the pen a mainstream input device on par with the keyboard and mouse.

That means enhancing what Microsoft calls the "ink-to-text" experience in any Windows application, both with more accurate handwriting recognition and a more convenient Tablet PC Input Panel. The latter will float near the cursor instead of occupying a separate area on screen, and offer simpler and quicker correction features.

Context-sensitive "rules" can optimize recognition in different text fields (e.g., for URLs in the Internet Explorer address bar). Behind the scenes, Microsoft has added new capabilities for Tablet PC application developers, such as ways to integrate pen and ink in Web-based business solutions.

Do the Twist
While you're waiting for the updated operating system, you can enjoy a new Tablet PC — and observe, judging by this month's introductions, that the "convertible" style (a conventional-looking notebook with keyboard, whose screen swivels to close either face down for travel or face up to turn the system into a Tablet PC clipboard) is proving more popular than the pure-play "slate" or keyboardless designs.

Electrovaya has added a detachable-keyboard model to its formerly all-slate product line, without losing its claim to fame of class-leading battery life — a claimed five to nine hours from a lithium-ion "SuperPolymer" pack.

The 12.1-inch-screened Scribbler SC2000, which weighs 3.1 pounds without or 4.1 pounds with the keyboard, is $2,299 with a 1.2GHz Pentium M processor, 256MB of memory, a 30GB hard disk. The $2,599 model SC2100 steps up to 512MB of RAM and a 40GB hard disk.

Faster! Faster!
Similarly, ViewSonic has switched from slate to convertible for its new V1250 Tablet PC, billed as the lightest (3.9 pounds) convertible with a 12.1-inch, 1,024 by 768-pixel display. When in tablet mode, the 9.3 by 10.9 by 1.2-inch system offers a unique navigation area for scrolling within or toggling between applications.

The $1,995 ViewSonic comes with 256MB of memory expandable to 768MB, a 30GB hard disk, and Intel's 1.0GHz Pentium M, 855GM integrated graphics, and 802.11b wireless adapter to complete the Centrino trio. A unit bundled with an external DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive is $2,229; you can add a second battery pack and desktop docking station with spare-battery charger for a total of $2,499.

Yet another convertible convert, Gateway, is still selling its Motion Computing-sourced slate, but has added the largest-screened convertible to date: The 5.7-pound Gateway M275X ($1,800) has a 14.1-inch LCD, 1.4GHz Pentium M processor, 256MB of memory, 40GB hard disk, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, plus a four-in-one memory-card reader. Another $300 gets you the M275XL model with 1.6GHz CPU, 512MB of DDR, and a 60GB hard disk. Intel's 855GME chipset provides the 10.8 by 12.6 by 1.1-inch laptop's graphics.

Pentium M To the Rescue?
HP's Compaq TC1000, a hybrid convertible with detachable keyboard, has had a heart transplant — from Transmeta's power-thrifty but sluggish Crusoe TM5800 to Intel's ultra-low-voltage 1.0GHz Pentium M — in the new, $2,299 model TC1100. The 8.5 by 10.8 by 0.8-inch Tablet PC's memory ceiling has also jumped from 768MB to 2GB of DDR333 (512MB standard), and HP says its 10.4-inch XGA screen offers a wider viewing angle (160 degrees instead of 100).

The TC1100 features a 40GB hard disk and Nvidia's 32MB GeForce4 Go 420 graphics controller, plus Bluetooth wireless as well as the usual modem, Ethernet, and 802.11b connectivity. You can replace the last with faster 802.11a/b/g wireless networking for $79.

An $1,849 economy model relies on an 800MHz Mobile Celeron CPU with 256MB of DDR266 and a 30GB hard disk, as well as last year's display. Both weigh 4 pounds with or 3.1 pounds without their keyboards; HP's screen-swiveling (portrait or landscape mode) docking station ($299) holds a DVD-ROM/CD-RW ($199) or 2X DVD+RW ($399) drive or 60GB second hard disk ($599).

Toshiba, too, has turned to Pentium M power — replacing the Pentium III-M of last year's Portege 3500 — for the new Portege M200/M205 ($2,399 without or $2,499 with external DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive). The 4.6-pound convertible squeezes 1,400 by 1,050 resolution into a 12.1-inch screen, backed by Nvidia's GeForce FX Go5200 chip.

It has a 1.5GHz processor, 512MB of DDR333 memory, and a 40GB hard disk, though Toshiba says future models will offer 1.7GHz speed and larger 60GB or 80GB drives. A new $329 Tablet MultiDock not only offers height adjustment and portrait/landscape pivoting when using the Tablet PC's screen as a desktop monitor, but lets the LCD serve as either an extended viewing area or digital notepad when using an external monitor. The Portege measures 9.8 by 11.6 by 1.5 inches.

In addition to being the only Tablet PC vendor with a deal with Microsoft to bundle OneNote, Toshiba boasts that it's the only one to incorporate a dual-axis accelerometer that lets users scroll Web pages up and down, or turn the pages of an eBook or digital magazine left or right, by physically tilting the notebook. Tablet PCs may have a long way to go to become as ubiquitous and intuitive as pads of paper, but you can't say Microsoft and its partners aren't working on it.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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