A year ago, Microsoft and its hardware partners unveiled the first generation of pen-input portables using Windows XP Tablet PC Edition; when we reviewed the 866MHz Pentium III-M model built by Motion Computing for Gateway, we called it the best of the slate- or clipboard-style Tablet PCs but bemoaned its steep ($2,800) price.
Today, though we're still waiting for Microsoft's second-generation Tablet PC 2004 software, a second wave of systems has appeared, with two prevailing trends: Intel's quick, battery-thrifty Pentium M replacing the Pentium III-M and Transmeta Crusoe chips of the first crop, and convertible or hybrid designs Tablet PCs that can also be used as conventional notebooks proving more popular than the pure-play, plug-in-keyboard slate concept.
Exhibit A: the new Gateway M275XL, an Intel Centrino notebook whose screen swivels 180 degrees to fold down face up, turning the laptop into a tablet. What's more, while most slates and convertibles have 12.1-inch or smaller displays, the Gateway's 1,024 by 768-pixel panel is a full, familiar 14.1 inches diagonally.
And the company says it's slashed the Tablet PC price premium at $2,100 with a 1.6GHz Pentium M and 60GB hard disk, the M275XL is $300 cheaper than Toshiba's Portege M200 convertible with a 1.5GHz CPU, smaller screen and hard disk, and no optical drive. Indeed, the new hybrid is the same price as Gateway's comparably equipped, conventional 200XL notebook, although the latter comes with a DVD-RW instead of DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive.
That's impressive. So is the M275XL itself, except for one thing: When we reviewed the Gateway Tablet PC, we said we wished it weighed one-third less. Gateway's new tablet may have a trimmer price, but it weighs almost twice as much (or 40 percent more than the 200XL notebook) 5.9 pounds. That's just too heavy to be comfortably held in one arm while you take notes with the stylus. We even found it awkward, as well as noticeably warm, for lap use we habitually cross our legs and lean back to type while balancing a notebook on one thigh (and did so with the M275XL in notebook mode), but the Tablet felt weighty and at the wrong angle for optimal screen viewing and scribbling.
Get a Grip
When closed normally, the silver-finished M275XL looks like any slimline laptop (10.8 by 12.6 by 1.1 inches), although it takes a second to tell which edge is the front and which is the back the latter protrudes slightly because of the screen's swivel-hinge mounting. There's a handy rubberized or finger-grip area at the bottom rear center, useful for carrying the system whether in turned-off-notebook or turned-on-tablet mode.
We figured out which was the rear edge when we saw the VGA, Ethernet, two USB 2.0, and docking-station (actually just a $139 port replicator) ports. There's a 56Kbps modem jack on the right, along with a hole with bottom-mounted release latch to hold the Tablet PC stylus; the left edge offers one PC Card slot, one IEEE 1394 FireWire port, microphone and headphone jacks, and a Secure Digital/SmartMedia/MultiMedia Card/Memory Stick flash-memory slot.
Intel's Pro/Wireless 2100 WiFi 802.11b adapter handles wireless network connections. There's no floppy drive, but a Matsushita combo drive on the front edge serves both as an 8X DVD-ROM player and 16/10/24X CD-RW drive. The quiet cooling fan comes on only occasionally, and shouldn't bother fellow conference-roomers while you take notes in meetings.
The Gateway's lithium-ion battery is no all-day worker or transcontinental flyer, but no short-burning fuse, either: We got two hours and 15 minutes' unplugged operation during our toughest software-installing and hard-disk-thrashing test session, and regularly topped two hours and 40 minutes in more average office-application or Tablet PC (mostly Windows Journal and Solitaire) use. The AC adapter adds 0.9 pound to your briefcase.
Real Keyboard, Real Performance
While the first Gateway Tablet's detachable keyboard wasn't terrible, there's no substitute for an honest-to-typing true keyboard. So we're glad to report that the M275XL's has a comfortably firm feel and exemplary layout well, exemplary apart from being located on the far side of a vast expanse of palm-rest plastic. The latter is interrupted by a smooth-gliding touch pad with rather stiff left and right mouse buttons surrounding a rocker-switch scroller.
The keyboard includes dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys as well as launch buttons that start Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, My Computer, and Windows' help screens. Other buttons located below the screen, hence accessible in tablet mode, rotate the display (90 degrees at a time, so you can work in any orientation you like), adjust screen brightness, and summon Windows XP Tablet PC Edition's bottom-of-screen Input Panel, which lets you switch between a pen-tapping on-screen keyboard and a handwriting-recognition area.
The rotating screen hinge, which has its own 36-month warranty, is as smooth as it is, well, fun in addition to the flip-and-fold transformation, it's possible to pivot the screen 90 or 180 degrees while still using the keyboard and touchpad, giving your audience a clearer view of your PowerPoint presentations.
While it contributes to the Gateway's category-leading weight, the category-leading, 14.1-inch screen is a bright and sharp pleasure to see. Our test unit suffered from a single bad or "stuck" pixel, but otherwise we appreciated both the XGA-resolution display's readability for regular Windows use and the extra sketching and scribbling room when using the stylus pen.
To be sure, the integrated graphics of Intel's 855GME chipset don't exactly set the screen on fire. The M275XL scored a middling 1,909 in the free version of FutureMark's 3DMark 2001 SE benchmark and staggered through an Unreal Tournament 2003 flyby at a lame 16 frames per second (though it managed an almost playable 35 fps in Quake III Arena's 1,024 by 768 High Quality mode).
General performance is on par with Gateway's 200XL and other Centrino portables we've tested; the convertible's BAPco SysMark 2002 Internet Content Creation rating was 180, and FutureMark's PCMark 2002 scored it at a respectable 5,186 for CPU and 4,349 for the 512MB of DDR memory, although the Toshiba 60GB hard disk's tepid 4,200-rpm spin cycle earned a less competitive 476. Gateway preloads InterVideo's WinDVD 4 and Ahead Software's Nero Express CD-burning software, as well as the trial version of Norton AntiVirus 2004.
Carry That Weight
In other words, the Gateway is no multimedia monster for video editors or gamers, but a better-than-adequate mobile Microsoft Office platform and even a viable business desktop alternative. The gamble that's meant to justify its extra poundage is the Tablet PC technology that causes that poundage; Microsoft says Office 2003's improved pen markup of documents and the $199 OneNote 2003 note-jotting and info-organizing package are immediate beneficiaries, while Win XP Tablet PC Edition 2004's enhanced handwriting recognition and other goodies will be icing on the cake come summer.
Lacking Office 2003, we're on the fence as we've said before, Tablet PC's active-digitizer design, which restricts ink or mouse-clicks to just the tip of the pen while letting you rest your hand on the screen, is infinitely superior to more primitive touch-screen solutions, and the stylus' single-, double-, and right-click mouse-substitute gestures take mere minutes to become intuitive.
But mainstream, horizontal-market Tablet PC applications have yet to take off the way specialized data-entry forms have; the existing Sticky Notes and Windows Journal utilities offer neat, can't-do-that-with-paper-and-pen options like the latter's dragging of freehand text or diagrams to a different place on a page, but their handwriting recognition is too imperfect to be seamless.
So almost a year after calling Gateway's first Tablet PC the best of the slate-style models, we're tempted to call the M275XL the best at least in terms of full-notebook-functionality performance and screen size of the convertible choices. But we can't help thinking it's at least double the weight it should be for everyday clipboard convenience.
Instead, just as today's jumbo-screened, desktop-replacement portables are meant for immobile use with only rare, if any, travel, the Gateway is a capable notebook PC that you can occasionally pick up and flip into note-taking mode. That's a big step back from the ballyhoo of the next-big-thing Tablet PC launch, but it's also an appealing extra.
Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.