A Wide-Eyed, Weighty Tablet PC

There’s a famous running gag from Saturday Night Live‘s 1975 season: Week after week, Chevy Chase would open the “Weekend Update” news segment by announcing, “This just in — Generalissimo Francisco Franco still dead.” In other news, this November will mark the fourth anniversary of, “This just in — Microsoft says Tablet PCs to take over notebook market.”

Touch-screen systems fill a niche; workers tap or jot on clipboard-like slates to fill out forms in hospital rooms or at insurance-claim sites, and pen-capable PDAs and smart phones are everywhere. But even with the convenience of convertible models that switch from notebook to tablet mode with screens that swivel and fold back over keyboards, laptop shoppers have largely ignored the option to scribble and sketch as well as type and click. So have some manufacturers.

But not Gateway. In fact, the prairie PC companion has introduced one of the freshest convertibles around: Not only does the M285-E have a dual-core CPU (albeit Intel’s eight-month-old Core Duo instead of the brand-new Core 2 Duo), it has a 14-inch widescreen (1,280 by 768-pixel) display.

Among Tablet PC challengers, Toshiba’s Portege M400 and HP’s Compaq T4400 also offer Core Duo power, but are more likely to cause writer’s cramp with 12.1-inch, standard-aspect-ratio XGA (1,024 by 768) screens. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X41 relies on a single-core Pentium M processor.

Toshiba’s Tecra M7 is a true rival to the Gateway, since it has both a Core Duo CPU and a 14.1-inch widescreen display. But while it’s a subjective preference, we think the Tecra’s more likely to cause eyestrain — like not a few non-convertible notebooks, it goes for high-res bragging rights by squeezing 1,440 by 900 pixels into a space that comfortably accommodates 1,280 by 768. This sounds impressive, but arguably makes menus and icons harder to read and demands more careful penmanship in Win XP Tablet PC Edition’s input panel. And the M7, like the above-mentioned tablets, costs more than a comparably equipped Gateway.

Actually, speaking of cost, you’ll need to poke around Gateway’s Web site to find the best deal on the tablet. The M285-E tested here — with a 2.0GHz Core Duo T2500; 512MB of DDR-2/667 memory; 80GB hard disk; DVD burner; and Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g and Bluetooth networking — comes to $1,850 in the vendor’s medium- and large-business store.

There’s a slightly lower-priced, small-business-oriented M285-E SB, but it doesn’t seem to be available with Bluetooth. And as of this afternoon, a limited-time discount put the convertible’s virtually identical consumer cousin, the CX210X, $155 below our M285-E despite the former’s flaunting 1GB of memory and Microsoft Office Basic 2003 versus our machine’s 512MB and Works 8.5.

It’s a Brick House
Our system came with an eight-cell lithium-ion battery — Gateway also offers a six-cell pack that replaces the optical drive in the M285-E’s modular bay and a 12-cell battery that protrudes past the end of the chassis. The supplied battery impressed us for a couple of reasons. On your desk, it props up the rear of the notebook for a desktop-keyboard-style typing tilt. Off your desk, its protruding curve acts as a handy carrying handle.

The battery also lasted a pretty long time before it needed recharging: Even a disk- and multimedia-intensive work session lasted just under three hours, while everyday word-processing and Web-browsing often stretched to three and a half.

Unfortunately, when you spin and fold the screen to switch from notebook mode to on-the-go tablet operation, you’ll need all the carrying handle you can get: At seven pounds, the Gateway is way too heavy to hold clipboard-style in the crook of one arm while writing with the other. In past reviews, we’ve felt awkward cradling four- and five-pound Tablet PCs, but compared to them the M285-E is an anvil.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with using a Tablet PC on a desk or in your lap, and Gateway’s is perhaps as good as it gets. Like other tablets, it changes screen orientation from horizontal (landscape) to vertical (portrait) with the push of a button, but its widescreen display makes the M285-E extra-well-suited for portrait-mode viewing of a full page in Windows Journal or a word processor.

A Better Notebook Than Tablet?
In addition to Windows Journal and the pop-up input panel (for handwriting or on-screen keyboard tapping) standard with Win XP Tablet PC Edition, the system comes with the more sophisticated Microsoft Office OneNote 2003, as well as a Tablet Edition Experience Pack with ink-based drawing, desktop jotting, crossword, and clipboard-transfer utilities and an Education Pack with flash-card maker, equation writer, and Agilix Labs’ GoBinder Lite schedule-, contact-, and classwork-manager for students.

Aside from its ponderous weight, we found the Gateway fully competitive with other Tablet PCs we’ve tried, with the same sophisticated digitizer that responds only to the tip of its special stylus pen so you can rest your hand on the screen without obliterating your input (though you’ll inevitably smudge the LCD).

The supplied pen has a button you can press to turn a tap from a left- to a right-click, with no need to tap and hold for a couple of seconds as Tablet PC right-clicking usually requires. It doesn’t have an “eraser” on its other end as some do, however.

Solid Feel, Solid Performance
Whether in tablet or laptop configuration, the 1,280 by 768-pixel LCD offers first-class color and contrast, though as usual we found it too dim to use when turned below its top two or three brightness settings.

Gateway M285-E Review
The Gateway M285-E sports a beautiful widescreen and great features, but its hefty weight restricts its appeal to a limited audience.

Also as usual, if you’ve read other portable reviews in these pages, we grumbled about the Fn key that bumps the Ctrl key from its ideal place in the bottom left corner of the keyboard. But the Delete key is in its proper place at the top right, and you’ll find proper Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys instead of shifted cursor arrows. Both the keyboard and touchpad have a comfortable feel, although the side-mounted ventilation slots and cooling fan are, respectively, just hot enough and just loud enough to be minor irritants instead of going unnoticed.

In addition to its cooling vent, the system’s right side holds a modem jack and the DVD±RW drive, which you can swap for a CD-ROM, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, or second battery by sliding a latch on the Gateway’s bottom. Another sliding latch beneath the front left corner releases the stylus from its recessed hiding place.

Along the left side are Ethernet, FireWire, VGA, and proprietary docking-station ports, as well as a PC Card/ExpressCard slot and three USB 2.0 ports. The latter are packed pretty closely together; using two USB devices at once should be no problem but plugging in a third looks difficult.

A Likable Choice for a Limited Audience
After four years, it’s clear Tablet PCs have fizzled in terms of replacing conventional notebook sales. There’s not nearly enough ink-input software, and the digitizer and other tablet hardware simply add too much weight. With handsome four- to five-pound slimlines on every retail shelf, the seven-pound Gateway feels more like a desktop replacement than a briefcase traveler, let alone a tuck-under-your-arm legal pad.

That said, there’s still appeal in specialized scenarios such as a (seated) student scribbling notes during a lecture, or a corporate exec livening up a business meeting by twirling her laptop screen to face the audience and leaning over the conference table to draw a chart or apply a yellow highlighter to a bullet point. And if you can live with the extra weight, Gateway’s wide-aspect-ratio screen could be the best Tablet PC stationery to date.

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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