Buyer’s Guide: Tablet PCs

By Eric Grevstad

The first Tablet PCs are a double instead of a home run: If each weighed about two pounds instead of four, with batteries that lasted eight hours instead of four, and cost around $1,000 instead of around $2,000, they might indeed be the breakthroughs, paradigm-shift bestsellers, or PC-industry-kick-starters that Microsoft and its partners like to call them. Even as is, we think they’re halfway to hits, easily the most intriguing systems of 2002.

What’s changed? Well, last Thursday’s long-awaited launch of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition revealed both a more ambitious and more practical platform than the filling-out-forms, vertical-markets-like-healthcare-and-insurance-claims niche that keyboardless, pen-based PCs like Fujitsu’s Stylistic tablets have long occupied.

Specifically, even though many slimlines or subnotebooks are still viewed as “second PCs” or adjuncts to a desktop, Microsoft insists the Tablet PC will – for just a few hundred bucks more than a regular notebook – be your primary business PC, with sufficient CPU power, memory, and storage to run every Windows XP Professional application (most of which you’ll use with a familiar keyboard and mouse).

The difference is that you can grab the Tablet PC from desktop or dock with no rebooting or mode-switching; tuck it under your arm; and tote it to a conference room or living-room couch. There, you can tap and scribble much less obtrusively than typing on a laptop during a meeting, yet access all your programs and documents, give presentations, or look up Web content and read and send e-mails – the latter two thanks to the past year’s hottest technology and Tablet PC’s greatest enabler, 802.11b WiFi wireless networking.

The Hardware Contenders
Tablet PCs use special, better-not-lose-’em digitizing pens or styli instead of working with any penpoint or fingertip the way conventional (and slower-responding) touch screens do; most let you draw different line thicknesses with different pen pressures. One forthcoming model from PaceBlade has both the Tablet PC digitizer and a touch screen, so its on-screen keyboard is literally an on-screen keyboard (you put it in your lap and type on it).

Systems come in two flavors: pure-play “slate” models that work with external (plug-in or wireless) keyboards, and “convertibles” that work like existing notebooks, but whose screens swivel around and fold down to cover their keyboards, turning the units into (somewhat thicker and heavier) tablets.

HP’s Compaq TC1000 ($1,799 with WiFi) is a (for now) unique hybrid of both designs, a swivel-screened, 4-pound convertible whose keyboard can be detached to leave a 3-pound slate. It features Transmeta’s 1.0GHz Crusoe TM5800 processor, 256MB of memory expandable to 768MB, a 30GB hard disk, and a 10.4-inch, 1,024 by 768-pixel screen. An optional docking station ($299 without swappable optical drive) lets you arrange applications on both the LCD and a desktop monitor, or swing the former downward to scribble notes on a phone call.

The early favorite and most no-compromise-notebook-like among the convertibles is Toshiba’s 4.1-pound Portege 3500 ($2,299). Its 1.33GHz Intel mobile Pentium III processor is perhaps the perkiest in the class, backed by 256MB (expandable to 1GB) of RAM and a 40GB hard disk, and its 12.1-inch screen tops the 10.4-inch display of rival Acer’s TravelMate C100.

The “bigger (screen) is better” rule also applies to first impressions in the slate category. Fujitsu, ViewSonic, and laptop-external-battery-maker Electrovaya – which promises models offering as much as 16 hours’ battery life – are joining industrial-strength slate specialists WalkAbout Computers and Xplore Technologies in offering Tablet PCs with 10.4-inch LCDs. But startup Motion Computing has opted for a 12.1-inch display.

Motion’s 3-pound M1200 starts at $2,399 with an 802.11b Mini PCI card and external keyboard and CD-ROM drive (though we suspect customers will want the $2,599 model with 256MB rather than 128MB of RAM and an external CD-RW). It uses an 866MHz mobile Pentium III; a $250 desktop “FlexDock” combines portrait- and landscape-mode LCD mounting with additional USB, FireWire, Ethernet, and audio ports.

Software: Half Awesome, Half Worrisome
Of course, Tablet PCs offer little beyond easy-to-carry, wireless convenience – and some inconveniences, such as having to press stylus to screen for a few seconds or click a pen-side button to generate a right mouse click – when used with existing Windows software. The whole point of the new version of Windows XP is its provision for pen input and control (to say nothing of switching between portrait and landscape views or screen orientations), and here Tablet PC Edition manages to look nifty and limited at the same time.

The hub of niftiness is Microsoft’s handwriting and drawing application, Journal – which lets your Tablet PC mimic a lined paper pad, then lets you save, organize, cut, and paste infinite pages of scrawls and doodles; yes, you can search for all your handwritten references to Jane Doe just as you’re used to searching for typed ones. Tablet PC Edition’s “snipping” tool (a freely downloadable PowerToy akin to Win XP’s TweakUI) is pretty cool, too; it lets you use the pen as a sort of clipboard lasso to simply circle or select anything on screen and paste it into another program or send it as an e-mail.

Microsoft will gladly talk all day about Tablet PCs without mentioning the words “handwriting recognition”; in truth, though it’s far from perfect, it’s far better than the gibberish generator it was in the Apple Newton days. One free Corel program called Grafigo shows the greater potential of shape recognition, instantly turning your slightly crooked lines into straight ones and imperfect circles and triangles into neat ones; smartly making darker, bolder lines just as a pen would if you go over a shape multiple times; and letting you add your own shapes or symbols to an org-chart palette. And FranklinCovey’s $200 TabletPlanner does a remarkable job of merging that company’s popular paper-based planner or organizer with the Tablet PC.

On the minus side, Microsoft’s initial Tablet PC pack for Office XP is little more than a coming-attractions trailer for the digital ink support of next summer’s Office 11: You can mark up or annotate slides in PowerPoint, but not Word documents (unless you perform a one-way import from Word into Journal), and the highly touted personal touch of handwritten e-mail requires awkward shuttling between Outlook and Word’s oft-ignored WordMail feature.

We’re also worried that, even as the free suite builds momentum for open-source XML file formats, Microsoft seems clearly determined to make digital ink a popular data type while making it a successor to its cement-overshoes DOC and XLS file formats: While it can save pages as bulky TIFF image files, Journal and the ink-editing features rely on a new, proprietary format instead of joining Corel’s Grafigo in promoting the Web’s Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) standard. Every jot and tittle of Tablet PC is a Microsoft initiative, with the software monopolist dictating PC makers’ every move; if that troubles you, you’ll want to sit this one out.

Still, we’re eager to spend many hands-on hours with Tablet PCs and applications. They won’t please high-performance gamers, but they might well earn a spot on office PC planners’ radar screens – if not in the next few months, almost certainly by this time next year.

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Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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