A New Spin on Tablet PCs

As you know, convertible Tablet PCs open up in normal notebook fashion, with the screen facing you above the keyboard. When you’re in the mood for pen input, the display rotates so it’s facing away from you, then folds back down to cover the keyboard and give you a clipboard-style slate. With most systems, you can turn the screen in only one direction, either clockwise or counterclockwise; if you push the wrong way, you might hear a snapping sound and suddenly find yourself holding an LCD with no PC.

The Gateway E-155C’s bi-directional hinge, on the other hand, lets you switch from notebook to tablet mode by rotating the screen in either direction. Only one direction — back the way you came — works when returning to notebook mode, presumably to keep you from twisting repeatedly till you’ve tied the display circuitry into knots. But while a small thing, the feature is extremely convenient.

Like other convertibles, it’s too heavy to hold comfortably in one arm while writing with the other for a long time. But at a shade under 5 pounds — 6 counting its AC adapter — the Gateway is lighter than many competing convertibles, even though its relatively sleek silhouette includes the built-in optical drive that some slim-lines make an external accessory.

We haven’t exactly raved about Tablet PCs to date, so it may sound like damning with faint praise. But we’re not afraid to call the Gateway the best Tablet PC we’ve seen in the segment’s five-year history — maybe the closest thing to a true convertible yet.

Which Shell Is the Pea Under?
Before going any further, we should note that the E-155C is the most expensive of three ways to buy the 12.1-inch-screened, Core 2 Duo-powered convertible. That model number points to the medium-and-large-business aisle of the company’s online store, putting an emphasis on IT manageability issues. Examples are a guaranteed minimum 12-month lifecycle, software to support the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip on the motherboard, a 90-day trial of Symantec Client Security, and a three-year parts-and-labor warranty (an extra $30 gets you next-business-day on-site service).

Prices start at $1,849 for an E-155C with Intel’s 1.06GHz Core 2 Duo U7500 processor — a power-thrifty chip with a 533MHz front-side bus and 2MB of Level 2 cache — and a 60GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive and 1GB of DDR-2 memory.

Our test system came to $1,959 with three options: an 80GB, 5,400-rpm Hitachi hard disk ($10); a DVD±RW burner instead of the combo drive ($50); and built-in Bluetooth wireless ($50). We also relied on Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, though Windows Vista Business is available at no extra cost. The only other CPU choice is the imperceptibly faster 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo U7600 ($50).

The second and third of the triplets are not so corporate-centered; they come with 90-day trials of McAfee Security Suite instead of Symantec Client Security, and carry one- instead of three-year warranties. Small-business shoppers are steered to the S-7125C, which starts at $1,400 and matches our configuration at $1,509.

The home or home-office version is the Gateway C-120X, which boasts an 80GB hard drive and Bluetooth as standard equipment. It starts at $1,500 but, well, swings both ways — when we checked, there was a whopping $300 discount deal, but it was due to expire in three days.

Under Your Thumb
Measuring just less than 10- by 12- by 1.25-inches, the E-155C has a rear edge that protrudes slightly past its screen, making a nice thumb rest when holding the system in tablet mode. The rear is also where you’ll find the AC connector and a modem port.

Microphone and headset jacks, one FireWire and two USB ports, and the DVD burner reside on the right side. VGA and Ethernet ports, a PC Card slot, and a slot for Memory Stick, MultiMediaCard, and regular and mini Secure Digital flash cards are on the left. The left side also has a connector for a docking station with three USB ports and a headphone jack plus FireWire, parallel, serial, VGA, and Ethernet ports. Like pretty much all docking stations, it’s overpriced if you ask us ($180).

At the left front corner is the stylus storage hole, or “Pen Garage” as a sticker on the palm rest points out. Using this niche is usually simple, but the E-155C’s is furiously frustrating: Press the top and the pen pops out, but only by a few millimeters. It occasionally protruded far enough to be pinched and pulled out with our fingertips, but we usually found ourselves scrabbling at the nub with our fingernails and once pulled it out with our teeth.

Once in our grasp, however, the stylus was comfortable and precise. Like most Tablet PCs, the Gateway has an active digitizer that lets you move the mouse or cursor by holding the pen a few millimeters above the LCD, as well as by writing or drawing on the surface. If you accidentally break the tip, there are five replacements in the box.

What’s more, the E-155C uses a classy Wacom digitizer like those found in the latter company’s graphics tablets: It’s pressure-sensitive, so pushing the pen firmly or holding it lightly results in thicker or thinner lines or brushstrokes in compatible imaging programs. Add an “eraser” on the stylus’s other end to rub out mistakes, and you’re a sketch artist supreme.

Press Any Key
But what happens when you can’t get the pen out of its *^#){@%&!* garage? No problem: You can also use the tablet as a good old-fashioned touch screen, dragging and clicking with a finger. Obviously, it’s not as precise — hitting small buttons or open and close boxes is tricky — but it’s just fine for Solitaire and a big plus for healthcare or other workers using in-house applications for inventory, data entry, or other tasks.

Of course your finger also gets exercise when using the Gateway in tablet mode: Buttons below or beside the LCD rotate the display 90 degrees for notebook/tablet switching; turn WiFi and Bluetooth on and off for battery life’s sake; launch the Tablet PC’s pen-based Windows Journal or another program of your choice; and perform a Ctrl-Alt-Del sequence for Windows crashes or program management. Some convertibles can sense their orientation and change from landscape to portrait viewing automatically, but using the button isn’t a big chore.

Opposite these buttons are two more that serve as an Enter key and a browser Back function, as well as a biometric fingerprint sensor for — once you’ve painstakingly taught it your prints — automating logons or securing passwords.

The E-155C’s keyboard has a good typing feel but is a little cramped, spanning a fraction more than 10 versus a desktop keyboard’s 11 inches. We adjusted to it after a day or two, though we were still tripped up by the oddity that Home and End have their own keys but PgUp and PgDn don’t (you press a Fn key along with the up and down arrows). Fortunately, the Delete key is in its proper place at the top right corner. The touchpad and mouse buttons worked smoothly, too.

Turn the Lights Down Low
The Gateway’s 12.1-inch-diagonal widescreen display offers 1,280 by 800 resolution, making small details and icons perfectly legible to the eye (if, again, sometimes too small for the finger). We couldn’t find any bad pixels in our test unit’s flat panel.

Adding a digitizer dims any LCD screen, but the E-155C wins points for being bright — not as eye-poppingly bright as some new notebooks with LED backlighting, but okay as long as you stick to the top one or two of its backlight settings. It also has a mind of its own: After we’d dialed the brightness down for battery use, we were surprised to see it creeping back up on its own accord.

Gateway E-155C
The Gateway E-155C is the best Tablet PC we’ve seen — perhaps the closest thing to a true convertible yet.

Blame the system’s built-in ambient light sensor, which adjusts screen brightness on the fly when you enter a bright or dim environment. You can turn the feature off in the BIOS setup menus, but we kind of liked it. It also helped make the convertible’s display better than average for an LCD (i.e., not invisible) when taken outside on a sunny day.

As for battery life, the Gateway regularly lasted for between two hours and five minutes to two and fifteen in our real-world work sessions, which bounce from intensive hard-disk writing to placid word processing. That’s with the standard four-cell battery.

To go further between wall outlets, you can order a six- or eight-cell power pack at purchase ($40 or $80) or buy spares of each size ($110, $130, and $180 apiece). The batteries have a handy pushbutton on the bottom that lets you flip the notebook over and summon an LED estimate of life remaining without having to boot up the system.

An Old Dog Outruns a Young Pup
No Tablet PC is meant to be a blazing-fast game machine; a convertible is a versatile take-along companion, not a scientific or graphic workstation. The E-155C performs adequately with everyday non-game software — especially, we’d venture, under Windows XP instead of the more leisurely, memory-gobbling Windows Vista.

The machine proved reasonably quiet in operation, but its left side grew warmer than we’d like although we were careful not to block the handful of cooling vents there. Checking the hardware reference guide, we were nonplussed to read, “Warning: Do not work with the convertible notebook resting on your lap.” Isn’t that what a laptop is for?

Despite Bill Gates’s dreams, Tablet PCs are never going to put conventional notebooks out of business. But with its flexible finger-or-stylus touch screen and thoughtful balance of weight, display size, and features (such as the built-in optical drive), the Gateway E-155C is an admirable example. And if you’re not a big-business IT manager, their fluctuating prices may make the S-7125C and C-120X look even better. In short, this is one convertible that will inspire shoppers to give it a spin.

In either direction.

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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