No match for paper

No match for paper

Paper is silent and supremely portable. When you use a pen to fill out a form, you're using one of the densest, most efficient input tools available. Remarkably, computers have yet to match these benefits. A notebook PC's keyboard and pointing device make the system impractical to use while standing. You can't type and click and still pay proper attention to a customer or a patient. And working a keyboard and pointing stick during a meeting or a class is inconsiderate at best. We need affordable systems that combine the convenience of paper with the filing, sharing and searching power of a PC.

Microsoft's Tablet PC specification lays out a standard design for a Windows notebook with a pen-sensitive screen. The main attraction is the device's capability of capturing, storing and reproducing pen strokes. Tablet PC software lets you treat handwritten notes like documents. You can cut, paste, and insert words, sentences, or paragraphs. It's easy to add doodles and freehand diagrams to your notes. When you're done scribbling, you can ship those pen strokes (called ink) to someone else in e-mail. You also can print ink documents and file them in folders under searchable keywords.

But reading the specification leaves key questions about the platform unanswered: Does Tablet PC add tangible value to the broader domain of portable computing? Does it make digital input accessible to users who currently find paper a better way to capture their thoughts?

Microsoft's Tablet PC spec addresses pen-based PC limitations not with technological breakthroughs, but with hardware and software standardisation. By defining a broad multi-vendor hardware standard, Microsoft hopes to reduce manufacturing costs for all vendors. A standard operating system and uniform APIs should eliminate the need to develop device-specific pen applications.

To predict the likely success of the cost gambit, consider Pocket PC. That spec defines a very different system, but the approach is similar to that of Tablet PC. Pocket PC and Pocket PC 2002 standardisation encouraged a variety of vendors to enter the market at different price points. Pocket PC prices have fallen from as much as $700 to as low as $300. Good development tools paved the way for a growing library of commercial and freeware applications.

Tablet PC is a far less restrictive spec than Pocket PC 2002. Vendors will appreciate being able to innovate while remaining faithful to the specification. The downside of this freedom is that implementations can differ enough to create trouble for applications; it will also take longer for hardware commoditisation to set in.

For example, HP's Tablet PCs, with their unique set of features, probably won't use the same parts as Acer's at first. Over time, customers will narrow the effective Tablet PC specification. Component makers will probably build commodity parts against that narrower spec, a process that could take a couple of years.

The Acer TravelMate 100, the preproduction Tablet PC Microsoft sent out for review, is a superb early execution of Microsoft's specification. We won't delve into a full review because neither the hardware nor the software is in a finished state. But the hardware is further along, so we'll focus on that.

After carrying the device around for several weeks, we got a feel for the pluses and minuses of the platform. In general, the Tablet PC is an impressive tablet backed by a somewhat less impressive notebook PC. However, most of the PC limitations are by design.

Acer reduced the heft, thickness, and power draw of the TravelMate by removing floppy and CD drives (a USB CD-ROM drive is supplied) and by shrinking the display to 10.4 inches. The unit's keyboard is a little cramped, but it's suitable for touch typing. To compensate for the smaller, lighter battery, Acer uses a slower Intel Pentium III 800MHz processor, a move that also substantially reduces heat. The target battery life for this 1.45kg device is about three hours.

The TravelMate quickly transforms from a notebook into a pure tablet for times when the keyboard gets in the way. The display pivots to face outward then snaps flat over the keyboard.

Five programmable buttons line the display to restore features such as scrolling that are lost when the keyboard is covered. Folding the TravelMate into its tablet configuration exposes a well-placed rubberised handgrip. A button rotates the Windows XP screen between landscape (standard notebook) and portrait (legal pad) mode.

The electromagnetic screen is insensitive to anything but the pen, so you can rest your hand on the screen while you write. The pen software is very responsive, displaying pen strokes in real time. Windows smooths your strokes as you write, so the Tablet PC's display actually looks better than your regular writing.

Windows isn't very easy to use in tablet mode. An electromagnetic pen makes a poor general pointing device. Clicking and double-clicking are difficult because the screen is so sensitive; you can move the cursor quite well with a pen an inch above the display surface. In tablet mode, you also learn how dependent you are on your keyboard. Simple tasks such as Web browsing become excruciating unless you limit surfing to your Favorites menu.

The Tablet PC spec leaves two features open that we feel should have been nailed down. First, it makes wireless networking optional. The TravelMate has 802.11 built-in, but we also tested it on Ethernet. It's utterly impractical to use the unit in tablet mode with a network cable attached. We expect the same will be true of other vendors' designs.

The spec also lets vendors choose slow graphics chips. A faster graphics chip would compensate nicely for the slower CPU. On the preproduction TravelMate, the sluggish display made the machine feel slower than it was. The issue will be partially addressed by better drivers, but vendors should choose graphics chips with stellar 2-D performance.

Acer's early Tablet PC implementation is suitable for carting everywhere. At 1.45 kg, it's light by notebook standards but too heavy to hold in one hand for more than several minutes at a time. It's as small as it can be without shrinking the keyboard and display down too far. It feels good to write on, and its wireless networking keeps the device connected to remote resources. Once the prices come down from the $US2,000 to $3,000 range, we think Tablet PCs will convince some users to trade their clipboards and steno pads for smart, wireless tablets.

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