Tablets on trial

Tablets on trial

Microsoft's long-promised Windows XP Tablet PC Edition has officially been launched. More than a dozen computer makers are producing tablet PCs, including several Taiwan-based OEMs. Major tablet PC vendors will include Toshiba, ViewSonic, Compaq, Acer and NEC. Noticeably absent from the list, so far, are Dell and IBM.

The really good news is that, for once, Microsoft's spiel about a forthcoming product's usefulness and potential to change the way we work isn't just hype. We've recently been using two interesting and innovative pre-production tablet PCs from Fujitsu and Compaq, along with the Acer TravelMate C100 we looked at earlier this year.

It's fair to say that this new class of device has the potential to significantly improve group collaboration.

Onto the hardware

The Compaq Tablet PC TPC-100 shows the result of fresh thinking about the physical package. It can be used in three configurations: pure slate, laptop, and docked on the desktop. The TPC comes in three pieces: screen, keyboard, and a docking station. The 10.4-inch XGA display (usable, but we'd prefer a slightly larger screen) attaches to the near-full-size keyboard via a large, rotating pad.

In laptop mode, the keyboard is at the front of the unit, closest to the user, while the upright screen is positioned just behind the keyboard, in the middle of the keyboard component. To use the TPC in slate mode, you rotate the screen 180 degrees and lay it down flat on the keyboard. Alternatively, you can detach the screen entirely and carry a slimmer, lighter package. Finally, there's a handy multi-position, extra-cost docking station that will hold the screen (with or without keyboard) securely in either portrait or landscape orientation.

With its brushed-metal finish, the Compaq has an industrial, high-tech look, while the Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000 is a sophisticated, conservative but stylish package that works somewhat differently than the Compaq. For one thing, the Stylistic is a pure slate, with no keyboard that can be physically attached (as opposed to connected via cable) to the screen. The unit comes with a good-but-compact USB keyboard that plugs into the slate or the dock, but you can't run the Stylistic in laptop mode, as you can the Compaq or Acer. (A wireless infrared keyboard is optional.) Also, there's no obvious way to hold the screen upright without the dock.

The Fujitsu uses an 800MHz Intel Pentium III CPU, while Compaq has opted for a lower-power, 1GHz Crusoe TM5800 microprocessor from Transmeta. Both machines came equipped for 802.11b wireless networking that worked seamlessly; finding and connecting to our existing wireless LAN. Although each maker will offer a low-end tablet PC without the wireless connection, we can't imagine wanting to use the machine without it. Battery life for both tablets was close to the claimed four hours, even with extensive use of wireless networking. The Compaq had a slight edge in this area.

It's the little things

Compaq places most of its hardware buttons along the side edge of the unit, where you can't actually see them until you pick it up.

Fujitsu puts its buttons on the top surface where they're always visible. That's the kind of design choice that we expect springs from Fujitsu's past experience producing Windows-based tablet PCs (mainly for vertical markets) long before Microsoft found tablet religion.

Both machines seemed sturdy. We suspect, based on our use of these PCs, that the edge for long-term reliability may well go to the Fujitsu, which has fewer and simpler mechanical connections, hence there's less to fail. As with any LCD display or notebook computer, however, you don't want to drop it on the floor.

For both machines, the docks are convenient and quick. There's no need to change anything that's running on the system when docking or undocking; just grab the unit and stick it in or take it out. The Fujitsu seems to fit a bit more firmly in its dock, but it takes a separate step to lock it in place.

For both machines, the screen can be swivelled, tilted, or rotated from portrait to landscape mode and back, and a quick-change button alters the on-screen orientation in a couple of seconds. Both are designed to allow the use of a second, separate monitor along with the LCD screen. Each dock has connectors for keyboard and mouse, external video, USB ports, and a slot in its base for an optical drive.

One very nice touch on both tablets is the presence of a sheet of tempered glass covering the entire screen and extending outside the LCD's viewing area. This makes a great surface to write on with the included stylus, and it was also quite effective at reducing reflection and glare. A couple of small feet at the top of the screen let you angle it more easily on a tabletop for taking meeting notes, as you would with a paper pad.

Without its special stylus (which has electronics inside it), a tablet PC is dead in the water. You can't draw, write, or move the cursor on the screen. So don't lose that stylus - replacing it won't be nearly as cheap as replacing a PDA stylus. Worse, styli aren't guaranteed to be interchangeable among brands. The Fujitsu's stylus didn't work with the Compaq, and even if it did, it's too small to be stored securely in the provided compartment. And the Compaq's rather fat stylus was equally useless with the Fujitsu on both counts. We've seen Microsoft demonstrators use Wacom's US$30 Graphire2 pen in preference to the stylus supplied with their respective tablets. The Wacom stylus also worked fine with the Fujitsu, but not with the Compaq.

We strongly advise users to install a keeper strap or lanyard on their TPC's styli, using the handy hole at the top ("eraser") end of the styli. All TPCs we've looked at have a PDA-like compartment in which to store the stylus.

In use, the Compaq's stylus seemed to work a little more reliably. With the Fujitsu, even after calibrating the screen, it was sometimes hard to activate a function or select a specific option by tapping an on-screen icon or button. Double taps were often required, and sometimes we ended up hitting the button next to the one we were aiming at unless we took great care. The small display doesn't help in this regard.

Our test Fujitsu came with the final, released-to-manufacturing version of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, including extensions for Microsoft Office and Windows Journal, a program that makes it easy to take notes. We particularly appreciated Journal's ability to open up free space between existing notes and drawings, and the ability to use different background formats, such as graph "paper", calendar, music staffs, or lined pages.

The Compaq we tried had a slightly earlier version of the OS, and we didn't notice any significant differences in performance.

The tablet PC, by itself, is an interesting and useful computer. It's unlikely that businesses will rush to junk their laptops and buy new tablet PCs, especially in the current economy. But when normal replacement time comes around, we expect the tablet PC to gain a lot of converts. Even with these first few models, we're beginning to see innovative designs that will make our PCs much more useful tools for collaboration and on-the-go operations. Of the machines we've seen to date, the Compaq seems to offer the better value, with more versatility at a lower cost.

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